A point for the good guys: Anti-inflammatory foods

Lo and behold, another “good guys” post! Today, I’m typing atcha about some very good foods. They’re generally good all the way around, perhaps by virtue of being in the category of “anti inflammatory.” So, what makes them so good and why should you care? Stick with my keystrokes and find out!

Inflammation

I suppose it would only be sensible to start by defining “inflammation” and its role in foodstuffs. Inflammation, not unlike certain undesirables like stress, is actually a healthful defense mechanism. Inflammation attempts to counter bacteria, viruses, and injuries, by creating enlarged blood vessels to allow specialized white blood cells to get in and do their work eradicating bacteria and starting the wounded or sick person on his or her way to the healing zone. Unfortunately, and again like stress, excessive activation of the signals for inflammation can have some pretty gnarly effects, and over a long period of time can result in the perennial failure of the inactivation mechanism. This sounds a lot like insulin and diabetes too, huh? Funny how systems in the body all work similarly! ANYWAY, to the food part of it: Inflammation can be caused in the body or exacerbate conditions of diseases like Rheumatoid Arthritis by certain kinds of foods being ingested. If you read my post on dietary fats, you might recall a lil’ omega 6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid production is a direct precursor to the creation of certain enzymes and proteins that can cause inflammation. As noted in that post, the American/Western diet is basically a treasure trove of omega 6 fats, which cause the arachidonic acid eicosanoid production, and ultimately not only inflammation, but more serious complications like atherosclerosis.

I drug that inflammation away!

THERE IS HELP…and it's a drug.

Okay, so I established that certain foods which cause arachidonic acid spikes lead to inflammation in the body. So what? There’re a number of drugs out which combat the problems of inflammation. For small-scale inflammation which causes symptoms such as day-to-day body aches and the like, there are non-steroid anti-inflammatories like aspirin. Aspirin’s even good for your heart and fights off fungal infections! Why not just choke it down after a big American-style meal? And people who suffer more chronic conditions like hypertension and Rheumatoid Arthritis have their drugs, too. They usually have neat names that end with an x, like “Vioxx” and “Celebrex.” Surely, hypertension sufferers can eat a quart of ice cream a day and not suffer the consequences thanks to modern medicine? Right? Well, as I’m sure your sarcasm detector is going off (it’s actually irony, look it up), I’m gonna stop and tell you why you can’t just “gosh darn drug off” inflammatory foods.

Firstly, I’m sure you’re all very familiar with the commercials of such treatments (or any pharmaceutical). They all end with impressive lists of “possible side effects.” In the case of the two steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs mentioned above, Vioxx and Celebrex, such side effects came in the form of troubling the cardiovascular system and blood-thinning. The side effects became so severe in the case of Vioxx, that it was actually pulled off the market by the company (Merck) that marketed it. Now, I’m not trying to thrash pharmaceuticals; I think aspirin, as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, does have its good properties. However, the point that I want to make is this: At best, these drugs treat symptoms and do not effect a cure. It is true they can help with acute inflammation in conditions like arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s Disease, but again they don’t cure anything, and with the extra side effects (even “ol’ gentle” aspirin can induce gastric ulcers and kidney failure) who would want them?

Well, Betty Blue, what’s the answer then?

I’m onto that; Anti inflammatory foods are the answer, smart guy! Having a poor diet over many years causes many of these ills, and thus any reversal that is to be done is by…*GASP*… adopting a new diet.

Goldie LOX and Bobby COX

…or both.

