Inflammatory Foods: A Guide for Reducing Inflammation – Part 1

By: Dr. Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM


Avoiding Inflammatory foodsCan what you eat influence chronic pain and illnesses? According to current research, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. We get from our bodies what we put into them. Inflammation plays a major role in your overall health, and what foods you eat can have a big influence on inflammation. There are some inflammatory foods that should be eliminated from your diet altogether, while other foods can have important anti-inflammatory properties. Natural medicine practitioners have known for years what is now seen as the nutritional foundation of chronic illness.

The idea that our bodies can heal themselves if given the right foods has been around since Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. However, much of the typical medical advice we are given neglects this knowledge.

The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Model

When considering the relationship between our food choices, pain, and chronic illnesses, it is important to keep in mind the body is made up of interrelated organ systems. These organ systems are affected by each other. What happens in one system also has effects in others.

The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response model describes the relationship among organ systems and how the entire body responds to stressors of any kind. Practitioners trained in this comprehensive approach look at the interaction between factors in the environment and all organ systems. This allows for the entire presentation of your symptoms to be considered and approached from a systems viewpoint that helps get to the root cause of the issue.

This holistic approach strives to understand inflammation from its beginnings in the metabolic process through to its effects on other organ systems. If inflammation is allowed to run rampant, its effects can lead to increasingly serious illnesses. The NEM approach allows adequate and effective interventions in multiple organ systems to control inflammation.

How Inflammation Leads to Pain

Inflammation is the body’s natural response to invasion by foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses. It is part of the complex biological process by which the body fights invaders, carries them out, and repairs whatever damage has been caused. If inflammation were not part of this process, infections and wounds would likely never heal.

Inflammatory foods, pain and inflammationA normal part of inflammation is discomfort at the site of the injury or infection. This type of pain is a by-product of the cascade of molecular and cellular changes that take place when inflammation is at work. The physiological symptoms of pain, redness, swelling, and heat are indicators that inflammation is doing its job.

In cases of acute inflammation, which is stimulated for a short time to deal with immediate injury or stress, once the healing process is complete, the inflammation subsides. Acute inflammation is tightly controlled by the body. Cortisol, the stress-fighting hormone, is in control of turning off acute inflammation when it is time.

Although the effects of inflammation are uncomfortable, the body can handle them up to a point. Injury leads to an inflammatory response, which deals with and heals the damage from whatever caused the injury, and then cortisol turns off the inflammatory response. This process is a healthy one.

However, there are cases where low-level inflammation endures. It can remain in the body for months or years without an obvious injury or infection ever appearing. This type of inflammation is responsible for much of the damage done to the body, eventually resulting in chronic illnesses and the resulting pain.

Emotional stress is one precipitating factor leading to chronic inflammation. With this kind of stress, your body is subjected to a continuous inflammatory response, leading to imbalance. This leaves you more open to infections, pain, and chronic disease. The longer you have this kind of sub-clinical, chronic inflammation, the more severe the symptoms of any chronic illness will be.

If this chronic inflammation is connected to a specific chronic illness, it will be localized. If the arteries are inflamed, for instance, heart disease will result. If certain areas of the brain are inflamed, Alzheimer’s disease will be most likely. If the pancreas is the target of the inflammation, diabetes results.

Inflammatory foods serve to prolong and worsen this chronic inflammation process. Some foods and environmental toxins tend to cause inflammation in many areas of your body. This kind of inflammation can affect your mental abilities, your overall health, and even how long you live.

Causes of Chronic Systemic Inflammation

Mild allergies to inflammatory foods may have only subtle symptoms, but they can cause long-term inflammation. Diet and lifestyle issues also bring about this kind of inflammation. The modern American diet involves the ingestion of more and more processed foods loaded with sugars and fats, along with a much more sedentary lifestyle, that sets the stage for inflammation. Increasing levels of environmental toxins, especially preservatives in packaged foods, additives in water, and toxic metals have been linked through research to chronic conditions like fibromyalgia.

All of these factors impact your gut microbiota causing dysbiosis, or imbalance, in the flora living there. One of the results of this dysbiosis is leaky gut, a situation in which the cells in the lining of your gut loosen their normally tight junctions and allow hard-to-digest foods, bacteria, viruses, and even fecal material to slip through and enter your bloodstream. This triggers an immune response to this foreign matter, which ultimately results in inflammation.

One of the major factors that leads to chronic inflammation is stress. The daily, unrelenting stress we all feel can lead to increased levels of cortisol and hormonal imbalances, eventually leaving the body unable to deal with inflammation. A common, but overlooked condition that results in chronic inflammation is Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).

AFS and Inflammation

AFS and Inflammatory foodsAdrenal fatigue is the body’s natural response to long-term or very severe stress. This results in a reduction in the adrenal glands’ ability to secrete cortisol, the stress-fighting hormone. When this happens, an increase in inflammation is one result.

When you are under stress, regardless of the source, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated. A cascade of hormones results, with the adrenal glands ultimately secreting cortisol to fight the effects of stress. In normal situations, as soon as the stress is over, the adrenals return to a state of rest.

However, in our stress-filled world, stress often continues. This puts a significant burden on the adrenals to continue secreting cortisol. At some point, adrenal fatigue sets in, and the adrenals no longer have the ability to secrete this necessary hormone. Then, due to several factors, inflammation increases, leading to symptoms that are sometimes vague in the beginning. However, these symptoms accumulate, resulting in serious physical and emotional issues. In stage four AFS, some become bed-ridden due to the severity of symptoms.

Inability to think clearly, depression, anxiety, and weight gain around the middle of the body are some of the common symptoms of AFS.

Inflammation, Food, and Stress

Recent research has shown a definite connection between inflammation, food, and stress. Numerous studies have detailed the links between food choices and inflammation. The key pathways include oxidative stress, the activation of transcription factor nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB), and proinflammatory cytokine production. Stress and depression also influence inflammation through these pathways.

Inflammatory foods and stressThe relationships between diet, stress, depression, and inflammation are complex. The choices you make regarding foods are influenced by stress. You’re more likely to choose inflammatory foods when stressed rather than nutritional foods. These are the so-called “comfort foods” people tend to crave. Also, when you’re under stress, your metabolic response to these unhealthy inflammatory foods becomes more maladaptive. Plus, both mood and proinflammatory responses to stress are affected by your dietary choices.

And then there is the interplay between vagal nerve stimulation, and the metabolic responses to foods, stress, and depression. Since the vagus nerve is directly involved in the entire process of digestion, absorption, and metabolism of foods, it can significantly affect both inflammation and the metabolic response of your body to food. Abundant documentation shows the negative effects of depression and stress on the vagal nerve, leading to considerable activity between the gut and brain.

This type of interaction is readily shown by the example of Omega-3 fatty acids. An increase in consumption of this beneficial fatty acid causes a boost in mood and activation of the vagus nerve. This serves to decrease NF-kB activation and decreases inflammation due to stress.

Read Part 2 | Part 3

© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Eating inflammatory foods greatly increases your risk of developing chronic inflammation. Many studies have shown chronic inflammation to be the foundation of increased pain in the body, as well as of developing chronic health conditions that may become worse as you age.


inflammatory foods