March is National Nutrition Month, so we are focusing a lot on nutrition, as it plays a huge role in our overall health and wellness. The subject of nutrition is complicated because it takes all kinds of segues into food and drink, and there is no one-size-fits-all rule for eating. While food and nutrition can play a big part in pain management, inflammation may be a better measure of wellbeing than pounds, inches, or stamina.
Inflammation is not all bad. It is a life-saving body response that stimulates healing; many injuries wouldn’t mend without it. Remember the red skin around a scrape on the knee? That was acute inflammation. Like defensive linemen in football, inflammation’s job is to slow down or stop the enemy—in this case, pathogens and toxins. Keep reading for Essential Tips to Reduce Inflammation
Anti-inflammatory eating and living
Chronic inflammation happens at a slower pace and over an extended period of time. Imagine that the only thing you do to care for your car is put gas in the tank. Over time, careless driving, potholes, and lack of maintenance will take a toll on your vehicle’s looks and function.
Unlike the cut that gets inflamed and quickly heals, chronic inflammation can contribute to other problems:
- more infections
- fatigue and insomnia
- weight gain
- gastrointestinal unrest such as constipation, diarrhea, and acid reflux
- depression or anxiety
- increased pain
Causes of chronic inflammation
Chronic inflammation can result over time when the body gets too little of what it needs, too much of what it doesn’t need, and maybe from certain disease processes. However, the debate is still open on what comes first, the disease or the inflammation—which seems to be a common denominator in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia. Factors known to contribute to long-term inflammation include:
- Inflammatory foods and drinks that damage the digestive tract over time
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Poor sleep
- Environmental toxins
- Chronic infections
- Chronic stress (which induces behaviors that may lead to more inflammation such as poor eating habits, alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, and poor sleep habits)
- Read more about causes of inflammation at WebMD
10 Tips to Minimize Chronic Inflammation
It’s easy to develop lifestyle habits that are comfortable and enjoyable but end up being hard on our bodies. For example, too much of certain foods or drinks, consuming alcohol, smoking tobacco, not enough exercise, not enough sleep, putting off self-care, pushing ourselves too hard, and not paying attention to our bodies contribute to inflammation. Here’s an essential list of ways to protect ourselves* from inflammation:
- Eat primarily whole foods; avoid processed and fried foods
- Pay attention to how certain foods like dairy, wheat, eggs, nuts, and soy affect your digestion (avoid those that trigger diarrhea/constipation, headaches, skin eruptions, etc.)
- Eat toxin-free meats and fats
- Eat lots of vegetables and fruits — see the Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid
- Drink plenty of pure water
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol (it’s hard on blood sugar, and it’s inflammatory)
- Get plenty of sleep—ask your physician for recommendations, do some reading, search the internet (just not right before you need to sleep)
- Incorporate healthy movement every day to improve circulation and body tone
- See your doctor about infections, so they don’t become chronic and more difficult to treat
- Learn to recognize and manage anxiety and stress
*These are suggestions based on common causes of inflammation; every person is different. What works for one person, doesn’t work for everyone, so it is important to try different things and determine what works best for you and your body.
The connection between stress and inflammation
Chronic stress and inflammation seem to go together and are underlying factors in most chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, asthma, arthritis, and many cancers. But because chronic stress and inflammation can take decades to manifest symptoms or disease, we often don’t recognize this connection.
How stress affects the body
The stress issue may be more important than we realize. The body is designed to be at rest most of the time. Ideally, eating and digestion are done when we’re relaxed. Each day is filled with things we observe and respond to—short-term emotional responses like laughing at jokes, being entertained by what we see and hear, feeling the warmth of connecting with a grandchild or pet, getting upset when we observe injustice or violence, and experiencing boredom or anxiety when we’re stuck in traffic. The feelings and associated hormone output for each are short-lived—exactly how the body and mind function best.