Sorry to digress, but I want to halt that train of thought to get all scientific on your be-hind. The differences in efficacy between anti-inflammatory drugs, those mentioned above, and anti-inflammatory foods has to be put into context before we continue. Sorry; unfortunately, I can only do that with SCIENCE i.e. explaining some functions in the body to make it clear. An anti-inflammatory environment, from both drug sources and food sources, is achieved by inhibiting, over-riding, or otherwise stifling certain protein compounds or enzymes from converting arachidonic acids into dangerous forms. One such enzyme, Cyclooxygenase (also more popularly known as COX) creates substances called prostaglandins (which COX itself actually is) which are both converters and by-products of that “mean ol’” arachidonic acid. Now, one would think blocking these guys like typical anti-inflammatory drugs do would be the key to halting inflammation; sometimes it is, but on-the-whole it isn’t that simple. You see, there are actually 3 known forms of COX. Predictably called COX-1, COX-2, and COX-3, they all have different functions in the body and not all are necessarily “bad.” In fact, you’ll recall I mentioned earlier how aspirin, as well as steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, can cause ulcers. COX-1 has actually been found in many tissues in the body, doing beneficial things; amongst them, protecting the lining of the stomach (See where I’m going, here?) In inhibiting both COX-1 and COX-2 (which for the sake of brevity I’ll say COX-2 is the “bad” COX), these blanket drugs cause the stomach damage and gastrointestinal bleeding implied above. COX-3 is a whole other subject, as it responds a lot less to these drugs and is not completely understood; so, we’ll leave it for another time before I put you to sleep.

LOXs (or lipoxygenases, if you like multi-syllabled words) are enzymes responsible for leukotrine production from arachidonic acid. I have mentioned leukotrines in at least one other post; they’re the guys who signal and cause inflammations, especially during asthma attacks. They release histamines in the body as well, which obviously aid in skin allergies and the like. LOXs cause these inflammatory markers independent from COXs (or as you’ll remember, the “bad” COX-2), and in fact blockage of only COX-2 results in advanced acceleration of leukotrines. What all this means is that the optimum course against inflammation and all the ills it causes is a blocking of both LOXs and (at least) COX-2s.

NOW is where the foods come in.

So, I’ve covered that both COXs and LOXs need inhibition; but how do you do it? Anti inflammatory foods do it all, baby; and they do it in style. If you’ve ever marveled at the color of plants and wonder where they come from, you’re in for a surprise correlating aesthetics with health benefits. The colors in plants are derived from flavonoids and polyphenols, which not only make ‘em pretty but have the anti-inflammatory properties I know and love. A quick biopic on 3 (Because 3′s my favorite number!) of them will have you feeling the same way, I’m sure:

• Rutin: Now, I wanted to waste your time with a lame joke here and say “You’ll be rootin’ for rutin!” but I guess it makes no sense unless you add something like “when you eat it!” at the end, but that’s dumb. Wasted your time with that sentence, anyway. Rutin is a polyphenol called a glycoside, which is found in asparagus, citrus fruits, and cranberries. Rutin suppresses aggravating enzymes and thus slows inflammatory processes which are found in Rheumatoid Arthritis, Alzheimer’s Disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, ischemia, autism, and even herniations of discs found in the spine.

• Hesperitin: This gem of a polyphenol is found in citrus fruits. As for its hobbies it likes cool dips in the pool, reading Joyce novels, oh yes, and of course: limiting histamine release and thus preventing inflammation and allergies!

• Quercetin: Found in a bunch of things (including green tea, apples, onions, citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli, leafy greens, raspberries and cranberries), quercetin is also a big help against allergy and asthma triggers, along with quelling the pain of Rheumatoid Arthritis. In all its antioxidant glory (by the by, all these polyphenols also happen to be antioxidants!), it inhibits nitrogen oxide (NO) production; this stops that nasty gaseous free radical from stimulating inflammation and harming your system.

So, why did I single out those three? No particular reason, but I hope you do realize that all these guys and other polyphenols are found in plant products. Not a pusher of the vegan lifestyle or anything, just hoping you’ll step back and ask yourself: “Do I eat many fruits and vegetables?” Then, of course, say “No,” throw a controller or something and head for the produce section at your nearest grocery store to pick up your natural “over the counter anti inflammatory medicines.” I’ll add to the “not pushing the vegan lifestyle” thing with this: It’s become more and more clear to me that anti inflammatory foods and omega 3 fats, again which I wrote about in another post, have a lot in common in nuturing health; and thus fish is an anti-inflammatory choice that I’d recommend non-vegans consider for its high omega 3-havin’ properties. After all, there are inflammatory plant foods in existence. On that subject, let’s have a nice run-down of both anti and pro inflammatory foods for your reference and “to your health!“:

Anti-inflammatory plant foods/spices (Stuff you should eat.):

Leafy green vegetables: Love to keep referencing my article on fats, where leafy green veggies were given a spotlight, but again these guys top the list for everything. Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, omega 3 to 6 ratio, et cetera. To me, they’ve become one of the easiest things to implement in my diet as they’re good any way you slice, juice, boil, or steam ‘em. They add bulk to meals, and add health to YOU. These include spinach, lettuces, kale, cabbages, turnip greens, collards, and more.

