By Sarah Nelson, Chef, Health Coach & Founder at Sarah Nelson Wellness
It’s crazy how fast it can happen. I see it all the time with clients – they change their diets during one of my anti-inflammatory reset programs and their chronic joint pain disappears, their auto-immune issues diminish, and they feel different, better. And this is after only three days of modifying their eating! We have the power to reduce chronic inflammation, feel better and look better, with easy to implement lifestyle changes.
So what do we mean by “inflammation?” Acute inflammation is a beneficial adaptation used by our bodies to fight injury or infection. It kicks our immune system into gear to protect and heal us. Inflammation is meant to be short term, yet ongoing, sustained inflammation is fueling much of the chronic illness experienced today in the United States. A Harvard Medical School study notes “instead of moving in, healing the problem, and then returning to normal, the inflammation persists over time. It’s thought that this chronic state of inflammation can lead to numerous health problems, including heart disease, arthritis, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and even cancer.” Unfortunately, aging also causes increased inflammation – a phenomenon dubbed “inflammaging”.
So, what can we do?
Managing what we eat is one of the most powerful tools we have to help reduce inflammation. Everything we put in our mouths matters. Food can be medicine. “While there are ways food can trigger inflammation, food is also the most powerful source of anti-inflammatory compounds,” said Dr. Mark Hyman, a leader in the field of functional medicine. Plant foods contain hosts of antioxidants and phytonutrients that protect against inflammation. We evolved eating mostly plants, with lots of diversity to deliver antioxidants and polyphenols that feed the beneficial bacteria in our guts. When we eat, the bacteria in our gut produce byproducts and when we eat things like fried foods, soda, processed and ultra-processed foods, these byproducts can cause inflammation. Yet when we eat healthy foods, these byproducts can be anti-inflammatory.
Indigenous populations that haven’t been introduced to processed foods do not suffer from inflammatory diseases! Processed and ultra-processed foods along with excess sugar are making us fat and sick. Abdominal fat, which is often accompanied by insulin resistance, promotes inflammation – another great reason to quit sugar, processed foods and inflammatory seed oils and Eat REAL food! Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store. Read ingredient labels. If it didn’t exist 100 years ago, your body probably doesn’t know how to digest it. Use apps like Trash Panda to look up or scan foods and flag unfavorable ingredients. Organic berries, low-mercury fatty fish, cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage, kale, watercress, bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprouts and mustard greens), green tea, turmeric, ginger, and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil are some of the most potent anti-inflammatory superfoods. Eat lots of fiber and chew your food well for maximum benefit.
Rotate Your Foods
As we age, we can develop sensitivities to foods we eat often — sensitivities that can cause inflammation. You think you’re doing yourself a favor eating oats or cauliflower every single day. Next thing you know, you are getting frequent headaches, gaining weight and breaking out. We evolved eating a diverse range of foods seasonally. It’s easy to get into the rut of buying the same produce every time we shop. I encourage you to try new vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, herbs and spices. Experiment and rotate, with extra points for dark-colored, antioxidant rich, plant foods. Eat the rainbow to reduce inflammation and incorporate the foods your ancestors ate – your digestive system is primed to easily digest these foods. If your ancestors never developed the enzymes to digest certain foods, you may not be able to either.
But, Not Around the Clock!
Your body needs energy to repair, renew, regenerate and protect your cells. This important work is less efficient when our bodies continually dedicate resources to digestion. Many of us are constantly snacking on autopilot. There is food at the gas station, food at the pharmacy, food everywhere. We did not evolve eating constantly, and giving our body breaks from food allows us to use those resources for other beneficial functions. Eat within a 12-hour window. Eliminate unnecessary snacking. You will likely sleep better if you finish eating at least 3 hours before bedtime.
Help flush toxins by adequately hydrating. When we drink enough water and other hydrating fluids, we can release retained water, and our bodies don’t have to spend precious energy extracting water from the foods we eat. Aim to drink half your body weight in fluid ounces per day (if you weigh 160 lbs, strive for 80 ounces per day of water or herbal tea). Drink fluids in between meals and finish before dinner for optimal benefit and less interrupted sleep.
