Updated from September 2018
Do you need to balance your immune system? You may be seeing lots of articles and news stories about “boosting your immune system”. But in reality, you want to BALANCE your immune system, not necessarily “boost” it.
Boosting it could create an over-active immune system, which can be just as bad as an under-active immune system. An over-active immune system is what happens in autoimmune diseases where the body attacks itself. Whereas an under-active immune system is what happens when you get every virus that comes along. We want to strive for a balanced immune system where the body is in homeostasis or optimal wellness.
And chronic inflammation usually goes hand in hand with our immune system, causing it to get out of balance. So what exactly is chronic inflammation? Is it always a bad thing? And if so, can you really eat well to balance your immune system and reverse chronic inflammation?
“Inflammation is your body’s first line of defense against toxins, infections, and injuries. When your cells are in distress, they release chemicals to alert the immune system. The immune system sends its first responders — inflammatory cells — to trap the offending substance or heal the tissue.”
— Cleveland Clinic (1)
Chronic Inflammation and Your Immune System
There are two general types of inflammation, and one can be helpful. You’ve likely experienced acute inflammation, the body’s natural response to healing a major trauma, such as a sprained joint or broken bone. For example, swelling brings more blood to the area for healing or to immobilize the joint preventing further damage. And heat or fever accompanying an infection can burn out the pathogen.
However, ongoing chronic inflammation is another thing altogether. When inflammation is persistent without a clear resolution, it becomes chronic inflammation. And chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on your body, mind, and overall health. In fact, as much as 80-90% of all chronic illness is now thought to be caused by chronic inflammation(2)(3). And sadly, a recent study at UNC Chapel Hill found that only 12% of American Adults are considered metabolically healthy today.(4) And chronic inflammation is strongly correlated with metabolic disorders.
The good news is that most chronic inflammation is preventable and usually reversible with lifestyle and dietary modifications. These tips will help you eat well to balance your immune system and reverse chronic inflammation.
Diseases Linked to Chronic Inflammation
Diseases linked to chronic inflammation included:
- Metabolic syndrome including high blood sugar, insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, obesity, and Type 2 Diabetes are linked to chronic inflammation.
- Metabolic syndrome co-morbidities linked to 75% increase in deaths for COVID-19 patients.(5)
- High blood pressure and heart disease can also be due to metabolic syndrome and caused by inflammation of the heart muscle or cardiovascular system.
- Alzheimer’s disease (now called “Type 3 Diabetes”(6) due to the direct link between high blood sugar and Alzheimer’s) and other types of dementia have been linked to chronic metabolic disorders and inflammation of the brain as well(7).
- Most autoimmune diseases have been linked to chronic inflammation(8).
- 90-95% of cancers can be attributed to environmental factors including toxins, chemical exposure, chronic stress, and inflammation(9). Scientists now think that only about 5-10% of all cancers are genetic in origin(10).
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
Chronic Inflammation can be caused by a variety of factors including chronic stress (keeping your body in fight-or-flight mode all the time, rather than rest-and-digest mode); a sedentary lifestyle; and an unhealthy diet to name a few. Free radicals can also cause chronic inflammation.
Luckily there are many ways to combat or reverse chronic inflammation and balance your immune system, from getting enough quality sleep and staying well hydrated to meditation, exercise, diet, and supplements. While I’m a big proponent of food-as-medicine, and getting as much of your nutrients from your diet as possible, that may not always be possible. So fighting chronic inflammation is one place where the right supplements can help make an impact.
Free Radicals, Chronic Inflammation, and Antioxidants
Here’s a little science-geek sidebar: Free radicals can be derived from the body’s normal metabolic processes, or from external sources such as exposure to air pollutants, cigarette smoke, industrial chemicals, ozone, and X-rays.(11) Oxygen in the body can split into single atoms with unpaired electrons. Electrons like to be in pairs so these atoms, called free radicals, scavenge the body to seek out other electrons so they can become a pair. This causes damage to cells, proteins, and DNA, and can ultimately lead to chronic inflammation.(12)(13) Antioxidants (found in fruits, vegetables, and dietary supplements) are molecules that can safely interact with free radicals and terminate the chain reaction before vital cells are damaged. This helps to prevent chronic inflammation and balance your immune system.