Other vegetables: Brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, kidney beans, carrots, cauliflower, hot peppers, radishes, squash.

Fruits: Mangoes, cantaloupe. Ha, you might notice this list is kind of lacking; the big (and really only) qualm I have with fruits is their sugar content. Still, there are very few fruits (maybe raisins or other dried fruits for their sugars or passionfruits for their omega 6 imbalance) that you should feel ashamed in eating, as they have lots of nutrients. Just don’t go too overboard, I suppose.

Spices: This area is actually in abundance of anti-inflammatory goodies. Turmeric, for example, is a spice well-known for its pain-reducing qualities that rival even steroidal anti-inflammatories. One of its core components, curcumin, goes so far as to inhibit cancer cells, along with its already desirable property of blocking out one of the forms of LOX, mentioned above. Ginger is also often compared to anti-inflammatory drugs in the scope of its power against inflammation. Unlike most anti-inflammatories, it blocks both COX and LOX without any damaging side effects. It even works on the genetic level, inhibiting any gene expression which might lead to the very production of substances like COX and leukotrines! There are other great anti-inflammatory spices, like garlic (which has anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties), oregano (which has antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and antihelminthic [fighting parasitic worms] properties), cayenne pepper, cumin, rosemary, and coriander.

Seeds: FLAX. I can not say it loud enough nor praise these little seeds, enough. Especially if you’re vegan, these are where you should get your powerfully anti-inflammatory omega 3s. I myself, a lover of peanut butter but realizer of its prohibitively high amount of omega 6s, supplement my PB with a heapin’ helpin’ (And I mean heapin’, as it takes about 26 servings of flaxseed per one jar of peanut butter to get it in-balance) of flax. I’ve seen it recommended to get them pre-ground, as they can only be digested in a frayed state. Those are the ones I use, but I also eat the whole ones in Uncle Sam cereal.

Anti-inflammatory MEATS

Practically all fish and seafood: Sorry vegans, wild-caught sea critters are a, if not the, top-of-the-line choice for “goin’ AIF.” (That’s anti-inflammatory) The ability of fish and fish oils to basically cure/reverse Rheumatoid Arthritis/thrombosis, atherosclerosis and the like, especially when lowering omega 6 oils, puts them high on the health food list.

Inflammatory plant foods (Okay, now we’re at the stuff you shouldn’t eat, for optimum health.)

Potatoes: Pretty sure you already knew about these guys being bad for you. Even sweet potatoes are high on the glycemic index, but they do offer up huge amounts of vitamin A, amongst other things, unlike their white colleagues. White potatoes may be a staple in your family, but better get the staple remover so you can have lots of years with said family! A surprisingly tasty, better option is mashing some pinto, or preferably kidney, beans. Stick it on some form of shepherd’s pie and you won’t know the difference. Okay, you will, but you’ll like it; honest!

Beans: Now, hold on, let’s not get carried away calling me contradictory after what I just said. I’m a pro-bean guy, really, but there are a few things to consider: For one, some beans (like the pintos mentioned above) can get to be pretty high on the glycemic load in the amounts a lot of people eat them. Add to that that many doctors put Rheumatoid Arthritis sufferers on an elimination diet that eliminates certain “inflammatory-suspect” foods, and sometimes beans come up for their glycemic index and/or heavy starch values. I think, if you’re healthy, eat generally anti-inflammatory, and especially if you’re eating lower GI beans and pods, you have nothing to worry about. In fact, I’ll even say you’d be a good “has bean.” Ha…haha….

Corn: Taking no prisoners on this one. This big-money crop just doesn’t do well in our fragile hu-mon systems; you might even see parts undigested coming out in well, you know where. (Your own feces if you didn’t know where.) It’s high glycemic index, relatively high in calories, and bad on omega 3 to 6 balance, to boot. Speaking of boots, get yours on to boot this baddie OUT!

