By Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.
We usually think of inflammation as something that affects our muscles and joints, causing them to swell and ache. More recently, science has made it clear that inflammation is also part of what causes poor blood flow through the arteries, causing problems of the circulation and the heart. But, really, the root cause of inflammation is a function of the metabolism, or digestive process. It is the body’s normal defensive response to excess internal heat. Excess heat can be caused by stress, too many calories, and the wrong kinds of foods.
An anti-inflammatory diet is, first and foremost, a low calorie diet. The meaning of “calorie” is, after all, a unit measurement of heat energy. Simply put, ingesting more calories creates more heat in the body. If the calories aren’t being burned through physical activity, then they are stored in the body as excess fat. Fat not only weighs you down, but triggers the immune system, which tries to attack the fat as if it was a foreign substance. Carrying excess fat acts on several levels to create detrimental inflammation within the body.
It is important to pay attention not only to what you eat, and how much, but also how you eat, and when. Many people’s eating habits lead to poor digestion.
Eat sitting down. The body draws both blood and Qi into its center – the stomach and spleen – in order to digest food. Eating while standing or walking, or trying to concentrate on some other problem, draws much-needed energy to the extremities or the brain, away from the digestive process.
Chew food thoroughly. Failure to chew adequately means that the rest of your digestive system has to work harder to break down your food into usable nutrition.
In general, choose more fresh, raw, and lightly cooked foods, and avoid baked, fried and heavily processed foods. These foods retain the heat energy that was used in their preparation, and that creates more heat inside you.
Increase your use of ginger, turmeric and herbs like rosemary, thyme, and oregano, all of which have anti-inflammatory properties. Choose high Omega-fatty-acid fish such as salmon, and good quality fish oils. Eat lots of leafy greens. Avoid coffee, and drink green tea instead. Fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut/kimchee, miso and tempeh help to heal and promote good balance in the intestines. Shitake mushrooms are a source of copper, a rare nutrient, important in the prevention of arterial inflammation.
It probably comes as no surprise that we recommend cutting back on unhealthy fats (trans fats, processed cooking oils, and fatty red meat). And avoid sugar as strictly as possible, as sugar consumption leads to insulin resistance and is a major cause of inflammation.
Avoid the nightshade vegetables: peppers, eggplants, potatoes and tomatoes. This includes spices and seasonings made from peppers, such as paprika and red pepper flakes. These foods can irritate the intestines, affecting their permeability and setting off unwanted immune responses. These in turn lead to inflammation, muscle spasms and stiffness.