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Many of us are walking around with chronic inflammation, and the reaction can be extreme, presenting as arthritis (inflammation of joints), colitis (inflammation of the colon), dermatitis (inflammation of the skin), or other inflammatory diseases. But inflammation can be chronic, low-grade, and the cause of vague symptoms like fatigue, runny nose, red eyes, brain fog, stiff joints, muscle aches, dry and/or itchy skin, or a change in bowel habits. Inflammation is also implicated in the development of many chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, MS, and type 2 diabetes. According the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Inflammation happens when the immune system fights against something that may turn out to be harmful.” It can be caused by infections (such as bacteria or viruses), injuries (such as a cut or fracture), chemicals, radiation, and, of course, food. So what are the foods that cause inflammation?
The human body, when exposed to a trigger, releases inflammatory hormones such as histamine and bradykinin, which increase blood flow and bring anti-inflammatory cells to the area to fight the trigger or repair damage. This in turn can lead to the redness, swelling, heat, and dysfunction in the cells, organs, and systems of the body.
Foods That Cause Inflammation
We all react differently to food. Some people seem to have an iron-clad constitution and can eat anything. Others seem to be bothered by a variety of foods. While many foods cause inflammation in only certain individuals some foods are known to be pro-inflammatory (promote inflammation) in many.
Common foods that cause inflammation include:
- Sugar: There is growing evidence of the link between refined sugar, inflammation, and chronic disease. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that processed sugars may cause the release of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. Processed sugars go by many names, including fructose, sucrose, galactose, lactose, glucose, maltose, and, worst of all, high-fructose corn syrup.
- Saturated fat: The “standard American diet” contains about 12 percent saturated fat. The link between animal-based saturated fats and inflammation is established. One research paper explains that this is largely caused by an increase in the number of fat cells, an increase in inflammatory cells in fat tissue, insulin resistance and disruption of metabolism in cells. Culprits include: Cheese, full-fat dairy, fatty red meat and the highly processed fats (hydrogenated and trans-fats) used in processed foods, such as baked goods, stick margarine, breakfast cereal and chips. Deep fried foods, and the food from many fast food restaurants are high in these unhealthy fats.
- Refined carbohydrates: When whole grains are processed they can become unhealthy. When grains such as wheat are processed the wheat germ and bran layer (which are a form of dietary fiber) are removed, along with essential vitamins and mineral, and chemicals are added to improve the shelf-life of the product. People who eat high levels of refined grains have an increased risk of abdominal fat, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and overall mortality. Research shows that increase your intake of whole grain can reverse this trend. Refined potatoes are also pro-inflammatory due to the addition of fats, salt and other additives.
- Food additives: For many years food manufacturers have been adding chemicals to our food to improve shelf-life, taste, color or profits. One such additive is MSG (mono-sodium glutamate), which the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains can cause “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” with symptoms that include: “Chest pain, flushing, headache, numbness or burning in or around the mouth, sense of facial pressure or swelling and sweating.” Other additives linked to inflammation include artificial sweeteners (like aspartine), artificial colors and flavorings.
- Processed meat/red meat: The World Health Organization classifies processed meat as a carcinogenic to humans, based on extensive epidemiological research. Processed meats include meat “that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” Examples include hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausages, corned beef, and beef jerky, along with canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces. One mechanism suggested for this increased cancer risk is inflammation, a theory supported by 2017 research which found that ingestion of processed meats and red meat, were associated with an increase in the inflammatory marker CRP (C-reactive protein). Processed meats contain advanced glycation end products (AGEs) formed during their manufacture that are known to cause inflammation.
- Alcohol: Research shows that moderate alcohol intake reduces inflammatory markers in people with rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease. However, in excess alcohol can cause inflammation, perhaps because it leads to “leaky gut”, a condition that allows toxins to enter the blood via the gut. The American Heart Association recommends, “If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Drinking more alcohol increases such dangers as alcoholism, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, breast cancer, suicide, and accidents.” Moderate intake is one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. One drink equates to a 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits, or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits.
- Gluten: Not a day goes by without hearing about gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats. In people with Celiac disease gut inflammation is caused by ingestion of gluten. But what about the rest of us? Many people swear that gluten causes inflammation presenting with symptoms such as gas, diarrhea, bloating, tiredness or headache after ingestion of gluten. This is known as gluten sensitivity, the exact mechanisms of which are not fully understood.
- Personal triggers: Many people have one or more foods that cause inflammation. If you suspect this, your doctor may recommend food allergy testing, with a skin prick test or a blood test for immunoglobulin E antibodies. Neither are 100 percent reliable. Your doctor may alternatively recommend an exclusion diet, where you avoid the suspected foods for a period of at least a month (six months for gluten), with reintroduction of one food at a time.
So Which Anti-Inflammatory Foods Should You Be Eating?
In our recent article on anti-inflammatory foods, we explained that some foods have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties. Switching from foods that cause inflammation to a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods may improve your health.
Anti-inflammatory foods include vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts and seeds, beans, whole grains, spices, teas and coffee. Click here to read that post.
Sources & Resources
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