How a Healthy Mediterranean Diet Might Reduce Inflammation and Pain
Do you ever wake up feeling like you haven’t slept all night or with joints that hurt as you struggle out of bed? Me too.
These discomforts may be caused by ‘inflammaging’, chronic low-grade inflammation common in older adults, even in the absence of infection. Other possible symptoms of inflammaging are fatigue, a low fever, abdominal and/or chest pain.
Acute and Chronic Inflammation
Acute inflammation is a natural defense mechanism. When we are hurt, white blood cells flow to the injured area, release a chemical that stimulates blood flow and begin the healing process. This is how inflammation is supposed to work, and the way it does work most of the time.
Chronic inflammation is different. It occurs when things don’t operate normally – for example, when our adrenal glands elevate the levels of cortisol, a steroidal hormone that’s released when the body is under stress.
Immune system disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, polymyalgia and lupus can send the adrenal glands haywire and cause chronic inflammation.
Causes of Inflammation
Even without those conditions, inflammation can be present, especially in older adults. Some cardiovascular surgeons believe that inflammaging represents a significant risk factor for diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, atherosclerosis and cancer.
Certain lifestyle factors are connected to inflammaging. Depending upon which research study you read, they include low activity levels, pro-inflammatory eating patterns, low levels of sex hormones and smoking.
I am intimately familiar with the challenges of chronic inflammation. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was 50, recently adding polymyalgia rheumatica to my health file. RA targets the joints, and PMR strikes the muscle groups around the shoulders, upper arms, hips and thighs.
I’ve worked with my rheumatologist to find medications with minimum side effects, but PMR doesn’t respond to much of anything but cortisone.
I don’t smoke, and my sex hormones are in pretty good shape, so in order to reduce the amount of cortisone I have to take, I’ve been paying more attention to my activity level and my diet.
After a year of eating carefully and stepping up my three-day-week exercise regimen to include a daily three-mile walk, I can vouch for the effectiveness of regular exercise and healthy food.
I have written elsewhere about the importance of exercise and mental stimulation after retirement, but the importance of an anti-inflammatory diet wasn’t on my radar until recently, when it seems as if everyone else was talking and writing about it. I couldn’t help thinking, “Is this just the latest food fad?”
The Mayo Clinic, my go-to source of research on PMR, also explains how a healthy diet can help reduce pain.
Eat Your Vegetables
I decided to try the Mediterranean Diet, which is the most popular approach to anti-inflammatory eating. There is no calorie counting with the Mediterranean diet, and no foods are forbidden.
Instead, you are directed to a very-easy-to-follow food pyramid, and two lists: “Avoid these foods” and “Include plenty of these foods.” The Harvard School of Public Health offers these guidelines.
Foods that Inflame
Avoid or limit these foods as much as possible:
- refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and pastries
- French fries and other fried foods
- soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages
- red meat (burgers, steaks) and processed meat (hot dogs, sausage)
- margarine, shortening and lard
Foods that Combat Inflammation
Include plenty of these foods:
- olive oil
- green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and collards
- nuts like almonds and walnuts
- fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines
- fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries and oranges
I quickly discovered why the Mediterranean Diet is so popular. The recommended foods are tasty, easily available and filling, and I didn’t miss the foods on the ‘avoid’ list.
Once I got past the sugar cravings, which took about two weeks, I found the diet easy to stick to, and I look forward to each meal. Even better, I started waking up feeling rested, and my joints didn’t hurt so much.
Even when I eat out, I can stick to the regimen; I just order a salad with added chicken or fish. You can start slowly, with one meal a day, like oatmeal or muesli for breakfast. Once you get your cupboards and refrigerator filled with anti-inflammatory foods, you can make this a permanent way of eating.
Have you ever woken more tired than rested? Did you think it had to do with inflammation? Have you ever experienced chronic pain or fatigue? Have you tried an anti-inflammatory diet? I’d love to hear how it worked for you.
Marlene Bumgarner is a retired college instructor. She lives on the California coast and writes about family life, cooking and gardening. Marlene is the author of several books and is currently writing the next one – about raising children, animals and vegetables on a rural plot of land in the 1970s.
Editor’s note: Nothing in this article should be considered medical advice. Always consult a doctor before making any changes to your diet, medical plan, or exercise routine.