Inflammation in the body contributes substantially to most major health problems, with diabetes and heart issues at the top of the "big 8" list (chronic pain, fatigue, digestive issues, vascular disease, respiratory problems, mood disturbances, immune system disorders, and cancer). These steps will all make a very good starta decreasing inflammation in the body, and they will make a dent—often a big one—in the most common health challenges.
1. Increase anti-inflammatory foods. The more plant-based your diet is, the less inflamed you will be. A balanced mix of whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes provides you with solid nutrition, including all the protein you need and an abundance of antioxidants and phytochemicals that battle free radicals and other inflammatory molecules.
2. Reduce inflammatory foods. Now that you’ve added all of these healthy and filling foods, it’s easier to consider eliminating some of the inflammatory foods you’re probably consuming in excess. These include most animal products, including meat, fowl, fish, and dairy. I understand this might take some getting used to. You don’t necessarily have to stop eating all meat, but at least start by making it a side to a main course of plant-based foods.
To begin with, try cutting animal products by at least half. Also reduce processed foods, such as food made from flour or milled grains; once metabolized, they quickly become sugar and, in excess, are stored as fat, which contributes significantly to inflammation. Alcohol is also inflammatory and should be limited, as are foods that contain a lot of simple sugar, even if they are natural and whole, such as large quantities of fruit in one sitting. Even diet beverages or foods with artificial sweeteners can be inflammatory. The phosphoric acid in carbonated beverages promotes inflammation by adding acid to your system. The same can be said for excess protein in general, which is another reason why large quantities of animal products are problematic.
Then there are foods that you might have a particular sensitivity to, whether you’re truly allergic or not. In either case, your immune system reacts to some element in these foods, producing damaging free radicals and other inflammatory molecules. Common foods that do this are wheat, dairy, soy, nuts, and chocolate. If you continue to consume the foods to which you are sensitive, in a way you’re saying, “I want to be in pain,” which I know is not really true. You just need better information and better guidance to see how important all this is. The fact is, you can’t expect to avoid inflammatory symptoms like pain if you keep putting into your body the things that cause painful inflammation.
3. Start moving more and get outside. Stagnation is a setup for inflammation. To the extent that you can, get moving to: increase circulation and improve your body’s ability to release accumulated toxins, work your joints and muscles, lower blood sugar and blood pressure, lose weight, increase peace and balance, and decrease pain and inflammation overall. You don’t have to run marathons, but you probably have to do more than you’re doing. Haven’t you ever wondered why so many of those “tough old birds” of yesteryear managed to live into old age even though they smoked, drank, caroused, and ate a pound of eggs, butter, and bacon every morning? Just look at your couch for an answer. Those people got outside and moved—they were in touch with nature. Most of them were gardeners in one way or another. They lived more connected to the earth in some meaningful way.
4. Get enough water and sleep. Proper hydration and adequate sleep allow our body’s physiological process on a cellular level to work optimally, and ultimately are both necessary to reduce inflammation. Addressing dehydration and sleep deprivation alone might be the single most important step toward the health that has been eluding you.
5. Unload your toxins. Think about toxins (such as lead, mercury, pesticides) in your home, workplace, and greater environment. Are you exercising too strenuously and producing even more free radicals? Are the bacteria that live in your gut helping you or hurting you? The fact is, we need to “empty the garbage” now and then. While our body does have natural mechanisms to do this, given all that we are exposed to—in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink, not to mention the other chemicals that we come in contact with every day—we need to pay special attention to this matter. Clearly, it helps to avoid toxins to begin with, but there are ways to help your body release them once they wind up inside of you. All of the measures mentioned above will help you here. And there are others that you might consider, such as cleansing juices and select periods of fasting.
6. Take a look at what's going on in the rest of your life. An anti-inflammatory life goes deeper than diet and physical activity. Chances are, when I ask the question, “What brings you here?” and your answer reveals an underlying inflammatory condition, a few follow-up questions will reveal some deeper issues. What’s going on in your life? Your marriage? Your job? Your school? Your plans for the future? Well, now we often discover some rather inflammatory situations worth investigating. Are you fighting with your kids? Are you in the middle of an acrimonious divorce? Are you stressed about money? Do you work in a hostile environment? Are you getting sued? Are your parents ratcheting up the pressure on you? Are you trying—and trying and trying—to get pregnant?
Doesn’t it make sense that if you began to work on those deeper “inflammatory” and “painful” challenges, the physical manifestations of the inflammation and pain might begin to abate? If it doesn’t make sense, humor me and try it. Try working on even one of those situations that seems to be outside the realm of your physical health, and see if it doesn’t improve your physical health, too, and soon.
Excerpted from 77 Questions for Skillful Living by Michael Finkelstein. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Finkelstein.