This article was originally posted June 16, 2016 on Mind Body Green.
A registered dietitian (RD/RDN) by trade, a competitive athlete, and only 32 years old, I was the picture of health. But when I suddenly started waking up with painfully sore joints, burning skin, debilitating fatigue, and knuckles so swollen I couldn’t get my wedding ring on, I got scared. Especially since I was using those aching hands to hold my new baby girl.
Blood tests confirmed a diagnosis, rheumatoid arthritis (a chronic, inflammatory condition), but conventional healthcare offered little guidance. The recommended treatment option? Long-term steroids and immunosuppressant drugs, whose side effects included glaucoma, osteoporosis, mood swings, “moon face,” nutrition deficiencies and increased risk of infection. It sounded like a pretty lousy way to cope – particularly when what I really wanted to do was heal.
So I forged my own path, and found a way to feel better through diet and lifestyle modification. I share my journey – and an evidenced-based approach to fighting inflammation – in my new book, INFLAMED: Discover the root cause of inflammation and personalize a step-by-step plan to create a healthy, vibrant life.
Are You Inflamed?
From digestive issues to skin problems to autoimmune conditions, if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms or conditions, you are likely suffering from chronic inflammation:
- joint pain or other aches and pains
- digestive upset
- skin problems (acne, eczema, psoriasis)
- food sensitivities
- endometriosis, infertility
- resistant weight loss
- autoimmune conditions (rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, multiple sclerosis, lupus…)
What is Inflammation?
Simply put, inflammation is the immune system’s response to a stimulus that is viewed as foreign or toxic to your body (aka an antigen).
Your immune system constantly monitors for anything that appears as a foreign intruder (like an infectious bacteria or other material) that shouldn’t be in the body, and is always at the ready to signal its highly specialized troops of cells and molecules to attack and dispose of the foreign material.
It is an essential part of healing in acute conditions (e.g. a fever fighting an infection). However, when your immune system is disrupted, it puts itself unnecessarily on constant defense, sending inflammation continually rippling throughout your body. In this state, it’s working against you instead of for you by switching focus from the antigen it’s supposed to attack, and instead launching a targeted strike on your own cells, tissues, or other harmless material.
A Comprehensive Approach
Our bodies and systems are complex, and fixing an issue within can be as well. Moving towards an anti-inflammatory lifestyle includes altering the foods we eat and the products we put in, on and around our bodies, as well as lowering stress. Each of these critical changes address contributors to chronic inflammation, and the conditions that can arise from it by:
Our digestive system has the highest concentration of immune cells in our entire body and is charged with preventing toxins and pathogens from entering the bloodstream. To do this job properly, your digestive lining should be woven tightly, like a piece of cheesecloth. If it becomes too permeable, or “leaky” (from poor diet, environmental insults, overuse of antibiotics, etc.), it can allow undigested nutrient particles to get into your bloodstream before they’ve had time to marinate in the proper digestive juices. Various toxins and bacteria can also pass through. These escapees trigger your immune system leading to inflammation.
- Maintaining proper hormone levels
Hormones like insulin (triggered by refined carbohydrate intake) and cortisol (triggered by stress) are inflammatory to your system. Endocrine disruptors (found in many personal care products and pesticides) can suppress thyroid hormones which not only regulate metabolism, but are involved with gut health and inflammation and play a critical role in in nearly every physiological process in our bodies.
- Correcting nutrient deficiencies
The trillions of cells we are made up of require specific nutrients to function properly (i.e. prevent disease). Nutrients allow your body to make energy, build and maintain tissues, regulate bodily processes and help us fight inflammation.
Long-term success is achievable when you focus on small, specific action steps. So note: in order to heal your particular condition, you don’t have to adopt all 15 of the steps I’m about to list all at once. Rather, choose some that you feel you can implement now, and just get started – one step at a time. You will build momentum as you keep moving forward, and soon enough, the little wins will lead to some big ones. And the biggest win – achieving and maintaining vibrant and healthy living – is what this entire journey is about.
Here is a list of 15 simple things you can do to create an anti-inflammatory lifestyle:
- Buy a home water filter or buy filtered water (reverse osmosis systems with a carbon filter are currently viewed as the most effective method).
- Swap processed vegetable oils (corn, soy, canola) for high-quality oils (organic, cold-pressed extra virgin olive, macadamia, flax, avocado, coconut oils or organic grass-fed ghee or butter).
- Buy organic, non-GMO products based on the EWG Shopping Guides for “Clean 15/Dirty Dozen” and “Shoppers Guide to Avoiding GMOs”.
- Choose animal protein that is organic and grass-fed, or pastured – and treat it like a side dish.
- Swap processed, gluten-containing grains for root vegetables like sweet potato or yucca, or gluten-free ancient grains (e.g. quinoa, millet).
- Eliminate pasteurized cow’s milk, opting for dairy-free nut or hemp milks. If you have confirmed you don’t have a sensitivity, goat or sheep milk, or raw cow’s milk are better options.
- Eliminate cleaning and personal care products made with parabens and fragrances/phthalates (try essential oil-based fragrances, perfumes).
- Avoid sugary sodas or artificial sweeteners by substituting plain filtered water, club soda, mineral water or kombucha.
- Up your vegetable intake. Spend 20-30 minutes 1-2x/week baking or roasting vegetables in olive oil or coconut oil to add to various meals.
- Incorporate foods into your diet that act as prebiotics (feed beneficial bacteria): garlic, leeks, onion, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus, yams or sweet potatoes.
- Take a multi-strain probiotic and/or integrate fermented vegetables (e.g. kimchi, sauerkraut) and bone broths into your meals*.
- Frequently eat dishes with curry (or curcumin) and ginger, drink curry/ginger tea, or take a curcumin supplement**.
- Try a cod liver oil supplement**.
- Find a go-to practice that will effectively reduce stress and anxiety. Try a meditation app, listen to an audio book you connect to, or use a physical method like the Emotional Freedom Technique.
- Turn off your electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime and get to sleep no later than 11pm (before you get a second wind that can keep you up all night). Get at least 7 hours of sleep per night, but aim for 8.
Each of these changes are recommended to ensure your gut health is on point, hormones are in check and that you have the proper nutrient intake to calm your immune system and reduce inflammation.
*If you have been diagnosed with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), Candida (yeast), or have intolerances to FODMAPS or histamines, consult with your physician before incorporating probiotics or bone broths into your diet.
**Check with your doctor if you take blood-thinning or antihypertensive medication