TOP 6 Anti-inflammatory Foods
I been sore a lot lately and realized that my body needed two things – 1) an SMR (self myofascial release) session after my WODs 2) Better foods that can help with the inflammation. I know potassium should be high but guess what it was not working. I know omega-3 helps so I started eating a lot of fish and slowly it got better. While doing research I found this awesome article by Mark Sisson. It list the 6 top foods he believes are great foods to help alleviate the soreness and muscle inflammation post-workout. It does not hurt to try. So read, learn, and evolve!
Before I begin, let me preface this post with the identification of a simple confounder for everyone to consider as they read: context. Any discussion of a concept as nebulous, multifaceted, and confusing as inflammation must integrate the question of context. Inflammation itself is highly contextual – as I’ve discussed in previous installments, there are times when inflammation is a good thing and times when inflammation is a negative thing. There are also times when anti-inflammatory actions, drugs, or foods are negatives, even though “anti-inflammatory” has a positive connotation. If you blunt the post-exercise inflammatory response with an anti-inflammatory drug, for example, you also run the risk of blunting the positive effects of that workout.
We must also pay attention to acute and systemic inflammation when discussing the desirability of an “anti-inflammatory” food. Eating a big meal tends to raise inflammatory markers in the short term. If you’re overeating every single meal, this is problematic; the acute will become the norm – the chronic. If you’re eating big after a massive workout session, or because you’re celebrating at an amazing restaurant with your dearest friends, or because you’re coming off a twenty-four hour IF, it’s fine. Context.
Eating high glycemic foods, namely refined carbohydrates that digest quickly and represent a big, instantly-available caloric load, tends to raise inflammatory markers in the short term. Again, if you’re pounding bags of chips or white bread while sitting on the couch and the only walking you’ve done all day is to the pantry, those high glycemic foods will be inflammatory (to say nothing of the antinutrients in the bread or the rancid vegetable oil in the chips). And if you do the same thing on a regular basis, they will induce systemic inflammation – or at least continuous acute spikes that mimic systemic inflammation. If you’re eating a fast-digesting, high-glycemic white potato after your glycogen-depleting sprintworkout, you will refill your insulin-sensitive muscles and the subsequent inflammatory spike will be either nonexistent or nothing to worry about. Competitive athletes probably thrive on high glycemic foods, couch potatoes develop metabolic syndrome eating the same things. Context.
Many people find dairy to be inflammatory. I’m (sort of) one of them. I’ll readily eat butter, put cream in coffee, slice quality cheeses, and have a cup of Greek yogurt, but a tall glass of store-bought milk doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t have to run to the toilet or anything; I just don’t feel as good as I did before the glass of milk. Is milk, then, “inflammatory”? It could be, for me (though perhaps a glass of raw A2 cow, goat or sheep milk would have a different effect). It may not be for you. Dairy certainly wasn’t inflammatory for this group of adult men with metabolic syndrome, nor for this group of pregnant women. For both groups, the inclusion of dairy had an anti-inflammatory effect. That doesn’t mean dairy is inherently anti-inflammatory; it might just mean that dairy was better than whatever it replaced. Context.
So when I begin to rattle off my list of anti-inflammatory foods, keep these confounders in mind. Realize that what’s good for the chronically-inflamed, vegetable oil-guzzling goose may not be as crucial for the sprightly, sardine-slurping gander. If you’ve got a casein allergy, even the Maasai-iest dairy will be inflammatory. But what follows is a list (plus scientific references where applicable) of foods I’ve personally found to be anti-inflammatory. Since I don’t carry around a CRP-ometer, I’ve tried to include references if available.
Wild Fish Fat
Whether you get it through molecularly-distilled oil, deep-red wild sockeye, raw oysters, or by exclusively eating pastured animal products, omega-3s are required for a healthy inflammatory response. I feel off when I haven’t eaten any fish for a week or so, but eating salmon more than three days in a row doesn’t really work, either, because too much omega-3 is similarly problematic (shoot for between a 3:1 and 1:1 ratio of omega-6:omega-3). I can tell I’ve gone too long without fish fat when my arthritis starts to sneak up on me. The advice for reducing omega-6 across the board holds steady, of course, but everyone needs some form of fish fat. Another bonus is that it usually comes with healthy fish flesh, skin, bones, and sea minerals.