Typical foods found in the Standard American Diet (SAD) all contribute to free radicals and chronic inflammation, including(14):
- All fried foods
- Sodas and other sweetened drinks, even diet sodas and artificial sweetners
- Processed foods
- foods high in sugar or artificial sweeteners
- animal fats
- rancid fats, oils, nuts, chips (rancidity is one of the fastest ways to create free radicals)
Fortunately, you can eat well to reduce chronic inflammation and balance your immune system, because diet plays a big role in the reversal of chronic inflammation.(15)
Eat Well to Fight Inflammation and Balance Your Immune System
Now that we know some of the causes of chronic inflammation, let’s take a look at some of the top anti-inflammatory foods you can add to your diet, to help combat it. For optimal health, it’s also a good idea to minimize the foods mentioned in the SAD diet above that contribute to inflammation.
If you love berries as much as I do, you’ll love this news. All berries from blackberries, blueberries, and cranberries, to raspberries, and strawberries win hands down for the most antioxidant-packed fruits. Since antioxidants are super-anti-inflammatory, any fruit, vegetable, or supplement (like resveratrol from grapes) with high antioxidant properties is going to help fight inflammation.
Blueberries contain anthocyanins, a phytonutrient that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and has also been shown to increase neural pathways in the brain. And one study shows that blueberries positively affect cognition in aging populations.(16) Another study at the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth, shows that phytochemicals of cranberries, known for their protection in urinary tract infections and bladder health, also contain anti-cancer properties. (17)
However, berries are also high on the Dirty-Dozen list of fruits containing pesticide residue. So it’s best to eat organic berries (especially strawberries which top the dirty-dozen list!) whenever possible. When fresh berries aren’t in season, eating frozen berries is nearly as healthy as fresh, since they are flash-frozen which preserves the majority of their nutrients (unlike cooking or canning fruit.) (18)
You can eat well to fight inflammation and balance your immune system by adding your favorite organic berries, fresh or frozen, to your morning smoothie, top your granola, add them to salads, snack on them throughout the day, or eat them for dessert. Berries are also the lowest fruit on the glycemic index so they don’t contain much natural sugar. Any way you choose to eat them, you’ll be doing your body a favor by eating berries.(19)
In case you missed the memo a few years back: eating healthy fats doesn’t make you fat! We now know that the brain is 60-70% fat. So eating a low-fat diet just starves your brain, but doesn’t help you lose weight at all!(20) In fact, the low-fat diet craze of the 80s-90s may actually be partly to blame for the spike in Alzheimre’s and dementia today. People were literally starving their brains of needed nutrition.
Tip: Avoid anything that says “low fat” on the label. It not only isn’t helping your brain/body, it’s also likely full of added sugar. This is because when they take away the fat, they have to make it taste good in some other way, so they add sugar!
Fruit oils, such as olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil, are particularly anti-inflammatory, and supportive of brain health, along with health of the eyes, heart, and skin too. And eating foods high in monounsaturated fats, like avocados, has been linked to lower inflammation and decreased risk of cancer and diabetes. In a study done in Australia, olive oil, (a big component of the anti-inflammatory Mediterranean Diet), was shown to work as well as or better than ibuprofen(21) in reducing inflammation and pain, as well as protecting against chronic inflammation.
Unfortunately, due to its stellar health properties, olive oil has become a big money-making business, and many brands of olive oil are now being adulterated with other oils like canola, and even artificial flavoring and coloring. Best to opt for organic extra virgin olive oil, and brands from California, Trader Joe’s, and Costco, which were all tested to be pure.
