At 32 years old, I was a competitive athlete, a registered dietitian by trade, and the picture of health. But when I suddenly started waking up with painfully sore joints, burning skin, debilitating fatigue, and knuckles so swollen I couldn’t get my wedding ring on, I got scared. Especially since I was using those aching hands to hold my new baby girl.
Blood tests confirmed a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (a chronic, inflammatory condition)—but conventional health care offered little guidance. The recommended treatment option? Long-term steroids and immunosuppressant drugs, whose side effects included glaucoma, osteoporosis, mood swings, “moon face,” nutritional deficiencies, and increased risk of infection. It sounded like a pretty lousy way to cope—particularly when what I really wanted to do was heal.
So I decided to forge my own path and found a way to feel better through diet and lifestyle modification. I share my journey—and an evidenced-based approach to fighting inflammation—in my new book, Inflamed.
What is inflammation?
Simply put, inflammation is the immune system’s response to a stimulus that is viewed as foreign or toxic to your body (aka an antigen).
Your immune system constantly monitors for anything that appears as a foreign intruder (like an infectious bacteria or other material) that shouldn’t be in the body and is always at the ready to signal its highly specialized troops of cells and molecules to attack and dispose of the foreign material.
It is an essential part of healing in acute conditions (e.g., a fever fighting an infection). However, when your immune system is disrupted, it puts itself unnecessarily on constant defense, sending inflammation continually rippling throughout your body. In this state, it’s working against you, instead of for you, by switching focus from the antigen it’s supposed to attack and instead launching a targeted strike on your own cells, tissues, or other harmless material.
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms or conditions, you might be suffering from chronic inflammation:
- joint pain or other aches and pains
- digestive upset
- skin problems (acne, eczema, psoriasis)
- food sensitivities
- resistant weight loss
- autoimmune conditions
A holistic approach to taming inflammation:
Our bodies and systems are complex, and fixing an issue within them can be as well. Moving toward an anti-inflammatory lifestyle includes altering the foods we eat and the products we put in, on, and around our bodies, as well as lowering stress. Each of these critical changes addresses contributors to chronic inflammation and the conditions that can arise from it. Here's how:
Build a healthy gut
Our digestive system has the highest concentration of immune cells in our entire body and is charged with preventing toxins and pathogens from entering the bloodstream. To do this job properly, your digestive lining should be woven tightly, like a piece of cheesecloth. If it becomes too permeable, or a “leaky gut” (from a poor diet, environmental insults, overuse of antibiotics, and so on), it can allow undigested nutrient particles to get into your bloodstream. Various toxins and bacteria can also pass through. These escapees can trigger your immune system, leading to inflammation.
Maintain proper hormone levels
Hormones like insulin (triggered by refined carbohydrate intake) and cortisol (triggered by stress) are inflammatory to your system. Endocrine disrupters (found in many personal care products and pesticides) can suppress thyroid hormones, which not only regulate metabolism but are involved with gut health and inflammation and play a critical role in nearly every physiological process in our bodies.
Correct nutrient deficiencies
The trillions of cells we are made up of require specific nutrients to function properly and prevent disease. Nutrients allow your body to make energy, build and maintain tissues, regulate bodily processes, and help us fight inflammation.
How to take action against inflammation:
Long-term success is achievable when you focus on small, specific action steps. So in order to heal your particular condition, you don’t have to adopt all 15 of the steps below at once. Rather, choose some that you feel you can implement now, and just get started, one step at a time. You will build momentum as you keep moving forward, and soon enough, the little wins will lead to some big ones. And the biggest win—achieving and maintaining vibrant and healthy living—is what this entire journey is about.
Here are 15 simple things I recommend doing to create an anti-inflammatory lifestyle:
1. Buy a home water filter.
Reverse-osmosis systems with a carbon filter are currently viewed as the most effective method.
2. Swap processed vegetable oils for high-quality oils.
Processed vegetable oils include corn, soy, and canola. Better-for-you oils: organic, cold-pressed extra virgin olive; macadamia; flax; avocado and coconut oils; and organic grass-fed ghee or butter.
3. Buy organic, non-GMO products.
4. Choose animal protein that is organic and grass-fed, or pastured.
And treat it like a side dish, not the main course.
5. Swap out processed, gluten-containing grains for root vegetables.
Try out sweet potato or yucca, or gluten-free ancient grains (e.g., quinoa, millet).
6. Eliminate pasteurized cow’s milk.
Opt for dairy-free nut or hemp milks instead. If you've confirmed you don’t have a sensitivity, goat's or sheep's milk or raw cow’s milk are better options.
7. Clean up your products.
Eliminate cleaning and personal care products made with parabens and fragrances/phthalates. Instead, try essential oil–based fragrances and perfumes.
8. Avoid sugary sodas or artificial sweeteners.
Substitute plain filtered water, club soda, mineral water, or kombucha.
9. Up your vegetable intake.
Spend 20 to 30 minutes once or twice a week baking or roasting vegetables in olive oil or coconut oil to add to your meals.
10. Incorporate foods into your diet that act as prebiotics.
These feed beneficial bacteria. Eat more garlic, leeks, onion, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus, yams, and sweet potatoes.
11. Take a multi-strain probiotic.
You can also integrate fermented vegetables (e.g. kimchi, sauerkraut) and bone broths into your meals. (If you've been diagnosed with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), Candida (yeast), or have intolerances to FODMAPS or histamines, consult with your physician before incorporating probiotics or bone broths into your diet.)
12. Add in anti-inflammatory spices.
Frequently eat dishes with curry (or curcumin) and ginger, drink curry or ginger tea, or take a curcumin supplement. (Check with your doctor if you take blood-thinning or antihypertensive medication.)
13. Try a cod liver oil supplement.
14. Find a go-to practice that will effectively reduce stress and anxiety.
Try a meditation app, listen to an audiobook you connect to, or use a physical method like the Emotional Freedom Technique.
15. Get at least seven hours of sleep per night—but aim for eight.
Turn off your electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime and get to sleep no later than 11 p.m.
Each of these changes is recommended to ensure your gut health is on point, hormones are in check, and that you have the proper nutrient intake to calm your immune system and reduce inflammation.