Omega-3 status is inversely associated with CRP in men. The higher the omega-3, the lower the systemic inflammation.
Daily fish oil for six months reduced inflammation in patients with metabolic syndrome and especially those with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Delivering a “fish-fat” emulsion intravenously to patients with systemic inflammatory response syndrome had anti-inflammatory and liver-protective effects.
Pastured Animal Fat
I was going to list grass-fed dairy, grass-fed beef/lamb, and pastured egg yolks as separate categories, but reconsidered. As I mentioned in my post on human interference factor, the unperturbed animals raised in relative harmony with their ancestry make the best, healthiest, least inflammatory food, while stressed-out animals raised in evolutionarily-novel conditions and on evolutionarily-novel feed make unhealthier and more inflammatory food. The important factor is that your animal fat comes from pastured animals who ate grass, that the chickens who laid your eggs ate grass and bugs and grains/seeds lower in omega-6. Pastured ruminant and dairy fat contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (PDF), an anti-inflammatory trans fatty acid, and pastured eggs contain more micronutrients and more omega-3 fats.
In one study, people with the highest levels of dairy-derived CLA in their tissues had the fewest heart attacks.
Eggs from chickens on a high-omega-6 diet were higher in omega-6, and they increased oxidized LDL in people who ate them.
Read this post to learn why getting CLA from dairy and animal fat is better than getting it from supplements.
Red Palm Oil
After treating red palm oil as more of an intellectual curiosity than a culinary tool for years, it has really grown on me. Lately, I’ve been tossing cubed, steamed butternut squash with red palm oil, sea salt, black pepper, cayenne, and turmeric. It’s an interesting taste, but it definitely works (and it’s a good dish for vegetarians, too). Roasting veggies in it is good as well, as is a spoonful on top of those white Japanese sweet potatoes (the starchier, not-so-sweet ones). Enough about taste, though – red palm oil is incredibly dense with antioxidants. Full spectrum vitamin E, CoQ10, vitamin A, and vitamin K, all incredibly important in maintaining antioxidant status, all make appearances.
When compared to the treasured monounsaturated fat, palm oil (high in saturated fat) greatly reduced oxidized LDL in humans. And that was refined palm oil. I suspect unrefined red palm oil, with all nutrients intact, would perform even better.
Pretty much every list of “Top 10 Anti-Inflammatory Foods” contains broccoli or cauliflower or kale or cabbage, but I thought I’d one-up those writers and include them all. I probably eat cruciferous vegetables five, sometimes seven times a week, mostly because they taste good but also because they contain helpful compounds like sulforaphane.
Broccoli lowered colonic inflammation in mice.
Red cabbage reduced oxidative stress and lipid peroxidation.
Sulforaphane reduced inflammation in arteries.
Although blueberries top most anti-inflammatory food lists (I’ve even seen Kaiser Permanente ads on the sides of buses that feature massive photos of glistening blueberries), and for good reason, I think the other berries get left out. Let’s face it, though – there isn’t really a bad berry out there. I don’t put a lot of faith in the superfruit phenomenon (though I’m sure goji berries are perfectly healthy), but berries are just solid guys to have in your diet. They’re delicious. They’re low in sugar. They’re high in surface area, which means lots of skin and all the antioxidants and phenolics that come with it (but go organic for that same reason). They’re colorful, which means lots of bioactive pigments.
Preliminary evidence suggests that blueberries, strawberries, and cranberries can ameliorate metabolic syndrome through modulation of inflammation.
