Food and Inflammation--What is it really?

You often hear people talking about avoiding certain foods, but you rarely hear a good explanation about why you should limit or avoid them. The most common answer is inflammation—but do you understand what that means in terms of gut health and general health? 

Terms like leaky gut, adrenal fatigue, and food allergies get tossed around frequently without a clear explanation of what it really means. All are legitimate, but we need to be a bit more clear on these terms if we are going to commit to putting something in or taking something out of our diet. Aside from experiencing a difference in how you feel, if you don’t know what’s it supposed to do, how likely are you to stick to it? 

I’ll talk about the difference between limiting and avoiding certain foods and why, but I want to first explain what is inflammation and inflammatory foods.

When we hear the word inflammation, we need to automatically understand that this implies an immune response. Your immune system doesn’t just help you defend against the common cold or help you recover from the flu, it is also involved in time of injury, and also maintaining a barrier between our internal and external environment as it relates to the gut—basically, it signals for intruders to keep out!

The immune system has a variety of ways of signaling to us that something is wrong. When you get sick, you may get a fever. When you bump your knee while skiing, you’ll get swelling and maybe some heat in the area. When you eat a food you’re sensitive or allergic to, you can experience a host of symptoms such as bloating, nausea, bowel disturbance, or indigestion to name just a few.

All of these scenarios involve a specific immune response based on the uniqueness of each experience. When you eat a certain food and you are sensitive to it, your immune system will flag it as a foreign object, and will signal for the immune troops to occupy and remove the intruder.  In order for the troops to get into the digestive tract, the cells lining the digestive tract need to separate in order for the white blood immune cells to rush in and start attacking. For anyone who has dealt with an food allergy or sensitivity, you know the feeling—stomach ache, distended abdomen, slow bowel movements (or quick!), or a general feeling of discomfort.  But, you can also have not as severe or apparent symptoms such mental fog, grogginess, irritability, fatigue, and skin irritation.  

The common foods that cause this host of inflammatory responses include dairy, gluten containing grains, soy, citrus, nightshade family of plants (tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, cayenne, and bell peppers), corn, sugar, and caffeine.  But, I also want to add that this list is not limited to these foods.  These are just the most popular food groups that we've found people are most frequently reacting to.  You may be reacting to other foods and are totally fine with the list I mentioned.  One of my clients was sensitive to carrots, and could eat everything except that. Another client went on an elimination diet and introduced lots of greens--all of which he ended up not tolerating.  We did a test, and sure enough, all the "healthy" veggies came back as testing positive for a food sensitivity.  

So, how do you know whether or not you should limit or avoid a certain food?

The answer is it depends on the severity and frequency of your reaction, and also if it is a food sensitivity OR an actual allergy.  If you are allergic to a food, chances are you have a severe reaction and zero tolerance for the food.  Most people who are allergic to wheat or gluten, cannot tolerate it and should avoid it, not just limit it.  In another example,  some people can have a sensitivity to dairy, and it can cause some disturbance, but not every time, and it can depend on the quality and type of dairy.  So limiting dairy is a good idea, but if you have it every once in a while, it's not enough to create chaos.  

Understanding how your body responds to different foods and why can be helpful in creating a change that lasts.  Certain foods do tend to me more inflammatory than others (again going back to the list), and limiting them can improve health and wellbeing.  In a time when having a balance is nearly impossible, you CAN find balance in your  nutrition--this is one the major areas in your life where you can be in the driver's seat!  

Also, I am always a fan of doing a reset at least a few times a year.  There is nothing better than committing yourself to a challenge and eating, moving, recovering, and living in a certain way that frankly can be life changing.  Be sure to join 421 Reset!

Dr. Elena specializes in gut health, women’s health, weight loss, nutrient injectables, and offers unique chronic pain treatments at Proactive Health, A Naturopathic Clinic.  Got a question? Post in comments or contact directly at 

Dr. Elena Zinkov