And if you’re wondering about the term “extra virgin”, it’s a marketing gimmick. The first olive pressing produces “virgin” olive oil, and you can’t get “more virgin” than a first pressing. But, if your olive oil gives you a peppery “bite” at the back of your throat you know your olive is the real deal, virgin or extra virgin! My personal fav is Trader Joe’s Extra Virgin Kalamata Olive Oil.
We use olive oil liberally on our salads, and in baking recipes that call for oil. However, the anti-inflammatory properties of olive oil can deteriorate with high heat, so it’s best not to cook with it in stovetop dishes. We prefer to sauté with coconut oil or avocado oil, both of which are more stable at higher temperatures. I also eat an avocado a day and eat plenty of nuts (see below) to ensure I’m getting lots of brain-healthy fats.
Herb & Spices
Nature’s medicine chest is full of anti-inflammatory herbs and spices. In particular, these herbs and spices have been shown to be the most anti-inflammatory:
- Black Pepper
It’s no wonder that Mediterranean and Indian dishes have both been shown to reduce inflammation, as they both contain so many of the above herbs and spices. Sprinkle these herbs and spices liberally on your food to help your body fight inflammation.
An interesting sidebar about the health benefits of garlic: The phytochemical allinase combines with oxygen when garlic is cut or chopped to form allicin which is what makes garlic anti-inflammatory. It takes a few minutes for this reaction to happen, so it’s best to cut or chop garlic and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before using it. Also, if adding it to cooked food, add it in at the end so it’s just warmed since cooking can destroy the allicin. Even though crispy, caramelized garlic tastes delicious, it doesn’t have nearly the health benefits as raw garlic.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts are high on the list of anti-inflammatory foods, with macadamia nuts topping the list as most anti-inflammatory (they have the best ratio of omega 3:omega 6), followed by almonds, cashews, walnuts, and pecans. Sadly, nuts were also maligned for being high in fat during the dangerous low-fat craze of the ’80’s and 90’s. But nuts actually contain healthy fats which protect the heart and brain from inflammation (22).
Besides being a great source of protein, nuts keep you satiated longer due to their healthy fats, so you may eat less by adding nuts to your diet. Nuts are high in omega 3 fatty acids which help reverse chronic inflammation, and vitamin E-which has been associated with decreased cognitive decline in aging as well.
Try adding a handful of nuts or a tablespoon of nut-butter into your morning smoothie; add them to salads, or sprinkle ground nuts on top of grilled fish or other dishes.
It’s worth noting that nuts and seeds also contain high amounts of phytic acid, the plant’s natural deterrent to predators. Biologically speaking, nuts and seeds are meant to germinate, grow, and reproduce again. So phytic acid in nuts and seeds makes them difficult to digest, which is why they often pass through birds and animals and can still germinate and grow after being eaten. Too much phytic acid can contribute to chronic inflammation, so nuts are best eaten dry roasted, or if they are raw soak them in water overnight first. This will help break down the phytic acid.
Also, when eating nut-butters, it’s important to find ones that contain roasted nuts as the only ingredient, and preferably organic. Many nut butters are loaded with sugar and unhealthy oils, making them more inflammatory than anti-inflammatory.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and dark leafy greens including kale, spinach, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, and collard greens all pack a huge amount of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals. Also, while technically a fruit, most people think of tomatoes as a vegetable. Either way, they are high in the antioxidant lycopene which has been shown to be very anti-inflammatory as well. The one caveat is that if you’re sensitive to nightshades, tomatoes should be avoided.
If you suffer from osteoarthritis, you might consider cutting out all nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, goji berries, and ashwagandha) for a few weeks and see if you notice an improvement in your arthritis pain. Many people are sensitive to nightshades and don’t realize it. I tried this experiment a few years ago, and was shocked to have my arthritic hand pain entirely disappear! While potatoes are still my most favorite food on the planet, my body doesn’t agree with my tastebuds. So I now avoid all nightshades in general. On occasion, I’ll still eat a potato or two, but if I overdo it my hand pain immediately returns. A good lesson to pay attention to your body. It’s always giving you clues and information on what it needs, are you listening?
