If you thought your grandmother’s complaints about her wintertime trick knee was all in her head and that painful joints as a harbinger of inclement weather is nothing more than an old wives’ tale, you’d be wrong. Turns out, it’s not such a tall tale after all. Multiple studies have proven that drops in temperature and barometric pressure can thicken fluid in the joints, making them stiffer. This aggravates arthritis and general inflammation issues that impact us as we age.
“Inflammation is the complex process by which the body attempts to heal itself from an injury or insult,” explains Katelyn Fritzges, M.D., a physician at ChristianaCare Primary Care in Greenville. “In the short term, it helps us heal a paper cut or fight off an infection.”
But when inflammation occurs without injury or infection to fight, immune cells designed to protect us can become some of our greatest foes.
“If inflammation is constantly present, it becomes problematic and can be tied to heart disease, arthritis and even depression,” Fritzges says. “As people age, the mechanisms that regulate inflammation do not function as well, which leads to chronic inflammation.”
Osteoarthritis, atherosclerosis, many forms of fibrosis and nearly all neurodegenerative diseases are some inflammatory conditions associated with aging. Fortunately, like many age-related ailments, chronic inflammation can be alleviated, delayed or even prevented through lifestyle changes.
“Since inflammation is a process that affects the body as a whole, managing [it] starts with simply taking good care of your body,” Fritzges says. “Choosing healthy foods, staying physically active, getting [adequate] sleep and managing stress are important ways to treat inflammation.” If you’re a smoker, putting out that bad habit will also help.
While avoiding meteorological fluctuations or finding the coveted Fountain of Youth isn’t realistic for most of us, there are steps you can take, and lifestyle changes you can make, to help combat chronic inflammation.
EAT MORE ANTI-INFLAMMATORY FOODS such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, healthy oils (like olive and avocado oils), all of which help reduce inflammation while positively impacting physical and emotional health.
“Plant-based diets and the Mediterranean diet have evidence demonstrating an anti-inflammatory effect,” Fritzges notes. “Both diets encourage eating more fruits and vegetables because they are a great source of natural antioxidants. Green leafy vegetables, berries and onions can be particularly helpful. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnuts or salmon, can also be beneficial.”
Other specific anti-inflammatory foods include grapes, celery, blueberries, tea and certain spices such as ginger, rosemary, garlic and turmeric. To increase your intake of capsaicin—a natural pain and inflammation fighter—add a pinch of chili, red or cayenne pepper, or paprika to your meals.
“The concerns we hear most often are regarding pain and inflammation, in addition to weight gain and blood sugar regulation,” says Sam Mansoor, proprietor of Good News Natural Foods, a health food chain with locations throughout Delaware.
AVOID PROCESSED SUGARS AND CARBS and limit unhealthy fats found in red meat, butter and eggs. Embracing an anti-inflammatory diet involves cutting out trans fats, commonly found in processed and deep-fried foods (lunch meats, hot dogs, potato chips). As for sugar, we all know it’s in a smorgasbord of desserts and sweet treats, but it’s equally important to know how much sugar is in your yogurt, breakfast cereals and even innocuous-seeming tomato sauces and fat-free salad dressings.
“Dietary choices make a difference in chronic inflammation,” Fritzges says. In general, she advises avoiding or moderating foods with added sugar or refined carbohydrates, such as sugar-sweetened beverages and cereals, white bread and pasta, cookies and candy, as well as the aforementioned foods.
If you suffer from chronic inflammation, become a label-looker and calculate your daily sugar intake to stay near or below American Heart Association recommended guidelines (25 grams of added sugar for women and 37 grams for men).
“Cooking at home with raw or unprepared ingredients can also help you keep the amount of sugar, salt and fat under your control,” Mansoor adds.
CONTROL YOUR BLOOD SUGAR by limiting or avoiding simple carbohydrates. These include foods made with white flour, white rice, refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup. A simpler way to internalize this healthy tip is to be cognizant of the color of whatever you’re putting into your system. If it’s white (white bread, rice, pasta) or products made with white sugar and flour, chances are it’s not an inflammation fighter.
