The word is everywhere right now. Anti-inflammatory diets are trending, superfoods claiming anti-inflammatory benefits are all the rage, I’m sure Gwyneth’s Goop has diets, pills, gurus and the such that you can follow and spend your hard earned cash on but I think we should start at the beginning a little bit…..
Inflammation is huge. A huge problem.
Most people living in the first world have a constant level of low-grade inflammation throughout their bodies. This is due to stress, insufficient sleep, not enough recovery and downtime, meat-centric diets or one focused on highly processed foods plus a lack of greens, veggies and fruits and a host of other factors we typically ignore. Low-grade inflammation doesn’t sound too bad. It really can’t be seen and often times, can't even be felt. But if you live in a constant state of low-grade inflammation, it will eventually grow, multiply and take over. Once that happens, it’s usually too late and you’re already sick. And I don’t mean cold and cough sick, I mean cancer sick.
Most reputable doctors are now in agreement that Inflammation is the number one contributor of most lifestyle-related illnesses. Let me repeat that…. Inflammation is the Number One Contributor of Most Lifestyle-Related Illnesses.
What illnesses fall under the banner of Lifestyle-Related Illnesses? Well, according to the National Institute of Health, the most common are: Alzheimer's disease, arteriosclerosis, cancer, chronic liver disease/cirrhosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, nephritis/CRF, and stroke. Yup, that’s right, the NIH considers all of these “Lifestyle Related Illnesses”. Not genetic illnesses, not hereditary illnesses, but lifestyle-related illnesses. In other words, in 90+% of cases, you actually have a choice as to whether you get one of these diseases.
Now, I’m sure that last line will anger a few people. It angered me when I first heard it too. My incredible great grandmother whom I adored most certainly did not chose to get Alzheimer's, my friends incredibly fit and healthy father certainly didn’t choose to have a life-altering stroke, your aunt didn’t choose to have type 2 diabetes, our friend didn’t choose to have heart disease. But here’s the thing, most often these illnesses didn’t just happen overnight, they built up over a long period of time, unbeknownst to their host.
Like a microscopic termite that quietly penetrates a piece of wood, if left ignored will eventually bring the house tumbling down.
As humans and individuals, we all have a particular rhythm and things we are drawn to and turned off by. We’re driven by certain forces and create our rituals and habits that work best for how we’ve chosen to live our lives. Some of us are chilled and relaxed, while others feed off a supercharged energy. Some of us are deep thinkers and planners while others are more spontaneous and think on the fly. These are where habits form and this state of habits is more than personal preference, it’s an inner conditioning that allows us to function day to day. But after weeks, months, years of following these same habits, they create physical pathways in the brain. We’ve basically programmed ourselves… like little computers.
To put this into a practical sense - let's take work for example. If your work environment is high stress then both your body and your mind are participating in whether you create rush, pressure, deadline anxiety and stress in yourself and others. These actions are taking up more than half of your awake hours, so it’s quite likely this same approach is translated into other areas of your life…
We work too many hours. We take our work home with us. We reduce our sleep to accomplish our tasks. We’re moving through life unconsciously and believing things that are not true and creating habits that work in opposition to what we’ve worked so hard to achieve.
Then we go and work-out, pushing ourselves to our physical limits, convinced that high intensity is the best way to accomplish our goals. Then, we go out with friends and let loose as hardcore as we can, we eat crappy foods, drink strong drinks, stay up too late, forget to drink water, talk louder and gossip more than we would ever dream we would. In short, we’re going from toxic situation to toxic situation yet we’ve convinced ourselves that one is bad, one is amazing and one is necessary to switch off. But we’re never really off, are we?
An unsatisfying job/relationship/finanicial situation (etc.) can lead to stress, which can lead to increased levels of cortisol in our bodies, which can lead to weight gain, which can lead to anxiety, which can lead to a lack of sleep, which can lead to bad choices, which can lead to depression, which can lead to chronic immune response, which can lead to leaky gut, which can lead to autoimmune disease which can lead to increased insulin, which can lead to metabolic syndrome…. ok, you get it. It’s a slippery slope that starts with very basic everyday actions and spirals out of control very quickly.
We’re obsessed with power in this world. Who’s the strongest, the fittest, the wealthiest, the bravest, the thinnest, the most successful, the best looking??? As I get older and (hopefully) wiser, I’m striving towards being the most chilled! We are absolutely products of our own minds and when we tell ourselves to power through, buckle down, push it a little further, take it to the next level, close the deal, we’re also creating stress, anxiety, pressure, and expectations on ourselves that we rarely counterbalance with truly take caring of ourselves, switching off, unwinding and being fully present in peaceful moments.
All of this creates inflammation.
So how do we combat inflammation? Well first off - you don’t combat it or fight it, you care for it, you calm it, you help it relax, you nurture yourself.
In order to do that though, you first have to acknowledge that these are all habits and by becoming aware of our habits, good, bad or otherwise we must start to undo them and slowly begin to break free from the constraints we put on ourselves and re-shuffle our lives, our priorities, our desires and make a clear and deliberate choice as to how we do this life thing.