Exactly how these veggies help re-balance your immune system to fight cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammation is still being studied.(23) We do know they contain a powerhouse of phytochemicals, like beta-carotene and lutein. They have large amounts of folic acid, vitamin C, magnesium, and potassium, and are high in fiber. It’s thought that many of these phytonutrients work in concert with each other to fight chronic inflammation. So as I mentioned above, rather than taking a supplement or pill made up of one or two compounds, it’s best to eat whole foods and get the benefit of all phytonutrients working in harmony whenever you can. As a last resort, supplements that are high in these compounds are better than nothing at all.
It’s interesting to note that while an apple contains about 10 vitamins and minerals, it also contains over 100 phytonutrients, many of which have yet to be studied.
Steps to Help You Eat Well to Balance Your Immune System
So now that you know more about the dangers of chronic inflammation, and that you can eat well to balance your immune system and fight inflammation, how can you start to change your eating habits? Here are a few steps to get you started.
1. Read Labels
The #1 most effective way you can start to eat healthier is by taking a look at labels. Although labels are harder to read with the smaller print these days (or maybe my eyes are just getting worse with age?! 🙂 ) So pull out your reading glasses if you need to then READ those labels on anything that comes in a box, bag, or jar. If it has more than five ingredients in it, any ingredients you can’t pronounce, or any ingredients your grandmother wouldn’t have known, just skip it!
It’s also important to read labels EVERY time you buy something. Food companies are notorious for changing up ingredients frequently, depending on their supply chain. Numerous times I’ve seen something that didn’t use to contain high fructose corn syrup suddenly list it on the label, or something that used to be gluten-free suddenly lists wheat in the ingredients. I’ve been burned too many times by “assuming” a packaged product was “healthy”, only to find out later it really wasn’t. So now I read labels every time, even with tried-and-true brands.
2. Buy Real, Organic Food
As the saying goes: shop the perimeter of the store, skip the middle isles. Really these days 90% of the “foods” in a grocery store cause inflammation. If it comes in a box, bag, or jar, chances are it’s not healthy and may contribute to inflammation. Organic foods are certified to not contain toxic chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics, all of which lead to chronic inflammation. When ever possible, buy whole, organic fruits and vegetables, organic dairy, organic/grass-fed/lean meats, and wild-caught fish, not farmed.
If you can only afford to buy one thing organic, make it organic dairy (if you eat dairy…better yet, ditch dairy altogether, as undiagnosed dairy allergies are very common. By one estimate upwards of 75% of Americans have an undiagnosed dairy allergy. The dairy lobbyists did a snow-job on the FDA to make us “think” we need dairy for healthy bones. Absolutely not true, but that’s a topic for another post.) Non-organic dairy contains antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides. And these nasties get concentrated in butter, cheese, and ice cream and definitely cause chronic inflammation. Even organic dairy is full of cow hormones which can really mess with our own hormones. Check out this podcast with Dr. Mark Hyman and Dr. Elizabeth Boham to learn why they recommend ditching dairy altogether.
3. Kick Sugar to the Curb
It’s is THE most inflammatory food you can eat. So if you’re truly concerned about reducing your chronic inflammation, refined sugar should be the first thing to go. Try replacing it with berries and other fruit. Use a little honey or maple syrup if you must (but NOT artificial sweeteners, which are even worse for you than refined sugar.) And ditch the agave while you’re at it. Agave syrup is processed with lots of toxic chemicals and is very hard on your liver/pancreas. Again, read labels. Sugar hides everywhere (there are over 60 different names for sugar!), even where you don’t expect it like in peanut butter, pasta sauce, boxed soups, and salad dressings.