If you haven’t developed a taste for turmeric, I suggest you get on it. It is a potent anti-inflammatory spice, which protects against oxidation of dietary fats during cooking and against oxidative stress in the body after being eaten. You could go straight for the powerful stuff and simply take curcumin, the most active component of turmeric, but I’d suggest using the whole spice itself. That’s how it’s been used for thousands of years, and you’d miss out on the incredible flavor and color it provides otherwise. Somehow I doubt crumbling up curcumin pills would have the same culinary effect.
Turmeric beat both ginger and an anti-inflammatory drug for treating arthritis (I’ve had similar results).
Turmeric also upregulates LDL receptor activity. If you remember from past posts on inflammation, poor LDL receptor activity can leave LDL particles open and vulnerable to oxidation from inflammatory processes.
In the comments section of last week’s post on inflammation, many of you expressed a desire for a post explaining how to know if one is actually suffering from systemic, chronic inflammation. I thought that was a great idea and decided to put the other followups on hold so I could tackle this one. Obviously, it’s easy to tell if you’ve got some acute inflammation going on – swelling, pain, heat radiating from a part of your body that’s suddenly assumed a rosy hue, and throbbing open wounds are all blatant indicators of the inflammatory process at work – but tests for markers of inflammation are not yet standard across most medical practices. With that in mind, I’ll be giving info on both objective markers for which you can test, as well as on the subjective markers I use on myself that you can “test” and use to evaluate your own level of inflammation.
Let’s get to it.
CRP, or C-Reactive Protein
CRP is a protein that binds with phosphocholine on dead and dying cells and bacteria in order to clear them from the body. It can always be found (and measured) in the bloodstream, but levels spike when inflammation is at hand. During acute inflammation caused by infection, for example, CRP can spike by up to 50,000-fold. CRP spikes due to acute inflammation peak at around 48 hours and decline pretty quickly thereafter (post acute-phase inflammation CRP has a half life of 18 hours). Thus, if the incident causing the inflammation is resolved, CRP goes back to normal within a few days. If it persists, the infection/trauma/etc. probably persists as well.
CRP elevates in response to essentially anything that causes inflammation. It’s highly sensitive to many different kinds of stressors. This makes it valuable for determining that inflammation is occurring, but it makes it difficult to determine why that inflammation is occurring – because it could be almost anything. But if you’re looking for confirmation that you are chronically, systemically inflamed, an elevated CRP in absence of any acute infections, injuries, burns, or stressors is a useful barometer.
“Normal” CRP levels are supposedly 10 mg/L. Absent infection or acute stressors, however, ideal CRP levels are well under 1 mg/L. You want to stay well below 1; you don’t want “normal.” Between 10-40 mg/L (and perhaps even 1-9 mg/L, too) indicates systemic inflammation (or pregnancy), while anything above that is associated with real acute stuff. Note that exercise can elevate CRP.
IL-6, or Interleukin-6
T cells (type of white blood cell that plays a huge role in the immune response) and macrophages (cells that engulf and digest – also known as phagocytosing – stray tissue and pathogens) both secrete IL-6 as part of the inflammatory response, so elevated IL-6 can indicate systemic inflammation.
Tissue Omega-3 Content
This is a direct measurement of the omega-3 content of your bodily tissue. It’s not widely available, but it is very useful. Remember that anti-inflammatory eicosanoids draw upon the omega-3 fats in your tissues and that inflammatory eicosanoids draw upon the omega-6 fats. People having a higher proportion of omega-6 fats will thus produce more inflammatory eicosanoids. Now, we absolutely need both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory eicosanoids for proper inflammatory responses, but people with high omega-6 tissue levels make way too many inflammatory eicosanoids. Studies indicate that people with the highest omega-3 tissue levels suffer fewer inflammatory diseases (like coronary heart disease).
Research (highlighted and explicated here by Chris Kresser) suggests that omega-3 tissue concentrations of around 60% are ideal, which is a level commonly seen in Japan – seemingly paradoxical land of high blood pressure, heavy smoking, and low coronary heart disease rates.
