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Inflammation is the body’s natural response to an injury, infection or disease. It can also occur after a hard workout that leaves your body battered and bone-tired. The process is meant to help your body heal; however, when inflammation becomes chronic, it can create a health risk. “Arthritis is an inflammatory condition. Asthma is thought to be an inflammatory condition,” says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD.
Your diet can help you keep inflammation in check, since certain foods contain anti-inflammatory compounds that help reduce pain and swelling. By adding them to your regular diet, you can cut down on the inflammation, whether it's from a hard workout or otherwise. “It isn’t necessary to be reactive,” Bonci says. “If you eat these things regularly, they may build up in the system to a certain extent and actually prevent the inflammation from occurring, or lessening how severe that inflammation actually is.”
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Here are nine foods with anti-inflammatory properties to add to your diet.
Tart Cherry Juice
Those tart cherries might be better used in your blender than in your next pie. According to 2010 research from Oregon Health & Science University, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, tart cherries can be a powerful anti-inflammatory. Researchers followed a group of 54 runners (36 males, 18 females, average age, 36) who were training for Oregon’s Hood to Coast race, a 197-mile relay race from Mt. Hood to the Pacific coastline.
Twenty-eight runners were assigned to drink 335 ml of tart cherry juice for seven days before the race, and 26 were assigned a placebo beverage. After the race, both groups reported pain, but the subjects who had ingested the tart cherry juice reported significantly less pain than the placebo group. On a scale of 1 to 100, the cherry juice drinkers rated their pain an average of 12, whereas the placebo drinkers rated their pain at an average of 37.
Here’s another reason to order another round of salmon-avocado rolls: the fish could help fight inflammation in your body, according to a 2011 study out of Ohio State University, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.
Researchers followed 68 medical students who were under high stress. The students were randomly divided into teams of six and interviewed six times during the study. During each interview, the students received blood tests and completed physiological surveys to determine how stressed they were. Half of the students received omega-3 supplements and the other half received placebo pills.
"The supplement was probably about four or five times the amount of fish oil you'd get from a daily serving of salmon," explained Martha Belury, professor of human nutrition and co-author in the study, in this release.
The results? The students taking the omega-3 supplement notched a 20-percent reduction in anxiety compared to their placebo-taking peers, and their blood samples showed a significant reduction in cytokines, which foster inflammation.
"We saw a 14 percent reduction in the amounts of interleukin-6 [a type of cytokine] among the students receiving the omega-3," said Ron Glaser, professor of molecular virology, immunology & medical genetics and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, in a press release.
Pure Maple Syrup
Maple syrup might not be the healthiest food on this list, but if you’re looking for a reason to drizzle some on your breakfast, you may have found it. According to 2011 research out of the University of Rhode Island (URI), pure maple syrup contains 54 compounds beneficial to your health.
“It’s important to note that in our laboratory research we found that several of these compounds possess anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which have been shown to fight cancer, diabetes and bacterial illnesses,” said URI researcher Navindra Seeram in an article on URI.edu.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Top your salad with it or use it instead of vegetable oil when cooking—olive oil can and should be a part of your daily rotation, if for nothing else than its inflammation-fighting properties, which were discovered almost by accident.
"I had considerable experience swallowing and being stung in the throat by ibuprofen from previous studies on its sensory properties," says Monell Chemical Center biologist Gary Beauchamp, Ph.D, in this 2005 release. "So when I tasted newly-pressed olive oil while attending a meeting on molecular gastronomy in Sicily, I was startled to notice that the throat sensations were virtually identical."
Beauchamp and a team of scientists then evaluated the properties of an unnamed compound in olive oil. They realized that the intensity of the throat sting was related to the concentration of the compound, and dubbed it oleocanthal.
Because they produced the same throat response, the teams then researched whether ibuprofen and oleocanathal provide the same health benefits—and they did. Both ibuprofen and oleocanathal inhibit certain enzymes that cause inflammation, so, logically, the scientists concluded that olive oil is an anti-inflammatory.
Paul Breslin, PhD, who directed the research together with Beauchamp, said in a release, "The Mediterranean diet, of which olive oil is a central component, has long been associated with numerous health benefits, including decreased risk of stroke, heart disease, breast cancer, lung cancer, and some dementias. Similar benefits are associated with certain NSAIDs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen. Now that we know of oleocanthal's anti-inflammatory properties, it seems plausible that oleocanthal plays a causal role in the health benefits associated with diets where olive oil is the principle source of fat."
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A 2011 study published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology showed that polyphenols (antioxidants) in apple skin might help prevent inflammation. In the study, researchers induced colitis, an inflammatory disease that causes abdominal pain, loss of appetite and even bloody stool, in a population of mice. One group of mice received a daily dose of polyphenols while the other group got a placebo pill. The results? Mice that consumed the apple polyphenols were protected from the inflammatory effects of colitis[BS1]. An apple a day just gets better and better.
Tomatoes (and Tomato Juice)
If you’re not juicing yet, here’s a reason to try it: tomato juice can fight inflammation. In a 2013 study, researchers gathered a group of 106 overweight or obese females (obesity is considered a chronic inflammatory condition) from Tehran University of Medical Sciences, and assigned them to one of two groups—one that consumed 330 milliliters of tomato juice daily for 20 days, and one that drank water for 20 days. At the end of the 20 days, the group that drank the tomato juice showed a decrease in serum IL-6, which is a pro-inflammatory cytokine.
Research in 2012 out of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (published in the Journal of Nutrition) found that in overweight and obese adults, a diet rich in whole grains could reduce inflammation. The study featured 40 normal weight adults and 40 overweight adults, each of whom underwent two separate 28-day feeding cycles, one of which featured high-glycemic load carbs (like white bread and fruit canned in syrup) and the other featuring low-glycemic load carbs (like whole grains). Both diets provided the same calories and macronutrients. In overweight and obese subjects, the diet featuring low-glycemic carbs “reduced a biomarker of inflammation called C-reactive protein by about 22 percent,” according to this press release.
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Just about any kind will do: almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, walnuts, pistachios—the list goes on. A 2012 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that men and women who ate more than a one fourth of an ounce of tree nuts per day displayed lower levels of C-reactive protein, which is a marker for inflammation. People who consumed tree nuts also had lower body weight and a lower body mass index than their non-nut-crunching counterparts, and they ate more whole grains, fruits and less saturated fat, to boot.
Never skimp on the ginger during a sushi dinner. Beyond cleansing your palette, this plant is an impressive anti-inflammatory. It earns its spot on this list by inhibiting a host of pro-inflammatory enzymes with names you probably can't pronounce (but you can read more about them here).