Want to kick your sugar habit? Download my FREE e-book: Kick Your Sugar Habit Before Sugar Kick’s You!
4. Eliminate Trans fats and Other Non-healthy Fats
Be sure to eliminate unhealthy fats like trans fats (hydrogenated fats/oils or partly hydrogenated fats and oils like margarine are directly linked to heart disease), vegetable oils and canola oil from your diet too. Sadly, canola oil is not as healthy as was once thought. And if it’s not organic it’s definitely GMO and likely contains carcinogenic glyphosate as well. Just say no to GMOs and to Canola oil.
Corn oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, sunflower seed oil, and vegetable oil also are not very healthy for you. Because these oils are plentiful and cheap they are frequently used in frying and baking chips and crackers. But they can quickly turn rancid.
And guess what? Rancid oils are one of the biggest causes of free radicals, which as you now know cause inflammation. If you ever smell or taste that rancid-oil smell/taste, toss it out right away. Rancid oil is one of the worst things you can eat. You may smell or taste rancidity in a brand new bag of nuts, chips or crackers. That can indicate that they were stored in high heat on their way to the store. Return them or toss them out. You can store nuts and seeds in airtight containers in the fridge or freezer to ensure they last longer and don’t go rancid. We keep ours in mason jars or infinity jars in the fridge or freezer.
Unfortunately, truth in labeling doesn’t totally exist yet. Packaging can legally say “0 Trans Fats” if it has less than .5 gram trans fats per serving. So let’s say a cookie has .49 grams trans fat, it can legally say 0 trans fats. You eat two cookies and you’re up to almost 1 gram of trans fats, four cookies, and your at almost 2 grams of trans fats… so you really need to read ingredients and sometimes do some math when reading labels.
5. Ditch Refined Carbohydrates and Processed Foods
Next cut back on refined carbs and processed foods. This includes bread, cookies, crackers, chips, pasta, and pastries. Even “healthy” snacks and processed foods from natural food stores like Sprouts and Whole Foods, aren’t really “healthy.” They likely contain unhealthy oils, and simple carbs break down into sugar as soon as you digest them.
Recipes to Help You Eat Well and Fight Inflammation
Now that you’ve got a few tips to help you shop healthier, how about a few recipes to help get you going? All of the recipes on my blog contain ingredients that fight inflammation. Here are a few of my favs that are super-anti-inflammatory. Buen provecho! To your health… and may you eat well to fight inflammation. Also check out more gluten-free/dairy-free recipes on my Recipe page.
- HEART-HEALTHY COCOA-BLUEBERRY SMOOTHIE
The blueberries and cocoa in this smoothie are both very high in antioxidants which help to fight inflammation.
- VEGAN PESTO PASTA SALAD WITH GRILLED VEGGIES
One of our favorite meals, this recipe includes a host of inflammation-fighting ingredients like olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, basil, and black pepper. To make it healthier you can spiralize zucchini into low-carb pasta.
- LEMON-GINGER MAHI WITH GRILLED VEGGIES
You can make this super-yummy recipe with any type of fish. It works well with a firm white fish like Mahi or Halibut. Inflammation fighting ingredients include tomatoes, olive oil, black pepper, and ginger.
- GINGER PEAR BLUEBERRY CRUMBLE
A delicious and healthy dessert or breakfast gets its sweetness from the inflammation-fighting pears and blueberries, no added sugar. It also has ginger, cinnamon, and almonds to help fight inflammation.
- CARDAMOM TEA
Cardamom Tea contains several of the most anti-inflammatory spices (black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger). It’s nice and warming in the fall and winter, and is a good after-dinner tea to aid digestion.
Please leave a comment to let us know what item surprised you most? What changes you will implement? Or anything else you’d like to share to help us eat well, fight inflammation and balance our immune system.
Need a hand to re-balance your immune system, and get your chronic inflammation under control? Schedule a free call, I’d love to chat with you about how a health coach can help.