An anti-inflammatory diet is a diet that…..(drum roll!)….reduces inflammation! And what that actually looks like will vary from person, depending on things such as liver function, digestive health, intolerances to certain foods or food chemicals / compounds (ie histamines, lectins), etc. There are different templates for anti-inflammatory diets that you may have heard of before, such as the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), The Wahls Protocol, the Mediterranean diet, and they do vary from one template to the next, but there are a few things they all have in common.
What is inflammation?
We hear a lot about it don’t we. It’s one of those terms like “detox” that I feel gets talked about a lot in holistic health circles, but not everyone is clear on what it actually means. Acute inflammation can be good, ie the type that happens when you cut your finger, it’s a sign that your immune system is doing its job properly and the wound is repairing. However, when the inflammation is chronic (long term, lasting more than a few weeks), that’s when damage is done and warning sirens should be going off. It is a sign that only the bare minimum is being taken care of and your body is in a state of constant attack. Good health cannot flourish in this setting.
Many diseases are triggered and then perpetuated by inflammatory behaviours that are often diet and lifestyle based, such as:
- Consuming excessive amounts of sugar
- Not getting enough sleep
- Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
- Too much or not enough exercise
- Chronic stress
- Working long hours
Basically, modern life is inflammatory! Genetics are also a factor, but it is often diet and lifestyle that pull the trigger on that genetic gun of chronic disease. For me personally, my highly inflammatory lifestyle was the precursor to my Hashimoto’s diagnosis, and the fact that the only change I made for the first few months was taking thyroxine meant that, although my blood test results were “normal” I was still highly symptomatic.
“Leaky Gut” aka Intestinal Permeability
Part of why the above behaviours are so inflammatory is due to the negative effect they have on gut integrity. The gut lining provides a 1 cell thick barrier (yes, ONE cell!) between our outer and our inner bodies. Think of yourself as a hollow straw, the hole through the straw is your digestive system, starting with our mouth and ending with the anus. Our body needs to be very selective about what passes through that 1 cell thick lining and it has developed a variety of mechanisms to ensure that only the simplest form of the molecules it requires (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, sugars, fats) are allowed to pass from the gut into the bloodstream. It also requires the help of a healthy microbiome (the gut bugs!) and enzymes that help the digestive lining to do its job.
How an inflammatory lifestyle (all the things I mentioned above) detrimentally affects the good work of the digestive tract is by messing up all those clever mechanisms the body puts in place for “good” digestion, meaning we are unable to use many of the vitamins, minerals and macro nutrients we may be consuming:
- Gluten promotes the activation of zonulin causing the cells in the lining of the gut to separate from from each other, allowing larger proteins to pass into the blood stream. These proteins are tagged by the immune system as enemy invaders starting an inflammatory cascade.
- A healthy microbiome has many beneficial roles to play in a healthy system. Not just affecting our gut but also our brain, our heart, our skin, and so on. What healthy gut bugs need to thrive is a healthy diet, so basically when you are feeding yourself you are also feeding “them”! Fibre (such as that found in fruit, veggies, legumes) is vital for the health of your good bugs, whereas sugar feeds the bad bugs. When we have too many of the bad bugs our digestive tract becomes inflamed and unable to breakdown our food properly.
- Secretory IgA looks after the health of that 1 cell thick gut lining (and all mucus membranes), dampening down infections. If your secretory IgA is too high or too low, this is a bad thing for your gut. Too high indicates an infection and too low means it isn’t protecting your gut. The best way to support your IgA is using an anti-inflammatory diet.
Signs you’re in an Inflammatory State:
- A symptomatic autoimmune or other chronic disease
- Puffiness or swelling, particularly around the face and / or abdomen
- Low mood
- Poor digestion resulting in cramps, constipation and / or diarrhea, visible food particles in faeces
- Low resilience, quick to temper or tears
- Muscle and / or joint aches and pains
What can be included in an anti-inflammatory diet:
Note – this is a rough guide and will vary from person to person depending on their own requirements
- Approx 75% of your plate should be vegetables, and the specifics of this differ from template to template but approx half of this will be leafy greens, but don’t forget to eat the rainbow!
- A small amount of fruit, 1-2 pieces each day
- Wild caught fish and seafood, small amount of (preferably pasture raised, grass fed) meat, offal
- Good quality oils and fats, such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, some diets (not AIP) may include nuts and seeds
- Bone broth
- Fermented foods and drinks (my kombucha recipe and great ferments recipe blog, Phickle!)
- Water and herbal teas
Buy the best quality you can afford. Ideally this will be organic fruit, veg and oils, and wild / pasture raised protein. But if you are unable to do this please don’t be put off from following the guidelines, there are still huge benefits compared to eating processed foods (Here’s what Dr Sarah Ballantyne says on the subject)
Depending on individual tolerance:
Some diets may include the following nutritious foods, but these foods may be eliminated initially and then tested for individual tolerance:
- Free range eggs
- Nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, capsicum (peppers), etc)
- Legumes (properly prepared, not tinned)
- Organic dairy
What is not part of an anti-inflammatory diet:
- Processed foods
- Added sugar
- Trans fats
- Gluten containing grains
- Any foods you cannot tolerate, and this is very individual
But in real life, some of these foods may still be consumed from time to time. The thing is to know how different foods affect us and either avoid the ones we know don’t work for us (for me that’s dairy, gluten and alcohol) or do what we can to minimise the effects (don’t consume too much or too often, make sure we’re consuming lots of beneficial foods, engage in anti-inflammatory activities, discussed below).
An Anti-inflammatory Lifestyle:
Yes, food is vitally important but if your lifestyle does not support your diet then you may still find yourself not feeling your best. I often hear people stressing or expressing guilt due to making poor food choices, but that stress is worse than a one off chocolate gluten free biscuit or bowl of ice cream. So if you occasionally choose to have desert or whatever, don’t stress about it, just make more nutrient dense choices for your following meals. This isn’t about “all things in moderation” either – a mantra that to me does not apply in this modern world of highly processed, food-like products – it’s more about making educated choices related to foods we can tolerate (for me, this will never be gluten!).
The following activities are ones I recommend to all my clients, friends, family, strangers in the street, whoever 😉
FREE anti-inflammatory activities:
- Meditation – even 2 mins still counts
- Walking every day – just get dressed and go outside
- Spend time in a green space or near water
- Read a book
- Spend time with a friend
- Stroke a pet
- Get enough good quality sleep!
Not free, but great ways to reduce inflammation:
- Infrared sauna
- Yoga or Pilates class
Depending on where you are with diet and lifestyle and inflammation symptoms currently, this may seem like a lot to incorporate. But before you start stressing, stop. Pick just one thing to add in today, it can be a food to swap (change pasta for broccoli) or an activity, and check back in with yourself in a couple of weeks. Then maybe pick one more thing to add in, meditation or going for a short walk. A lifestyle is made up of the things we do everyday, not as a once off, so just go at your own pace to help these healthy changes stick. If you need help working out what will work for you, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can work out a tailored plan.