Reducing Inflammation: Food For Thought

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on Sept 29th, 2011)

Food is a very important and central thing in our lives. We need it to live, it is comforting, it brings us together as family and friends, and it can hurt us. That’s right. It can hurt us. We talked about Leaky Gut two weeks ago and how larger than normal food particles can get into the bloodstream when the intestinal wall is compromised. This leads to the immune system starting to recognize foods as foreign particles that need to be attacked and defended against. This produces inflammation.

Something we have not talked about yet are things called “Free Radicals”. Explaining this can get into detailed chemistry so I’ll try to keep it simple. Most damage to our tissues from chemicals or toxins is done through a process called “Oxidation” where a high energy or unstable substance either steals or deposits particles from/to our tissues to become stable. This leaves the tissues unstable and high energy or “Oxidized”. These high energy substances, either foreign chemicals or our own tissues, are Free Radicals and when in our blood stream are free to cause damage throughout the body. The products of the inflammatory cascade are Free Radicals and cause oxidative damage. Oxidation can lead to blood clots, plaque build-up in the arteries, and organ damage. This is a very important reason to reduce inflammation in our bodies.

The key to reducing inflammation is to identify the triggers for your own immune system. There are two ways of doing this; the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is to get a blood or saliva test for antibodies against food proteins but this can cost a lot depending on the extent of the test. This will tell you exactly what to stay away from and is very accurate. The other way is significantly less expensive but more time and labour intensive. This second method is the process of elimination. You need to slowly remove elements of your diet for two to three weeks at a time and pay attention to your body to see if you get relief from daily aches and pains or specific conditions you wish to alleviate. Also pay close attention when returning something to your diet as conditions that you didn’t notice may flare up again. Only remove one element at a time to avoid confusion and this process becomes easy but still takes a concentration and dedication.

There is a third option but it is less accurate and not a guarantee. There are common allergens (particles that cause an allergic immune response) that can be eliminated from the diet to see if they are the likely cause of your symptoms. Some of the more common immune triggers include: soy, eggs, citrus fruits, corn, dairy, and grains or more specifically gluten. Try eliminating these foods first but remember that the triggers are the proteins in the products so read the ingredients of your foods and check for whey and casein (both dairy proteins commonly used in processed foods).

If you look at that list again you will notice that the last two items aren’t just foods they are entire food groups. That’s two out of four food groups that the body can react to. The ideas the four food groups and the food pyramid were created in the 1940’s and are just now getting updated for the first time. These are a completely antiquated way of looking at food and diet. A more appropriate way is to balance your diet based on nutrients. Carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals are the nutrients we need every daily. Try to get them from a wide variety of good quality sources. How to determine good quality sources will be discussed in next week’s blog.

As we discussed last week, too many Omega-6 fats can tip the balance of the inflammatory cascade to produce prostaglandins. On the opposite side of that equation are Omega-3 fats which trigger a competitive chain of reactions that oppose inflammation and are thus called “Anti-inflammatory”. Omega-6 and -3 fats need to be in a ratio of 6 to 1 or less (some sources vary). In the Standard [North] American Diet (SAD), which is the average diet of anyone in North America, this ratio is approximately 20 to 1. This significantly tips the scale towards inflammation and is one area where inflammation can be eliminated. Decreasing fatty foods like pizza, burgers, and junk food in general will bring down the Omega-6 aspect of our diets and eating more healthy fats like fish and avocado will increase the Omega-3 content.

The easiest way to eat healthily and avoid inflammation and leaky gut is to eat whole foods, meaning unprocessed and minimally handled foods like fresh vegetables and fruit and meats. Also to avoid extra chemicals and preservatives that can cause immune responses as well, buy organic over anything else. Local farmer’s markets are great for this sort of diet. Know where you food is from so that you can be certain what is in or on your food.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Ben

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