Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, author of The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer (Fair Winds, 2010)It’s easy to tell when your skin is inflamed: It turns red. “But we don’t really have good measures of inflammation at the cellular level,” Bowden says. “That’s a critical problem because inflammation is associated with every degenerative disease we know.”

Like free radicals, inflammation can be a good thing in small doses. Step on a nail and you want white blood cells and the body’s inflammatory chemicals to rush in. But these injury-fighting compounds also go into 911 mode in response to gradual cell damage by free radicals. The result of this damage, says Bowden, is chronic inflammation: in essence, inflammation that doesn’t know when to stop. “Chronic inflammation is part of diseases as diverse as cancer, congestive heart failure, and digestive problems,” he says.

If you’re overweight, or have diabetes or dementia, “you definitely have chronic inflammation,” Bowden says. For everyone else, the best way to measure inflammation is to do a high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP) test. Studies show that CRP, which the liver produces as an immune response, can increase by 100 percent or more in response to inflammatory conditions. “The test isn’t perfect because it doesn’t tell you where the inflammation is in your body, but it’s the best we have,” Bowden says. Most doctors like to see a CRP score of 1 or less, he adds.

To fight inflammation, Bowden recommends eating foods rich in phytonutrients, such as flavonoids, and other natural anti-inflammatory agents, including onions, leeks, garlic, leafy greens, tomatoes, bell peppers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, green tea, red wine, flaxseeds, and chocolate. The herbs parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint, tarragon, and dill are anti-inflammatory, as are the spices ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, and cloves.

Balancing your ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids also helps. Bowden recommends eating two servings of fish a week, taking 1,000 mg daily of fish oil with EPA and DHA, and choosing olive oil or flaxseed oil over refined oils such as canola, corn, or generic “vegetable” oils. In addition, he says, “sugar turbocharges your inflammation-production pathways,” as do fried foods. Simmer or use a slow cooker rather than frying
or grilling foods at high temperatures, which creates proinflammatory advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that can damage nerve and brain cells as well as DNA.