How to fight inflammation naturally
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said, “All disease begins in the gut,” and research has now proved he was absolutely right. Unfortunately, it seems that modern-day living is not good for gut health — and therefore skin health. The overconsumption of processed foods, sugar, gluten and pasteurised dairy, as well as eating animal products fed on unnatural feed such as grain rather than grass, contributes to imbalanced gut flora and inflammation.
We hear a lot of talk about inflammation and how it’s bad for us — but what does it really mean and why is it important when it comes to skin health?
Inflammation is the main way the body protects itself from injury, infection, bacteria and pathogens. It’s a response triggered when damage occurs to our tissues, which allows the body to localise the damaged area and then heal itself (think a swollen sore throat or the swelling around an insect bite). The trouble is, if the body is unable to repair itself quickly and heal the damaged tissues, long-term chronic inflammation can occur, which sends the immune system into overdrive and can stress the digestive system.
Put into the context of your gut, if you eat foods over and over again that irritate your gut lining, you’re injuring your gut three meals a day, 365 days a year. You may not see the inflammation but it’s there, compromising the gut lining and allowing indigestible matter and toxins to flood the bloodstream where they may eventually manifest in skin problems, candida, learning difficulties, allergies, lethargy and vulnerability to colds, flu and autoimmune problems.
Fat from grass-fed meats is richer in conjugated linoleic acid, which is anti-inflammatory, immune boosting and, ironically, fat busting.
And more and more studies show that where there is gut inflammation there will be skin inflammation. This means an accelerated decline of collagen and elastin as well as susceptibility to skin problems from acne to eczema.
The good news is that you can help control that inflammation and keep your skin radiant through food and lifestyle.
To eat well for good gut health, choose easily digested foods — soups, stews, anti-inflammatory bone broths plus lots of omega-3s from fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds — and reduce your intake of omega-6 fats, sugar and refined carbs. Fruits and vegies, herbs and spices are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, which protect our eyes, skin and health from free-radical damage. Lacto-fermented foods are also anti-inflammatory and rich in enzymes, too. When eaten with a meal, they help you break down hard-to-digest proteins, carbs and fats. If not digested well and should your gut be in disrepair, these may exacerbate any inflammatory issues.
Lifestyle practices are also integral to keeping inflammation at bay. Studies show that stress promotes inflammation and helps an alteration in your gut microbiota, as does lack of sleep. Synthetic chemicals found in cleaning products and personal-care products may also contribute to inflammation in the body. Where possible, choose clean, green products, engage in relaxing practices (meditation, yoga, walking) and follow good sleep hygiene.
Foods that may fuel inflammation
- Pasteurised and homogenised milk is, for many, inflammatory. However, many people who have gut and skin issues can tolerate fermented dairy (kefir, yoghurt, some cultured cheeses) as fermentation reduces the levels of casein and can remove lactose completely. Studies also show that unfermented dairy is associated with acne while fermented dairy isn’t.
- While our bodies require some sugar to survive, too much and too much of the wrong kind is inflammatory and not conducive to good gut, cellular or skin health — in fact, pathogenic bacteria in your gut feed on refined sugar. Too much sugar can also lead to weight gain and insulin resistance, reduce the efficiency of your immune system and promote glycation. Advanced glycation end (AGE) products are formed when sugar reacts with amino acids (both inside your body and within food) and they contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature ageing of the skin.
- Grain pain. Wheat, rice, corn, oats, rye and barley are staples of the modern diet but our bodies aren’t built to digest them unless they’re prepared properly (soaked or fermented). While many find dairy and gluten difficult to digest, there is a movement against grains generally, including non-gluten grains. This is because many grains, nuts and legumes contain phytic acid, or “antinutrients”, which, when eaten, bind to essential minerals and proteins like zinc and calcium, preventing absorption. Grains also contain lectins, which can damage the lining of the gut and inhibit digestion.
When the gut is out of whack, chances are everything else is, too, and eating unprepared grains will only worsen a gut problem, not to mention the health of your skin, hair and nails. But preparing these foods properly can help reduce and sometimes even eliminate anti-nutrients so you get the good without the bad.
- Red meat. Red meat can also be difficult for those with gut issues to digest properly. Slow-cooking meat with spices (to help break down the proteins) and eating it with enzyme-rich lacto-fermented foods can help improve digestibility and therefore reduce potential inflammation.
- Our brain, body and skin need fats in order to function well, as do our cells, and they are super important for making healthy hormones. The right fats can also help with inflammation.
Where the problem with fats lies is that the ratio is out of balance. Omega-3 fats found in oily fish such as salmon, krill oil and sardines as well as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts help protect against inflammation. The Western diet, though, favours too many omega-6-rich foods (think nuts, seeds and many vegetable oils) and not enough omega-3s. Signs of insufficient omega-3s or excess omega-6s can be dry, itchy, flaky skin, rashes, eczema, psoriasis and brittle hair and nails.
When it comes to most omega-6 vegetable and nut oils, I advocate nuts in their whole form (except for macadamia nut oil which is relatively stable at high temperatures) and olive oil, which is rich in skin-protective acids and healthful on salads. The only other omega-6 oil I recommend consuming is evening primrose oil, as it is rich in GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), which is anti-inflammatory and has been shown to help with inflammatory skin conditions.
Although saturated fats get a lot of bad press (think meat, whole eggs, coconut oil, organic butter) they have many skin and health benefits. Saturated fats make cholesterol, which is essential for skin health. Fat from grass-fed meats is richer in conjugated linoleic acid, which is anti-inflammatory, immune boosting and, ironically, fat busting.
I recommend cooking with small amounts of ghee, coconut oil or butter as they are much more stable at high temperatures, unlike their vegetable oil counterparts. Butter is dairy but it is much lower in lactose and negligible in casein and, if you ferment it, lactose is eliminated. It is also an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, lecithin (essential for cholesterol metabolism) and lauric acid (anti-inflammatory), a good source of iodine (which many of us are lacking) and, if you opt for grass-fed butter, rich in vitamin K2.
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