Here are my top 10 tips for calming, reversing and breaking the habitual cycle of low-grade chronic inflammation (print-out available below)
- Relax - Instead of turning on the TV or opening a bottle of wine to relax, actually allow your brain and body to shut off. Take 10 minutes and go and lie on the sofa. It need not be an hour or even 30 minutes, grab 10 minutes for yourself whenever you can and truly savor each and every moment of downtime. Put the phone down, the book down, close your eyes and chill.
- Don’t skip out on sleep - make sure you’re getting at least 7 hours of shut-eye, each day. Still have work to do, get to bed early tonight and wake up early tomorrow to finish it. The sleep you get before 11pm is the most vital to your health and wellbeing.
- Meditate - meditation need not be a long and deeply spiritual practice, it can literally be sitting or lying on the floor for 10 minutes and allowing your mind to be free from thought. There are so many great apps out there now - check out headspace (www.headspace.com), calm (www.calm.com), simple habit (www.simplehabit.com), stop breath & think (www.stopbreathethink.com), insight timer (www.insighttimer.com) … The biggest a-ha moment for me with meditation was when I truly grasped the concept that silencing the mind is nearly impossible - but rather acknowledging that our brains are filled with constant thought and we have the power to chose to actively ignore them!
- Go plant-based! Pile on the fresh fruits and vegetables! Processed foods contain so many unknown ingredients, many of which wreck havoc on our systems, putting undue stress on multiple parts of our bodies. Crowd out the bad food choices with an abundance of good ones!! Eat fresh, seasonal and organic fruit and veg (when possible, but particularly for the dirty dozen). Did you know, by simply adding 1/2 a cup of fresh organic berries to your daily food intake, you could literally extend your life, by keeping your brain sharp, your digestive track running and cancerous cells at bay?
- Do work that inspires you. Whatever your "work" is, be it in an office, in a field, on the road, in your home, with your children - make sure wherever it is and whatever it is, it is something you genuinely love doing. This is the thing we spend the majority of our waking hours doing. If you're not enjoying it, neither is your body, your mind, your soul. Loving what you do reduces inflammation.
- Add turmeric (with black pepper) to your daily regimen. Pop a capsule, add it to foods, indulge in a golden milk or throw it into your daily smoothie or juice. Turmeric’s main component is curcumin and is known to be one of the most powerful anti-inflammatories on the planet.
- Learn the power of NO. We often (myself included) wish there were more hours in the day and the fact is, there aren’t and there never will be. Stop complaining and start saying no. Learn to delegate. Speak up! If someone's expectations of you are not realistic, do everyone a favor by letting them know. If they don’t accept this fact. Walk away. It will only get worse. Believe me!!!
- Limit screen time. So much precious time is wasted in front of our screens. By constantly being on these things, we distract ourselves from our natural environment, we close ourselves off from potential conversations and encounters, we inadvertently live in a world where we ourselves are not actually part of - we disconnect from our communities. It is proven that being more physically connected to those around us, actually increases our life.
- Treat yourself to your enjoyment. What is it that makes you feel both truly relaxed and completely alive? Is it dancing, yoga, massages, traveling, rock climbing, surfing, chanting, running, sex, painting, singing, being out with friends…. Whatever it is that makes you feel both relaxed and alive (AND good in the morning)… Do more of that. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
- Attend to your relationships - good relationships are great but rocky ones hold us back, create feelings of ill will, occupy important real estate in our hearts, minds and guts and feed inflammation. Make amends, cut ties, be straight, talk, bring it out in the open, deal with it. Unfinished business is inflammation. Bad feelings are inflammation. Pent up anger, remorse, guilt, distrust, envy, shame… all create inflammation, feed inflammation and grow inflammation. Get your relationships in order and relieve a ton of unnecessary inflammation.
We literally are our choices. We will all die, there’s no way around it. But with care, love, compassion, awareness and that right tools, we can live long and healthy lives before that happens. On this near end of the year, I want to empower you to rethink a few basic things. Breathe more, say no more (parents, for the other “no” … wait 60 seconds before speaking and see if your partner says no for you!!), surround yourself with good friends, eat loads of fruit and veg and indulge in all, do work that inspires you, learn to naturally unwind, put your phone down, take a load off, connect and make amends, don’t sweat the small stuff.
Homework: Make a list of 10 things that make you feel happy & alive and commit to doing at least one, each and every day of this next year.
Oh and … one final thought - just eating an anti-inflammatory diet isn’t a cure-all for inflammation. Diets don’t work because they’re short term. They’re band-aids to larger, more complex issues. If you want to experience long-lasting and truly meaningful change within your body and mind, you need to make long-term lifestyle changes. Some people complain that changing how they do something they’ve done all their life is way too drastic. What’s my take on that? Personally, I think a triple bypass and /or a lifetime of prescriptions drugs with a laundry list of side effects is far more drastic, but that's just me!
Want a print-out of my Top 10 Tips tips for calming, reversing and breaking the habitual cycle of low-grade chronic inflammation? Click here.
Stick that puppy on the fridge, in your locker, on the inside of your front door, on your pantry wall, on your bathroom mirror, wherever you need it. Take baby steps each and every day to slowly, but effectively and permanently, begin to reduce inflammation throughout your body.
Wishing you and yours a very Happy New Year, may it be filled with love, laughter, and utter goodness.