LOSE WEIGHT if your physician or medical practitioner indicates that your body mass index (BMI) is at an unhealthy level, as these is likely contributing to the discomfort of inflammation. According to Fritzges, obesity is a trigger of chronic inflammation and, typically, the higher the weight, the greater the amount. “The good news is that losing weight can help lower inflammation and associated pain,” she says. “Achieving a healthy weight can also help to relieve pain in your low back, hips and knees.”
One way to help sustain weight loss is by cooking at home with fresh ingredients and conscious intention. “Boxed and precooked foods tend to be higher in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats,” Mansoor notes. “In addition, processed foods are generally easier to chew and swallow, allowing more food to be consumed before receiving the ‘full’ signal, which can lead to overeating and weight gain.”
START AN EXERCISE PROGRAM to help reduce fat mass and adipose tissue inflammation, which contributes to systematic inflammation. “Exercise plays an important role in maintaining a healthy weight, and multiple studies show that frequent exercise is associated with lower inflammatory markers in the bloodstream,” Fritzges says. “However, if you are not already exercising, make sure to talk to your doctor about how to safely increase your exercise regimen, because a sudden increase in activity can actually trigger an inflammatory response.”
STRETCH OR DO GENTLE YOGA REGULARLY to help detox the body, assist in digestion and relieve stress to naturally reduce inflammation. The most common inflammation-fighting yoga poses include child’s pose, which organically relieves stress, anxiety and fatigue while stretching your back, ankles and hips; supine twist, which can help disperse pain and negativity while improving spine flexibility and reduce chronic inflammation; bridge pose, which gently stretches chest, neck, spine and hips to improve circulation and thereby assist in relieving inflammation; and triangle pose, which develops flexibility in the hamstrings, reduces stress and improves general stability.
ACTIVELY MANAGE YOUR STRESS through a variety of methods and modalities, such as meditation, biofeedback, guided imagery, dance, yoga and tai chi. “Stress can activate an inflammatory response, so it makes sense that chronic stress is tied to chronic inflammation,” Fritzges says. “There are studies that show people who have experienced childhood trauma or have been a victim of racial discrimination are more likely to have chronic inflammation.” Regardless of the origin, staying ahead of stress is a great way to help manage your physical health.
IF YOU SMOKE, QUIT. Smoking is clearly linked to increased inflammation along with a host of other illnesses and health conditions. Studies show that smoking activates an immunologic response to vascular injury, which is linked to increased levels of inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein and white blood cell count. In addition, such markers have been shown to predict future cardiovascular events. “Toxins related to cigarette smoke trigger chronic inflammation,” Fritzges says. “It is also important to see your dentist for preventive care to avoid gingivitis, chronic inflammation of the gums.”
MODERATE YOUR ALCOHOL INTAKE AND INCREASE CONSUMPTION OF COCOA. Although tea, wine and cocoa powder all contain flavonoids, or nutrients believed to help curb inflammation, use cocoa as your go-to source for flavonoids, and drink wine and caffeinated tea moderately.
TAKE PRESCRIBED AND OTC MEDICATIONS AS DIRECTED, because medications that lower cholesterol, blood pressure or blood sugar can also help reduce inflammation, Fritz
ges advises. In addition, anti-inflammatory products sold over the counter, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, can be beneficial in curbing inflammation when taken proactively prior to exercising or other events that can cause potential swelling.
If you or a loved one is plagued by chronic inflammation, there some simple, although not necessarily easy, changes you can enact to take the bite out of this all-too common malady. “Don’t discount the importance of a healthy lifestyle in managing pain related to arthritis or other inflammatory conditions,” Fritzges says. “By consistently choosing healthy foods, getting exercise and quitting smoking, you may be able to reduce inflammation, achieve a healthier weight and ultimately reduce the need for pain medications.”