Eight Foods for Health and Wellness
Our paradigm is shifting. As we seek to understand the complex web of relationships uniting lifestyle and disease—both physical and emotional—we see the role medicine plays in our lives move from prescriptive to preventive. Scientists and doctors now accept a view long held by alternative healers, slow-food advocates, and mindfulness practitioners: inflammation is the enemy of good health, and the easiest way to beat it is with a diet rich in naturally anti-inflammatory foods.
Inflammation causes widespread complications in the human body. Short-term inflammation gives us acute pain like headaches, sore muscles, and complaining joints. What many of us don’t know is that the latest research links long-term, chronic inflammation to major health issues including stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer.
Western medical science traditionally relies on a group of drugs called NSAIDs (Non-specific Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) like ibuprofen to treat short-term inflammation, and an array of aggressive treatments to treat major illnesses.
NSAIDs and aggressive treatments work, but they work after the fact. Instead of waiting for inflammation to happen—and much better than waiting for it to become long-term and chronic—a diet of NSAIFs (Non-Specific Anti-Inflammatory Foods) like turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, beets, fatty fish, leafy greens, and berries can nip the problem in the bud.
There’s our paradigm shift: by thinking ahead and proactively eating the right foods, we can alleviate short-term pain and work to prevent long-term illnesses. We move from a prescriptive approach to health and healing to a holistic and preventive approach.
Before we get into exactly how these eight foods work their magic, we’ll take a moment to explore inflammation itself.
The Inflammatory Response
Poke a bee’s nest with a stick and it comes alive. What moments before was quiet and peaceful erupts into an angry flurry of activity. Human bodies are the same way. Introduce a foreign object—the biochemical version of a stick prodding a bee’s nest—and the immune system responds quickly to surround, isolate, and expel the invader. This is the inflammatory response. It’s what happens when a twisted ankle swells, the tissue around a cut becomes puffy, sinuses clog during allergy season, and muscles react to a hard workout.
This response evolved naturally over time to protect us from the pathogens that cause disease and heal us when we get injured. Sometimes, though, the inflammatory response does the opposite of what it evolved to do. It causes problems instead of solving them. It prevents muscles from speedy recovery; it causes headaches; it irritates our digestive tract. Over time inflammation becomes chronic and leads to a wide range of problems—all of which are preventable through diet.
The Natural Anti-Inflammatories: How They Do It
These eight foods—turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, beets, fatty fish, leafy greens, and berries—contain naturally-occurring chemical compounds that reduce inflammation and pain through a wide variety of biochemical mechanisms. In general, the actions of all these anti-inflammatory compounds follow one of the following five pathways:
- Down-regulation of antiapoptotic genes. Apoptosis means cell death. Antiapoptopic proteins interfere with natural cell death; therefore, down-regulation of antiapoptopic genes leads to natural cell death in inflammatory tissue, tumors, and cancer-causing cells.
- Inhibition of oxidative enzymes and chemicals. Oxidation causes damage to human cell membranes, DNA, and other cellular proteins. When the action of oxidative enzymes is blocked, the natural deterioration of cells occurs more slowly. This is the anti-oxidant pathway.
- Inhibition of cytokine production. Cytokines are proteins released by injured or infected cells and are one of the main causes of swelling and inflammation. Fewer cytokines means less inflammation and less pain.
- Inhibition of transcription factors. Transcription factors are proteins necessary for gene expression. When the action of a genetic transcription factor related to an inflammatory protein is blocked, the protein is never produced, which ultimately reduces inflammation in the body.
- Reduction of hormone production and interference with hormone receptor binding. The over-production of stress hormones like cortisol leads to chronic inflammation. By reducing the production of these hormones and blocking their action by disrupting how they bind to cellular receptors, inflammation is reduced.
Here’s a list of the primary dynamic chemical compounds in each of the eight foods and the pathways those chemicals use to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain:
Turmeric contains the chemical curcumin, which reduces inflammation and pain through pathways (1), (2), (3), (4), and (5).
Ginger contains the compounds shogaol and zerumbone, which reduce inflammation and pain through pathways (1), (2), (3), (4), and (5).
Garlic contains the pharmacologically active sulfur compounds diallyl sulfide, diallyl disulfide, allicin, and dipropyl sulfide. These compounds reduce inflammation and pain through pathways (1), (2), (3), and (4). Garlic specifically blocks the action of the NK-B family of genetic transcription factors, the same family targeted by NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and aspirin.
Cinnamon contains cinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid, cinnamatem, and eugenol, which reduce inflammation and pain primarily through pathway (2), (3), and (4).
Beets contain ascorbic acid, betanin, betanidin, and catechin, which reduce inflammation and pain through pathway (2), (3), and (4). Beets are also high in fiber.
Fatty Fish contains Omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation and pain through pathway ((2), (3), and (4).
Leafy Greens contain ascorbic acid, carotene, flavonoids, and polyphenol, which reduce inflammation and pain through pathways (1), (2), (3), and (4).
Berries contain polyphenols and anthocyanins which reduce inflammation and pain through pathways (1), (2), (3), and (4).
Homemade Preventive Medicine
A regular diet of these eight anti-inflammatory foods doesn’t require a prescription, a visit to the doctor, or an exhaustive search for a specialty health food boutique. They’re readily available on the spice aisle or in the produce department of any grocery store and they come with an added bonus: they’re delicious. No spoonful of sugar is needed to help these medicines go down.
Turmeric adds the tangy, earthy flavor and golden color to many Indian dishes. Ginger brings zing to curries and can be used in tea. Garlic—there’s not room enough on the internet to sing the praise garlic deserves or list the myriad uses of garlic in cooking. Cinnamon completes a bowl of oatmeal and adds depth to sauces, smoothies, and desserts. Beets give depth to salads, make a healthy addition to rice dishes, and are a favorite background ingredient for a big batch of black beans. Fatty fish provide the clean protein that’s an essential part of any well-balanced meal, leafy greens are synonymous with salads, and berries make an excellent base for salads, smoothies, and desserts.
When we combine the wisdom of the ancients with the data of contemporary scientific research, we empower ourselves to make choices unavailable to preceding generations. We propel our bodies into state of readiness and diminish the need for pharmaceutical interventions. We situate ourselves at the forward edge of the shifting paradigm.
After the table is cleared and the dishes from a satisfying, home-cooked meal are clean, we can rest easy in the knowledge that the mindful, proactive use of anti-inflammatory and pain relieving foods keeps us healthy and strong in the short run, extends our lives and their quality in the long run, and allows us to make manifest the old folk adage
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”