Sufficient sleep is essential to reducing inflammation, and most of us can improve our sleep hygiene. Simple tweaks can make a big difference. Humans are diurnal, not nocturnal – we evolved sleeping when it is dark and being awake when it is light. Light exposure regulates our circadian rhythms and tells our bodies when it’s time to release melatonin, the hormone which makes us sleepy. When we are surrounded by bright lights, this essential hormone signaling gets disrupted. Try dimming the lights and your screens after dark (blue-light blocking glasses can help). Create a lovely wind-down routine before bed – turn off the tv, cozy up with a good old-fashioned book. A warm evening shower, or better yet, an Epsom salt bath can be extremely helpful. Keep your bedroom cool and dark for better rest.
Our bodies were made to move! If you sit at a desk, take regular breaks and rotate your neck, roll your shoulders, get up and take short walks, stand for a while. We evolved walking a lot, and every little bit counts; park your car farther away from your destination, take the stairs, etc. More intense exercise is also important. Building and maintaining muscle mass is one of the most important actions we can take to keep our bodies and our cognition healthy. It keeps our hormones flowing, encourages our cells to use fat as fuel and battles age related decline. The caveat here, for the purposes of this subject matter, is that intense exercise does cause inflammation. Excess cardio can be both harmful to hormonal balance and increase chronic inflammation, particularly for women who are under a lot of stress or are in the perimenopausal/menopausal years. If you are doing two hours of cardio per day and that bulge around your middle will not budge, it’s time to switch gears.
Like the inflammatory response, the stress response evolved to be a short-term burst. Today, we are living in a state of continual stress as our brains have not yet fully adapted to a constant bombardment of information and worry. Our lives have become massively complex and our internal infrastructure is built for a vastly simpler time.
Take time to rest, meditate or do something that is meditative for you. Engage in self-care, whether that means massage or acupuncture or just taking time for something that feels restorative. Breathwork has the power to turn off the stress response and restore you to rest and repair mode. Look online for breathing practices and find a few to add to your toolbox. Kirtan Kriya meditation is a 12-minute singing meditation with a multitude of scientific research suggesting disease prevention. Try it!
Connect with People
Research conducted on the Blue Zones – the areas of the world with the most centenarians- shows that the people in those populations live in very connected societies. There are either multi-generational households or a close-knit community. We evolved in tribes, and being disconnected from other humans can be as bad for your health as smoking. Positive relationships make us feel safe and reduce our stress burden.
Exposure to toxins spurs the immune system into action, which creates inflammation. There is lots of low hanging fruit here. Cut down on toxic pesticides by buying organic when you can, especially meat and dairy. Avoid fruits and vegetables that have heavy pesticide loads (see EWG Dirty Dozen). Use non-toxic personal products and cleaning products. Get a water purifier. Choose furniture, mattresses and kids’ pajamas that haven’t been sprayed with flame retardant – which is a neurotoxin. You can download the “Think Dirty” app to scan personal products to determine their toxicity.
Listen to Your Body
Your body is sending you signals all the time. We’ve all become so busy we’ve forgotten how to listen to our bodies. Headaches, eczema, indigestion, fatigue, sluggishness, brain fog, short fuse/low resiliency, troubled sleep – these are all signs that our body is reacting to a perceived threat, diverting precious resources from digestion, cognition and repair. No expert knows better than your own body. Pay attention and embrace the foods and habits that support your health and well-being.
Don’t wait to feel better!
Sarah is a certified health coach and a trained chef. She combines wellness knowledge with her culinary background to prepare meals that are delicious, provide essential nutrients and reduce inflammation. After earning a degree in finance from Boston College, and working in commodities at Goldman Sachs, Sarah pivoted from crude oil to olive oil. She moved to southern Italy and co-founded a company working with small, family-run, artisanal food producers. There, she learned to love simple, yet delicious, real food. Upon returning stateside, she trained at the French Culinary Institute and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.
In addition to providing anti-inflammatory resets, where all meals are provided for three or five days, Sarah coaches clients one-on-one to help them feel and look their best. She offers food sensitivity testing and addresses habits, cravings, exercise, sleep and stress patterns to design a personal roadmap to achieve holistic wellness and truly thrive. Need a pantry audit? Sarah makes organizing your pantry fun, swapping out the harmful stuff, embracing the healthy stuff and setting you up for success with a curated grocery list and sources for some of her favorite ingredients and goodies. She also offers private and group cooking lessons, with and without organic wine pairings. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @sarahnelsonwellness and go to sarahnelsonwellness.com for more information.