Inflammation is our body’s natural response to stressors from the external environment. Our immune system is there to protect us from outside threats and the inflammation is a part of that response team. It is meant to be a temporary response to protect us and help heal us, as in the case of an acute injury or illness. It sometimes makes us stronger, as in the case of the external “threat” of lifting heavy objects, sprinting, or moving for a long period of time. Inflammation is a completely normal response to acute stress.
When Inflammation Becomes a Problem
Inflammation has gone from being an acute response to temporary situations, to a chronic response to chronic stressors. When your body is constantly inflamed due to constant stress, even if it takes many different forms (lack of sleep, challenging day at work, rushing to get everything done, a workout, that last email from your boss at the end of the night), your whole body health is going to be compromised. On top of all of that, if you are eating foods that cause inflammation, you are compromising your body’s ability to get the nutrients it needs in order to handle all of life’s demands while adding one more layer of inflammation.
Considering the Standard American Diet, it’s likely that we are all dealing with differing levels of inflammation due to our diet and could do with a reprieve. Self-experiment with some small changes to see what makes you feel better and what makes you feel worse. Small changes can make a big difference, which we will talk about below. But if you suspect that you are dealing with a more complex underlying issue, make sure you speak to a health professional.
What Foods Cause Inflammation?
There are three major foods or food groups that can cause inflammation:
- Dairy – This one is highly variable, even between types of dairy products. It’s best to test it and see how you feel.
- Gluten – This is a little more universal, but the symptoms and severity can vary widely. Test it, but still consider reducing your consumption, even if it’s just periodically.
- Omega-6 fatty acids – Having a high amount of Omega-6 fatty acids compared to Omega-3 fatty acids is pretty bad across the board. Reduce your consumption.
Dairy is not universally inflammatory. Dairy intolerance can range from none at all, to a little gassy with certain cheeses, to full on lactose and dairy intolerance. Tolerance to dairy products can also change over time, so it’s worth checking in every so often.
Recommendation: Cut out as much dairy as you can for 3 full days. Milk, cheese, cream, butter, half and half, and, if you can manage it, dairy containing food products. Pay attention to your digestion and how you feel after meals. Whether you feel a major difference or not, reintroduce dairy over a couple of days and see how you feel when you add it back in. If you felt much better off of dairy but the idea of cutting out all dairy is abhorrent to you, don’t quit just yet! Still try reintroduction, just go a little slower and test one dairy product at a time. Start with the ones you are most reluctant to give up and ramp up your consumption over three days, once again paying attention to how you feel and how your digestion feels. You can also experiment with different types of dairy: harder raw cheeses instead of low-fat skim milk cheeses; heavy cream instead of skim-milk in your coffee; ghee instead of butter.
Gluten is a protein found in certain grains. Gluten has the ability to permeate our gut lining without going through the proper channels, causing an inflammatory immune response. The human gut is sensitive to gluten, but the level of sensitivity and resulting symptoms vary from person to person. Once again, it’s probably a good idea to test it and see how you feel.
Recommendation: Cut out gluten for 3 full days and see how it goes. If you feel a major difference, it might be worth cutting back on gluten and transitioning to a gluten-free diet. If you don’t feel a major difference, and the idea of cutting back on gluten containing products doesn’t bother you, then it may still be worth sticking with a reduced gluten diet. Plus, many gluten products are relatively high in carbohydrates, sugar, and highly processed while being comparably low in nutrients.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fatty acids are a part of a whole foods diet that includes animal protein. They aren’t bad on their own and you don’t need to eliminate them from your diet. Rather, it’s important to try and balance your Omega-6 consumption with your Omega-3 consumption.
Recommendation: First get rid of the biggest offenders: industrial seed oils. Industrial seed oils not only have a high level of Omega-6s, but they are easily oxidized which causes additional problems. It is best to avoid them as much as possible.
I recommend switching to butter, ghee, olive oil, traditional animal fats like lard, and coconut oil. I like having a mix of oils to choose from simply for taste. Here is a more in-depth review of different types of oils from Mark’s Daily Apple.
After you reduce your Omega-6 consumption, you can work on balancing out your Omega-6 to Omega-3 consumption by eating grass fed meat instead of conventionally raised meat (including eggs), wild caught fish, and with smart supplementation.
Where to go from here
Good news, bad news time. These sensitivities can come and go depending on the other sources of stress in your life. If you are in a really great place right now, lots of sleep, good workouts, not too stressed at work and managing it well, you can probably tolerate a lot more. If you are in a not so great place right now, poor sleep, stressful job, beating yourself up for missing the gym, your tolerance for certain foods is probably going to go down. Periodically check in on these foods, or other foods that you might suspect are irritating you, by eliminating the suspected offender for a few days (or during times of high stress), and slowly reintroducing.