A Food-First Approach to Stopping Inflammation

If you read Chronically Inflamed: Is This You?, you learned how inflammatory cytokines can get stuck in a perpetual loop which results in chronic inflammation. Stopping this loop means helping your immune system resolve the inflammation. Although this project can be complex in some situations, a simple food-first approach is highly likely to bring meaningful and measurable results for everyone. You can watch your blood markers improve as your aches, pains, swelling, stiffness, puffiness, and allergies calm down. You can enjoy a sharper mind, a slimmer waistline, better energy, and smoother menstrual cycles as you de-inflame your body and mind with food.

What is a food-first approach to stopping inflammation?

This means two simple steps:

  1. Eat the ingredients your body absolutely needs to de-inflame, in the quantities you need to get blood values into optimal ranges. These are measurable, so test your levels! In some cases, such as vitamin D, you may need to supplement. Eat and supplement to correct and optimize blood levels.
  2. Identify and avoid the foods that inflame you. This is individual, as there are no whole foods from nature that are inflammatory to everyone. There are, however, refined and processed new-fangled foods that are inflammatory to everyone in various degrees and we will mention them here.

Step 1: Eat the ingredients you need to de-inflame

There are basic ingredients your body needs to resolve inflammation. I am talking about essential ingredients, the ones you absolutely need. EPA and DHA fatty acids are an example. Your body absolutely needs these Omega-3 fats to resolve inflammation, and you have to get them from food or supplements. You can have an Omega-3 deficiency (common) but you don’t have a turmeric or ibuprofen deficiency. Supply yourself with the essentials first, before you add on specialty herbs, supplements, modalities, or medications.

Here’s what to feed yourself:

1. Vitamin-C-rich foods

Eat citrus fruits, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, and cruciferous vegetables. You can test plasma Vitamin C (CPT code  82180).

2. Zinc from seeds and legumes

Eat pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, and lentils. Test serum or plasma zinc (CPT code 84630) and aim for the upper quartile on the lab reference range.

3. Vitamin D from sun or supplements

People are different in their ability to make vitamin D from sun exposure. We frequently see patients who live in sunny warm climates who say “I am in the sun all the time” yet their D levels are low. Test don’t guess! Test in summer and winter, and dial in your seasonal supplemental needs. Usually, 2000 – 10,000 iu per day is needed to get to the ideal value. Occasionally people test well without supplementing, but we rarely see this in our clinic. The optimal range is 50-80 ng/mL for most people.

4. Vitamin A from animal-sourceD foods or plant precursors

You can make A from colorful veggies rich in carotenoids (precursors) but not everyone does this efficiently. Test your levels (CPT code 84590) and aim for the upper quartile of the lab reference range. Low vitamin A is common and can cause skin issues like bumps, acne, and eczema. Read about food sources of vitamin A and precursors.

5. DHA and EPA fatty acids from fatty fish or algae

Omega-3 fats, in particular DHA and EPA, are your body’s natural ibuprofen. You use these to make prostaglandins which resolve inflammation. Our modern diets are notoriously low in these essential fats. You have to get them from diet or supplements, you cannot make them. An Omega-3 deficiency is a setup for inflammation that cannot resolve.

Flax and chia seeds have Omega-3 fats but they do not have EPA and DHA. You can convert these seeds into EPA and DHA, however, not everyone does this efficiently. You can now test your Omega-3 fat levels on basic bloodwork and we highly recommend doing so. We’ve been running this test on all patients lately, and finding widespread deficiency. Test your Omega-3 fats (CPT code 82542) and aim for least 5.5% on the lab range (8% or above is even better). Eat the foods to correct your levels, or take good quality fish oil or algae supplements.

6. Glutathione precursors or supplements

You make glutathione, which is a powerful antioxidant your immune system needs to manage inflammation. It’s made from amino acids found in proteins foods: glycine, cysteine, and glutamic acid. Glutathione can be low if these amino acids (especially cysteine) are low in the diet OR if there’s a high need from toxic exposures (such as living near a golf course or agriculture sprays). Eat protein and cysteine-rich proteins like eggs, meat, sunflower seeds, tofu, swiss cheese, tuna, lentils, and yogurt. Or take the supplement NAC (N-acetyl cysteine), or take glutathione directly. Test glutathione and aim for above the mid-range on the lab (CPT code 82978).

functional whole30
Photo and both by Whole30® Coach Kirsten Redding

Step 2: Avoid foods that cause inflammation

There is no single whole food that’s inflammatory for every person. There is no reason to restrict a whole food from nature unless there’s proof that it inflames you personally! The project is to identify which foods (if any) inflame you.

An elimination diet is THE classic tried-and-true method to accomplish this project. This involves tuning in to how you feel and function in response to foods. You may have already done this type of experimentation. You may have figured out that wheat causes puffiness and bloating, or cow’s milk causes congestion or acne. It’s worth doing a structured elimination diet to gather your own data. You can read about different approaches here and pick the one that fits you.

You can also do a blood test to identify antibodies. There’s an array of food antibody lab tests. Our current favorite is the Food Inflammation Test (FIT) because it also tests an immune marker called complement. It does take skill to interpret your results, however. Positive results mean antibodies were detected, however, what to do with these results varies from person to person.

Antibodies are not the only way that you can react to foods. You can react to various food components, including fructose, lactose, nightshade, oxalate, FODMAP, and histamine. This is where an elimination diet comes in handy because you get real information about different types of reactions beyond antibodies.

Foods that inflame you can change over time because your immune system is not static. Therefore it’s useful to re-examine any findings from blood tests and elimination diets over time. This project can feel complex, so if you need help with it please reach out. We specialize in helping people identify their inflammatory foods. Two or three times a year we sponsor a guided group elimination diet program called the Functional Whole30. This program has been a game-changer for many people who want help teasing out their problem foods.

“Foods” that inflame everyone

These things are probably no-brainers for those of you who have gotten this far in reading this article. This group includes foods with added sugar, preservatives, dyes, alcohol, junk food, fried foods, foods made from refined white flour, and fast food. In addition, industrial vegetable and seed oils are inflammatory in a number of ways, in particular, because they override your precious omega-3 fats. Read this article by Chris Kresser to learn more about industrial oils.

Before reaching for that bottle of ibuprofen or Tylenol, or trying anti-inflammatory herbs like CBD or curcumin, try this food-first approach. We are here to help you out with this project if you need it. Food is medicine and information, and you can absolutely make or break inflammation in your body with what you put in your mouth!

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