But when the nervous system is constantly on high alert, it temporarily halts many normal functions with a fight-or-flight response—increased heart rate and blood pressure, a rise in blood sugar for quick response and better lung performance. During this life-saving surge of energy and movement, housekeeping and calming functions are minimized or shut down temporarily. The only time this should be happening is when we experience a threat to our safety. Read more on How Stress Makes Us Sick and Affects Immunity, Inflammation, and Digestion.
If we regularly live life with an adrenaline spike, we can develop a “need” for that rush and experience fatigue caused by the imbalance of too much output and not enough relaxation.
Now, when we hit a small bump in our day, the adrenaline and cortisol spigots respond even quicker, and we discover (if we’re paying attention) that minor irritations and delays cause us high anxiety or might even feel life-threatening. Everything is out of whack! Read more about how cortisol affects the body.
Scientists are finding that impaired immunity and the development of “lifestyle disorders” can be linked to stress and inflammation—diseases we may have the power to prevent or heal by our choices. Many diseases we think of as inevitable (Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, cancer) are associated with gene mutations only a tiny percentage of the time. We can influence our body’s immunity and healing.
Essential tips to reduce inflammation
3 Steps to Minimize Stress
Three steps sound easy, but it may be the most important work we do—constantly, daily, over and over again:
- Pay more attention to:
- How you feel when you’re angry, late for an appointment, overloaded. Are you tense or relaxed? Can you think clearly, or are you panicked?
- Your thoughts when you’re tired, frustrated, or mad. Are you thinking about a solution or about how to fight back or escape? Are you resentful or thankful? Is there only one way to think about the situation?
- What you say or do during these moments. Do you respond impatiently, loudly, or with annoyance? Do you threaten, yell, cry, stomp out of the room? How would a different response affect the outcome? What if you slowed down, lowered the volume, agreed to think about it, perhaps even smiled?
- Stop and ask yourself what you believe about this moment or interaction. Is it based on facts, or…
- Have you blown it out of proportion? Try to focus on what is, not what could be the worst-case scenario.
- Are you thinking “it’s always this way” or “I’m so stupid” or “it wouldn’t be this way if…”? Again, focus on reality, not on an emotional response that creates feelings of fear, incompetence, or a need to shift responsibility.
- Do you blame yourself or someone else for something that “just is?” Sometimes the popular phrase “it is what it is” can slow down a runaway mind.
- Take more time to:
- Relax. Making regular downtime for yourself is not slacking. Doing it means you’re taking responsibility for yourself and your actions. Go to the beach, find a place of solitude or ride with the wind in your face.
- Have non-agenda conversations with family and friends. Life is not a contest. It’s a journey we should enjoy and remember.
- Play in the dirt (garden or plant flowers) or explore a new hobby—maybe 180° from what you do in your work or Type-A approach to life (explore hiking, needlework, birding, skiing, jewelry making, writing, wood or metalwork), or focus on a fun project you’ve been putting off.
- Live like you’re not the master of everything. Give perfectionism a break. Be grateful for the little things. Acknowledge the greatness of the universe or the detail on a flower petal. Give a little more of yourself, even if it’s just a smile, baking cookies for a neighbor, or making a short phone call to someone who lives alone. Say “please” and “thank you” more often.
Explore your options and learn about how your body and mind respond to the choices you make in food, sunshine, friendships, thoughts, solitude, and exercise. It turns out that our health may be determined more by our choices than by our genes. Joe Garma writes, “This is why it’s so important to create a healing lifestyle, which includes eliminating the accumulation of everyday stress and practicing self-care at work and home.”
WARNING: Consult your physician before making any specific changes to your diet, especially if you have a chronic condition or illness. Consider talking with a Registered Dietician Nutritionist to help you with specific health conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
For more information about National Nutrition Month, visit https://www.eatright.org/ #NationalNutritionMonth
Want to read more of our tips on wellness and living with less stress? Read 5 Tips for Living With More Intention and Peace from our blog.