Soybeans/soy products: Here’s another bad omega 3 to 6 one, and I guess I have my own personal bias against soy that I’m venting here. More studies to be done, for sure, but for now I’ll stick with facts: It is an inflammatory food, and also is a huge cash crop.

SUGAR: Bold and capitalized; does that get the message across? Sugar, which is a plant product but is so far removed from its original form that you wouldn’t know it, is by far the worst inflammatory substance one could put in him or herself. I doubt I have to school you on this obvious fact, but if you’re puzzled you can read my post on why sugar is bad. Since I’m still under the “plant foods” category, I also want to caution against store-bought juices, as they are basically just sugar.

Wheat and flour products: Yeah, sorry, I know bread is great; but pretty much all flours (even your fancy gluten-free ones, fancy non-celiac gluten-free people) are inflammatory. This includes wheat, rye, barley, and spelt, and most cereals consisting thereof, though this list is not all-inclusive.

Certain cooking oils: An issue that I have tackled elsewhere, the worst of the worst include peanut, cottonseed, safflower, soybean, sunflower, and -any- hydrogenated oil. If they’re not ridiculously imbalanced omega 3 to omega 6 wise, then they’re totally unsuitable for cooking due to the break-down and rancidity that occurs when they are exposed to heat.

Nuts: Okay, so I’m probably getting a lot of “boos” here. The overwhelming belief is that nuts are great health foods, and they’ve shown some promise there. However, the undeniable and crushing omega 6 to 3 imbalance is front row center with most of these guys. Only walnuts and macadamias seem to have anything anywhere near “acceptable” values. If it is true that omega 6s lead to arachidonic acid production leads to inflammation, which it is, then these guys can’t help but be culprits with their staggering omega 6 values. Sorry to all you nuts…I mean, nut enthusiasts, out there! (Do remember above, though, where I mentioned my peanut butter/crushed flax seed “trick!”)

Inflammatory animal products

Meats: Virtually all types of “consumer meat,” outside of perhaps grass-fed beef, especially including any highly-processed canned or packaged meat (though canned seafood is generally anti-inflammatory, so long as it is not mixed with some manner of byproducts/preservatives).

Dairy products: These are the CREAM de la CREAM (get it?!) of inflammatories, when it comes to animal products. They cause almost instantaneous flare-up of joint inflammation symptoms in arthritis sufferers, and just as instant relief from said symptoms when they’re eliminated from the diet. There are all manner of ills associated with these types of products: the opioids of casein, the milk protein, creating addictions, allergic reactions (that people may not even liken to the dairy products they’re consuming, i.e. headaches), proliferation of mucous in the throat (I learned about this problem in my time as a singer), et cetera. Just not worth it!

Conclusions

I understand all this is a lot to consider, and offer this piece of more simple advice: A very practical way to limit inflammation, other than sustaining a vegan or elimination diet, is to supplement omega 3s with fish oil or flaxseed. Now, it is of course best to get as many anti-inflammatory foods into your diet as possible, but “cheating” once and again won’t kill you (especially if you sneak flaxseed into foods, like I mentioned earlier. It’s surprisingly great!).

Another important thing I wish to mention, especially for the young or overtly healthy older folks (those without Rheumatoid Arthritis and the like, who exercise and all): An anti-inflammatory diet, not unlike an inflammatory one, may take months or years to “show.” In other words, where a chronic inflammatory diet unquestionably leads to the “show”ing of horrid conditions like Rheumatoid Arthritis and thrombosis, you may have to get to a point in time when those who you went to school with are suffering and you can look at yourself and say “Hey, what’s wrong with me? I’m just fine.” Though, I will go ahead and attest to feeling better, stronger, and seeing pounds come off my woman (yeah, I said that), so the ability to notice results may vary. It’s worth it, however. Heavy foods like milk and dough can really hurt blood flow during exercise, as they are slow to digest and need more resources, and help to create lactic acid and free radical-rich environments.

I’ll quit for now though, before I go off on some 1000-word rant, and let all those new anti-inflammatory foods sink in to your mind that they might soon sink into your stomach! Do the AIF! Yeah! Dununnuh dunnunuh, yeah! ♪