This measures the EPA and DHA, the two important omega-3 fatty acids, as a percentage of total fatty acids present in your red blood cells. It doesn’t correlate exactly to tissue amounts, but it’s pretty good and a powerful predictor of cardiovascular disease risk. The omega-3 index doesn’t measure omega-6 content, but those with a low omega-3 index are probably sporting excessive omega-6 in their red blood cells.
Anything above 8% corresponds to a “low risk,” but levels of 12-15% are ideal and roughly correspond to the 60% tissue content mentioned by Chris’ article. 4% and below is higher risk and can be viewed as a proxy for increased inflammation (or at least the risk of harmful systemic inflammation developing from normal inflammation).
Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome Score
There’s the systemic inflammatory response syndrome, which is incredibly serious and has four criteria. If you have two or more of them at once, congratulations: you qualify – and should probably see a health professional immediately. This isn’t relevant for low-grade systemic inflammation, like the kind associated with obesity or autoimmune disease.
- Body temperature less than 96.8 F (36 C) or greater than 100.4 F (38 C).
- Heart rate above 90 beats per minute.
- High respiratory rate, 20 breaths per minute or higher.
- White blood cell count fewer than 4000 cells/mm³ or greater than 12,000 cells/mm³.
Of these objective markers to test, I’d lean toward CRP and one of the omega-3 tests. CRP is pretty comprehensive, and, while omega-3 tissue or blood cell content doesn’t necessarily indicate the existence of systemic inflammation in your body, it does indicate the severity of the inflammatory response you can expect your body to have. Taken together, both tests will give you an idea of where you stand.
And now, some subjective markers that I’ve picked up on over the years. These are a few signs and symptoms to watch out for. They may be harmless artifacts, but they may indicate that something systemic is going on.
Flare-up of Autoimmune Conditions You Haven’t Heard from in Ages
Sore joints, dry, patchy, and/or red skin, and anything else that indicates a flare-up. For me, this is usually mild arthritis.
As we discussed last time, acute inflammation is often characterized by swelling at the site of injury. The same effect seems to occur in states of systemic inflammation, although they aren’t localized, but rather generalized.
If you feel stressed, you’re probably inflamed. I’m talking about the kind that has you rubbing your temples, face palming, sighing every couple minutes, and pinching the space between your eyes very, very hard.
Persistent But Unexplained Nasal Congestion
Could be allergies, sure, but I’ve always noticed that when I’m under a lot of stress and generally in an inflamed state, my nose gets clogged. Certain foods will trigger this, too, and I think it can all be linked to a persistent but subtle state of inflammation.
If you fit the bill for the eight signs of overtraining listed in this post, you’re probably inflamed.
Ultimately, though? It comes down to the simple question you must ask yourself: how do you feel?
I mean, this seems like an obvious marker, but a lot of people ignore it in pursuit of numbers. If you feel run down, lethargic, unhappy, your workouts are suffering, you struggle to get out of bed, you’re putting on a little extra weight around the waist, sex isn’t as interesting, etc., etc., etc., you may be suffering from some manner of systemic, low-grade inflammation. Conversely, if you’re full of energy, generally pleased and/or content with life, killing it in the gym, bounding out of bed, lean as ever or on your way there, and your sex drive is powerful and age appropriate, you’re probably good.
And really, isn’t that the most important health marker of all?
Anyway, I hope this was helpful. Systemic inflammation is a pretty nebulous state, and pinning it down can be tough, even with the help of actual objective lab markers. And because inflammation and all the maladies associated with it are so intertwined and feed off each other and have so many different effects, we often feel helpless. Well, try not to pile too much on your shoulders. Get some markers tested if you can, but ultimately it’s going to come down to eating better, moving better, sleeping better, relaxing better, and avoiding too much stress. And if you feel great, I wouldn’t really worry. Don’t be the guy or gal who chases “inflammation,” and don’t go looking for a drug that reduces the liver’s production of CRP. Instead, be the one who eliminates the ultimate cause, or causes (because there are always more than one) of the chronic inflammation. Revisit the list from the end of the last inflammation post and make sure you’re not omitting anything that you should be including or including anything that you should be omitting.