May 26, 2016

What is Inflammation and Why it is Important

Inflammation is behind most diseases. Cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, autoimmune, diseases of joints, cancer and other tumors, and even most mental disorders are all inflammatory conditions. These conditions are perpetuated by inflammation that does not go away, it’s chronic. Reducing inflammation is the first and foremost step in any holistic management of disease.

Inflammation in a healthy body is a good thing. It is a state of localized tissue in the process of repair. Inflammation does not heal the tissue, but it creates an environment that helps the healing. Inflammation dilates local blood vessels and makes them leaky, letting blood plasma (fluid without red blood cells) inside the tissue and causing an edema. This makes the area enlarged, red, painful and hot. Immune cells flood the injured area in order to destroy any bacteria that may have gotten in and scavenge damaged cells.

Inflammation can be created both by injured tissue cells and by immune cells. Inflammation is mediated by chemicals produced by them called cytokines, prostaglandines, histamines, and many others. These chemicals act on blood vessels to locally dilate them and make them leaky. After the area is repaired and all bacteria are killed, the tissues produce anti-inflammatory chemicals and inflammation stops. However, often inflammation becomes chronic.

Chronic inflammation persists because the damage in a tissue is unable to be repaired. The primary cause of the inability to heal is oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a state of the whole body where oxidants overweigh antioxidants in body systems. Oxidants are free radicals, also called reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS), such as peroxide H2O2, superoxide (O2-), hydroxyl radical (OH), peroxynitrite (OONO-) and many others. Free radicals are highly reactive tiny molecules that damage tissue by stealing electrons from it. Free radicals are produced in small amounts during normal cell processes such as production of energy, and in large amounts by immune cells during bacterial invasion. Large amounts of free radicals are also produced in a state of hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar) and during destruction of red blood cells in the blood (hemolytic anemia).

Normally our body produces antioxidants that neutralize free radicals by donating electrons to them. Once a free radical receives an electron it is happy and does not do any more damage. However, most antioxidants when they donate an electron become free radicals themselves. They are neutralized by other kinds of antioxidants and pass the electron among a group of antioxidants until it is taken from an antioxidant that does not become a free radical when its electron is taken. These final and powerful antioxidants that don’t become free radicals are called polyphenols. Polyphenols are contained in large amounts in plants, especially dark blue colored berry skin such as grape or blueberry skins. Polyphenols can also be in tree barks such as pine bark and cat’s claw (it’s actually the living tissue right under the bark) and other medicinal barks. Therefore, antioxidants must work in teams and never alone. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant, but when taken alone it, too, becomes a free radical.

When free radicals cause damage, it injured tissues and creates inflammation. When the body is overwhelmed with oxidative damage and does not have enough antioxidants to neutralize them, this causes oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. When oxidative stress is reduced, so is chronic inflammation and with it any inflammatory chronic diseases. The best way to reduce oxidative stress is to eat whole foods.

Whole foods are foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. They can be raw or cooked, but they are cooked ideally soon after harvest and eaten the same day. Whole foods are opposite of processed foods that we buy at the grocery store. Processed foods have been harvested and prepared far away from and long before you eat them. They often don’t look at all like the plant they came from, such as soda drinks or cheese puffs. Finally, most processed foods undergo many stages of processing and refining that remove their vitamins, minerals, healthy omega-3 fats, and their antioxidants. This is because bacteria love those nutrients and cause spoilage if the food is rich in them. If nutrients are removed or destroyed, this makes the processed food last a long time without spoiling. So, what does it make us if we eat foods that even bacteria refuse to consume? After all that processing, they can’t even be called foods anymore, they’re fake. And since all their nutrients have been stripped away, by themselves they taste awful, and must be packed with salt, sugar, natural flavors, and other chemicals that regulate texture and form, in order to be palatable. The absence of nutrients and the presence of toxins makes processed food the primary reason our bodies are unable to heal. Some refined foods such as sugar, white flour and white rice directly cause inflammation.

Whole foods, on the other hand, are full of antioxidants, naturally. And there is no reason to seek out obscure tropical berries in order to get plenty of antioxidants. Dark green leafy vegetables (kale, collard, chard, beat greens, spinach, parsley, chickweed, dill, lamb quarters, cilantro, etc.) are full of them, as well as regular fruits and berries, and also sea vegetables, seafood and beans. Vitamin A and E are antioxidants, and they are plenty in easily accessible foods. Sunflower seeds and other nuts are high in vitamin E and carrots and dark green leafy vegetables in vitamin A. A good tip is to focus on richly colored vegetables and fruits when you buy produce at the store or grow them yourself.

A whole foods diet contains whole grains, beans, lentils, vegetables, fruits, berries, nuts & seeds, seafood, sea vegetables, unprocessed meat cuts, poultry, eggs, minimally processed and fermented dairy such as cheeses, yogurts, sour cream, cream cheese, etc. Whole foods are best cooked at home from scratch, or at a restaurant which prepares its food from scratch and not from pre-cooked mixes. Most mom and pop Asian restaurants serve whole foods (watch out for MSG, though). The vast majority of national chain restaurants (Italian, American, Mexican franchises) do not cook their food from scratch and thus should be avoided. It is best to eat at small restaurants outside large cities that are not franchises.

For best health, half of the plate should be vegetables. A quarter of the plate can be potatoes or a whole grain such as brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa (pronounced kinwa) or millet, and the other quarter should be a protein such as meat, poultry, fish, or beans. Red meat should only be eaten twice a week at most, it should not be eaten every day. Studies show that people that eat beans at least twice a week live longer. Restaurants nowadays serve too big a portion, so for most women only half of the plate is enough food for one meal. Two to four fruits the size of an apple should be eaten every day. Dairy is the primary source of calcium and needs to be eaten every day in significant amounts. Four or more soft boiled eggs a day are very good for health. And most importantly, keep things varied, never eat the same thing every day. It’s okay to once cook a large pot of soup or chili that can last three days, but then cook something else next in smaller amounts. It doesn’t have to be super strict, just be sure to not eat the same meat and potatoes day in day out.

These general dietary guidelines are what most health professionals agree on. Holistic health practitioners stress the importance of ripe freshly harvested and cooked foods, since they are highest in nutrients. Most vegetables can be eaten raw in salads or made into smoothies, which gives an extra boost of energy.

Eating this way will reduce most mild chronic conditions. Advanced situations will require herbal support and most of the time conventional drugs or therapies such as a surgery. But a good healthy diet lays a good foundation which will fill up the body’s reserves and boost its self-healing powers that will help you recover from any ailment much sooner.

A bonus of a healthy diet is weight loss. Whole foods are naturally lower in calories and higher in healthy fats which speed up metabolism, they reduce body fat to healthy levels, naturally, without any calorie counting or even food restriction. It is best to keep moderation, though, and eat to the point when your hunger is gone rather than when you are full. When you get up from your table, you should feel light and not hungry. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day, 6-8 glasses, keeps things circulating and also helps reduce inflammation and lose weight.

If you follow the advice in just this one article, you can become much healthier, positive, energetic, and happy! Food is the alpha and omega or physical and mental health. Good, nutritious, tasty homemade food, on the other hand, promotes a long and healthy life full of energy and fond memories.

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