Can you have too much of a good thing? When it comes to inflammation, the answer of course is yes. Inflammation—in small doses—is the body’s first line of defense against many bacteria and viruses, helping us to maintain our health. But sustained inflammation is a common thread linking several chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and diabetes.

Eating a balanced diet and limiting processed foods can keep inflammation in check, according to William Joel Meggs, MD, PhD, and Carol Svec, coauthors of The Inflammation Cure (Contemporary/McGraw-Hill, 2004). In fact, some foods have the potential to reduce or prevent not only inflammation but also the diseases associated with it. The following foods top the list.

Omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in salmon, halibut, mackerel, herring, and tuna, are well-known inflammation busters. In a study of rheumatoid arthritis patients in Denmark, adding fish to the diet decreased morning stiffness, joint swelling, and pain and allowed patients to reduce traditional medication (Ugeskrift for Laeger, 1998, vol. 160, no. 21). In another study, researchers found that one to two servings of fish per week actually helped prevent arthritis (Epidemiology, 1996, vol. 7, no. 3). Research also has linked regular consumption of oily fish—two or more servings per week—to a lower risk of asthma (Thorax, 2002, vol. 57, Suppl). One caution: Because certain fish may contain toxic mercury levels, some researchers recommend eating no more than two to five servings per week.

Flaxseed, a vegetarian omega-3 source, contains this helpful fat as alpha-linolenic acid, which helps reduce serum cholesterol, arterial plaque buildup, and inflammation, all hallmarks of heart disease (Circulation, 1999, vol. 99, no. 10; Nutrition Review, 2004, vol. 62, no. 1). A flaxseed-rich diet also has a positive impact on diabetes, a disorder related to sustained inflammation (Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, 2000, vol. 209, nos. 1-2). A daily beneficial dose is 30 to 40 grams from oil or seeds. Grind seeds first or chew them well; whole seeds simply pass through the body.

To benefit from adding omega-3s, you also must reduce omega-6s, which create pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. Omega-6s, found in vegetable oils and processed or fried foods, also interfere with omega-3s by competing for the same metabolic pathways. To create balance, limit omega-6-laden foods and eat more fish, whole grains, and leafy vegetables.

Pineapple’s healing power comes from bromelain, a powerful enzyme that first gained notice in 1956, when a dentist showed it diminished pain and swelling from dental impactions. Scientists now report that bromelain also aids the healing of mild ulcerative colitis, a disease characterized by inflammation of the colon’s mucosal layer (Annals of Internal Medicine, 2000, vol. 132, no. 8). Pineapple also harbors beneficial vitamin C. Because canning may destroy bromelain, fresh pineapple is best; add a cup or two to your daily diet. Bromelain supplements (750 to 1,000 mg daily) may be even more effective against inflammation; take between meals for best results.

Sour cherries
These tiny fruits pack a mighty anti-inflammatory wallop. Researchers at Michigan State University believe that anthocyanins, the phytochemicals that give tart cherries their brilliant color, work much like aspirin and ibuprofen to reduce joint pain by inhibiting inflammation-causing enzymes—a potential boon against cardiovascular and other chronic diseases (Journal of Natural Products, 1999, vol. 62, no. 5). According to Muraleedharan Nair, PhD, Michigan State professor of horticulture, food safety, and toxicology, just 30 to 35 tart cherries provide 25 mg of anthocyanins, enough to shut down the suspect enzymes. Moreover, cherries are high in vitamin C and quercetin, a flavonoid with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antihistaminic properties.

Red apples and onions
Like sour cherries, red apples and onions contain quercetin, which is associated with lower risk of heart disease, lung cancer, asthma, and type 2 diabetes (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2002, vol. 76, no. 3). Recently, researchers concluded that two or more red apples per week are enough to reduce asthma risk (American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2001, vol. 164, no. 10).

Turmeric, the root used to make the bright yellow spice, contains the phytochemical curcumin, which appears to suppress inflammation-related enzymes. In one study, curcumin and ibuprofen worked almost identically to reduce the development of brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease (Neurobiology of Aging, 2001, vol. 22, no. 6).

Green tea continues to impress researchers, including those who found that polyphenols abundant in green tea may prevent and reduce the severity of arthritis (Immunology, 1999, vol. 96, no. 8). A newer study suggests that green tea also helps relieve inflammatory bowel disease (Journal of Nutrition, 2001, vol. 131, no. 7).

But don’t stop at green; all teas from the Camellia sinensis leaf contain power-packed polyphenols in varying amounts. It’s unclear exactly how much tea you should drink to reap the benefits; Meggs advises at least 1 cup of strong tea daily, while other experts recommend at least 3 cups per day to obtain therapeutic levels (150 to 300 mg) of polyphenols.