Inflammation is at the root of many health conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. It can also exacerbate symptoms of certain conditions. While we always want to find ways to reduce inflammation, summer is a particularly important time to do so as we’re dealing with hotter temps (think sunburns and dehydration), which may make symptoms of chronic inflammation worse. Maria Borelius, author of the new book Health Revolution, shares how an anti-inflammatory lifestyle helped transform her life. In this excerpt from her new book, she lets us in on four ways we can reduce inflammation and get to feeling our best.
1. Eat anti-inflammatory foods.
Eat real, homemade food. Not weak salads that leave you vulnerable to a blood sugar crash in the afternoon, but “regular” food that’s boosted with anti-inflammatory tricks. Try more vegetables of all kinds, preferably four different kinds with four different colors. How about a rainbow of vegetables and berries every day? Blueberries, purple eggplant, red onion, green spinach, yellow peppers, orange carrots, red tomatoes, and all other colors. Vegetables, with their various polyphenols, act directly or indirectly (researchers are investigating this) as protective mechanisms for the plants, and we humans can “borrow” their effects to protect ourselves.
You’ll want to eat plenty of protein at every meal: poultry, eggs, lentils, meat, fish, or protein powder, which builds up cells, connective tissues, and muscles. In addition, plenty of fats, which give the body energy and enhance the taste of food. Oils like olive oil, rapeseed oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and sometimes organic butter are good. But avoid margarine, sunflower seed oil, and hydrogenated vegetable fats in commercially prepared food.
Use spices, and use them with abandon; find new combinations. Mix and match; finding “spice families” that work together is fun and makes cooking easier. I like to combine thyme and garlic, turmeric and paprika, coriander and cumin, chili and mint, ginger and lemon. I am constantly looking for new ways to enhance food with spices that contain powerful polyphenols.
Coffee contains polyphenols but also activates blood sugar. Compromise by having one cup a day. Be careful with alcohol, but a glass of red wine can be taken since it gives pleasure and contains the polyphenol resveratrol, which research has shown to be anti-inflammatory. Try to choose a red wine with a strong, slightly harsh taste, like pinot noir, which has the highest levels of resveratrol.
Eat omega-3s every day. Regardless of whether you eat fatty fish several times a week, take omega-3 in capsule form or get your daily dose from little chia seeds in a chia pudding that’s been allowed to soak overnight in a glass of almond milk, you will soon notice how this fortifies everything from your mood to your skin.
2. Lower your sugar intake.
Carbohydrates are a complicated subject, I’ve learned. From gummy raspberries to pasta carbonara—what’s the best strategy? There are two main goals: to decrease the amount of simple sugars by eating better carbohydrates and in smaller amounts, and to moderate how the body responds to sugar. This is to keep down the quick sugar peaks that are the body’s enemy since they directly drive inflammation.
A first step is to get rid of all the sugary junk in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Out with marmalade, ice cream, cookies, sodas, and such, so that it will be harder to satisfy hunger with a sugar fix.
Another method is to figure out a new standard breakfast, which will probably be different from the way you used to eat. Breakfast buffets with bread, orange juice, sugary fruit yogurt, “regular” high-lactose milk, processed cereal, and marmalade—goodbye! Many of these products will give you a blood sugar rush or create other types of inflammation.
Bread, even if it’s whole grain, contains heavy gluten proteins that can give rise to low-grade inflammation. (In my new existence, I have an occasional slice of bread, maybe a Danish rye bread or sourdough bread, where bacteria have broken down some of the gluten proteins in advance.) Juice contains as much as several teaspoons of sugar, without the fiber that naturally exists in fruit pulp and skins, lowering the sugar response when you eat whole fruits.
The new breakfast instead focuses on protein, fat, vegetables, and fruit. A smoothie with almond milk, fruit, nuts, and protein powder. A bowl of yogurt with nuts, seeds, and berries. Scrambled eggs, sliced tomatoes, cucumber, spinach, and rice cakes. Or a bowl of oatmeal with seeds and maybe an egg to keep protein and fat up.
The strategy is to choose fresh fruits and berries, and in the category of complex carbohydrates, unprocessed products like sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, and oats are your friends. And eat the carbohydrates along with fat and protein!
3. Get moving.
Every opportunity for exercise decreases inflammation in the body. You need to exercise every day, but you can vary the type of exercise, according to the rhythm of the day, your schedule, or the demands of your family, job, and different events in your life. Part of the puzzle is getting in some kind of regular aerobic exercise every week, something that makes you sweat. Biking, power walking, running, skiing, swimming, tennis. You also need to do strength training, either in a class setting or by yourself at the gym, so that you can seriously challenge the muscles and build active muscle mass, which will help communicate with the immune system. Finally, add some calm, stretching, relaxing type of exercise. The body needs all three: aerobic exercises, muscle training, and stretching.
Aim to exercise a little every day, but vary the length and intensity. And even when you don’t feel like it, you can at least try 10 minutes. If it still feels hard, it may be time to take it easy. Usually, though, both motivation and enthusiasm will get you going, with their endorphins and dopamine.
You can also eat strategically for exercise. That means that you arrange carbohydrate intake around workout sessions, along with proteins, to make sure that the carbohydrates are used to build muscles. Preferably eat an hour after exercise (protein and carbohydrates) so that the hormone cortisol content will be decreased quickly. That will lessen the inflammatory effect of the cortisol, and your muscles will get nourishment more quickly.
4. Take time to de-stress.
The jigsaw puzzle of life is stressful for most of us, and that stress increases inflammation in the body through the activity and stress hormone cortisol. If you want to live in an anti-inflammatory way, you need to plan for rest just as much as for activity. A moment of deep breathing and meditation decreases inflammation. So take the time to breathe deeply, meditate, practice yoga; to just be, to actively train mindfulness. Nothing really means as much as we think, except for the truly big values in life, like love.
It’s also important to let the digestive system rest. Short periods of fasting decrease inflammation, and you might want to try some form of mini-fast every week. I don’t like going all day without any food at all but have found that one or two days a week with 14:10 can feel very good. (That is, 15 hours without food after the last meal of the evening. If I have dinner at 7, I won’t eat breakfast until 9 the next day.)
This rest and stillness also includes healing sleep, which in itself contains important repair mechanisms. Maximize your anti-inflammatory sleep by focusing on keeping cortisol to a minimum, and try to fall asleep before 11 o’clock.
Finally, give yourself time to make a list of what feels big, holy, and beautiful to you. And give yourself permission to stop and take this in, to feel how your whole system slows down.