Inflammation is an essential part of a healthy immune system that helps your body heal after an injury or infection. But when it becomes chronic – that is, when your immune system produces immune cells constantly – it can cause a wide range of health problems.
Such is its effect on health that some US experts describe chronic inflammation as an epidemic. Dr. Sohere Roked, a London general practitioner with a specialist interest in integrative medicine, says chronic inflammation is common in the UK too but the problem is, most people aren’t aware of it.
“Chronic inflammation can be common at any age, but the body can be less resilient when you’re in your 50s,” she says.
“Diseases that are obviously inflammatory in nature include asthma, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, tendonitis, bursitis, laryngitis, gingivitis, gastritis, otitis, coeliac disease, diverticulitis and inflammatory bowel disease,” says Dr. Carolyn Dean.
Also linked with chronic inflammation are heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis and depression. So is premature ageing and some of the visible signs of getting older, including not-so-youthful skin.
Chronic inflammation can affect most parts of the body, but because it tends to be hidden you may not realise you have it. Even if you haven’t spotted obvious signs, such as joint pain and stiffness, or general symptoms such as lack of energy or headaches, you may still be affected.
“Of course, how well you look after your health in general has an impact,” says Dr. Roked, “so if you’re a fit and healthy over-50 who eats well and exercises, you’ll have fewer signs of inflammation than an unfit and unhealthy 20-year-old.”
According to dietitian Desiree Nielson, tackling chronic inflammation in your 50s is not a moment too soon. “If your lifestyle has included a poor diet, being overweight, inactivity and stress, it may well have been contributing to chronic inflammation for the past three decades. Now the effects of that may be becoming evident,” she says.
Besides diet, weight, lack of exercise and stress, other lifestyle factors thought to contribute to chronic inflammation include poor sleep, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, nutritional deficiencies and an imbalance of digestive bacteria, says Dr Roked.
How to treat inflammation with foods
The good news is there’s an effective way to help prevent or manage inflammation. Just eat more of certain types of foods and avoid others.
Dr. Nathan Wei, a rheumatologist at the Arthritis Treatment Centre in Maryland, US, says there’s a compelling reason to use diet rather than drugs. “While inflammation can be reduced with medication, these drugs may have significant side effects,” he says.
“For example, the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug group increases the incidence of gastric or peptic ulcers as well as cardiovascular events. As a result, there has been a burgeoning interest in the use of foods that help reduce inflammation.”
Many nutrition experts agree that where inflammation is concerned, the number one food enemy is sugar.
“Processed sugar is a major source of inflammation in the diet, and it is wreaking havoc,” says Renae Norton, a specialist in the treatment of eating disorders and obesity. “When you eat sugar, you deplete the enzymes that help you to digest protein. So the protein gets into the bloodstream as a partially digested protein, and is attacked by the immune system.”
Similarly, Nielson suggests the first thing you should do when tackling inflammation is to avoid ‘white’ foods (foods with white flour and added sugars). “These foods send your blood sugar off kilter, and frequent spikes of blood sugar promote inflammatory damage,” she explains.
“In addition, you should avoid too many animal fats; omega 6 fatty acids from soya bean, sunflower and corn oil; and trans fats (hydrogenated fats) from fast food and packaged goods. These fats drive inflammatory pathways.”
Nutritionist Kim Pearson has seen the problems inflammation can cause in her clients, from skin conditions to general aches and pains to stubborn weight that’s hard to shift. She believes food intolerances – such as gluten or dairy products – may also be to blame.
“If someone has food intolerances as a result of increased permeability of the gut lining, the body recognizes these foods as a foreign invader and mounts an immune response, causing elevated inflammation,” she says.
To reduce inflammation, eat a diet rich in natural, fresh and unprocessed foods, says Pearson. Eat fresh vegetables, low-sugar fruits, nuts, seeds and oily fish.
Nutritionist Sarah West also recommends replacing the omega-6 fats in your diet with omega-3 oils. “To do this, include plenty of fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, flaxseeds and walnuts in your diet,” she says.
Some herbs and spices can have a strong anti-inflammatory effect. The one that is most well-known is turmeric, and there has been much research into turmeric’s effects, identifying curcumin as the anti-inflammatory ingredient in it. Buy it in capsules to take at a medicinal dose, rather than simply adding it to food.
Two other natural remedies that may be useful in counteracting inflammation are ashwaghanda (like turmeric, it’s another traditional Indian plant, and been the subject of modern research) and barley grass powder.
If you like Indian food, you’ll be glad to hear that several spices have a range of health benefits, and some, including ginger, cinnamon, garlic, chilli, cayenne pepper and black pepper, may help to manage inflammation.
Dr. Dean recommends magnesium, the body’s natural anti-inflammatory, as a nutritional supplement and an effective treatment for inflammation. She believes a low level of magnesium, which is common as we get older, can increase your risk of developing inflammation-related diseases. Take it in magnesium citrate powder form mixed in water and sip it throughout the day.
Other nutritional supplements include high-strength omega-3 fatty acids, high-strength probiotics, rosehip extract, boswellia, bromelian and quercetin.
“You could take a vitamin D3 supplement (of at least 2000IU),” says Nielsen. “Vitamin D supports immune function and influences inflammatory pathways in the body.
“But remember, your body is a connected system that works best when everything is optimised. You have to move your body daily to optimise metabolism and reduce inflammatory pressure.
“And if you aren’t sleeping properly, your body will break down on you, it’s as simple as that. You also have to manage stress, which itself can be a strong promoter of inflammation.”
A test that measures your blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) may help to measure levels of inflammation in your body (but not where it is or what’s causing it). Ask your doctor for details.