What you eat can fuel or cool inflammation, a key driver
of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
Inflammation is an essential part of the body's healing system. Without
it, injuries would fester and simple infections could be deadly. Too
much of a good thing, though, is downright dangerous. Chronic low-grade
inflammation is intimately involved in all stages of atherosclerosis,
the process that leads to cholesterol-clogged arteries. This means that
inflammation sets the stage for heart attacks, most strokes, peripheral
artery disease, and even vascular dementia, a common cause of memory
Inflammation doesn't happen on its own. It is the body's response to
a host of modern irritations like smoking, lack of exercise, high-fat
and high-calorie meals, and highly processed foods.
Medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies are hot on the trail
of inflammation-busting drugs. Don't bother waiting - they are a long
way off, are bound to be expensive, and will almost certainly have side
effects. Instead, you can turn to simple tools that ease inflammation.
We'll focus on diet here, but don't forget about avoiding cigarette smoke
(yours or someone else's), exercising, watching your weight, and taking
care of your teeth.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation’s aim is to defend the body against bacteria, viruses,
and other foreign invaders, to remove debris, and to help repair damaged
tissue. Inside arteries, inflammation helps kick off atherosclerosis
and keeps the process smoldering. It even influences the formation of
artery-blocking clots, the ultimate cause of heart attacks and many strokes.
What you eat may fan the fires of inflammation. Here are some suggestions:
Get an oil change. Swap saturated and trans fats for
olive oil, which has potent anti-inflammatory properties, or polyunsaturated
fats, especially omega-3 fats from fish.
Don't be so refined. The bolus of blood sugar that
accompanies a meal or snack of highly refined carbohydrates (white bread,
white rice, French fries, sugar-laden soda, etc.) increases levels of
inflammatory messengers called cytokines. Eating whole-grain bread, brown
rice, and other whole grains smooths out the after-meal rise in blood
sugar and insulin, and dampens cytokine production.
Promote produce. The more fruits and vegetables you
eat, the lower the burden of inflammation. Why? They contain hundreds,
perhaps thousands, of substances that squelch inflammation-rousing free
radicals; some act as direct anti-inflammatory agents.
Go nuts. Adding walnuts, peanuts, almonds, and other
nuts and seeds to your snacks and meals is another tasty way to ease
Cocoa lovers rejoice? In laboratory studies, cocoa
and dark chocolate slow the production of signaling molecules involved
in inflammation. The trick is to get them without too much sugar and
Alcohol in moderation. A drink a day seems to lower
levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a powerful signal of inflammation.
Too much alcohol has the opposite effect on CRP.
Spice it up. Herbs and spices such as turmeric, ginger,
garlic, basil, pepper, and many others have anti-inflammatory properties.
Putting it all together
If you are a do-it-yourselfer, pick and choose foods that ease inflammation
and eat them instead of those that promote it. If you'd rather follow
a plan, the so-called Mediterranean diet encompasses many inflammation-fighting
foods. So does the Healthy Eating Pyramid, developed by Dr. Walter Willett
and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health.
If you adopt an anti-inflammatory diet, you probably won't see or feel
any different. Angina won't suddenly disappear or heart failure reverse
itself. But you will be doing your heart, arteries, and the rest of you
a huge favor that will pay off in many ways.
February 2007 update
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