Let’s Talk About Inflammation

I want to be clear that this discussion about inflammation and the way to use food as a means to mitigate systemic inflammation is not designed to encourage people to stop your psychiatric medication.   Please consult your own mental health practitioner in order to better understand how some of the interventions discussed in this post may/may not be beneficial to your own life circumstances.  I am, first and foremost, a clinician.  I make my living in the hourly gig of being a therapist.  I work within the very real and very pertinent reality of a clinical private practice.  And with that reality I more than understand the need for conscientious and thorough clinical assessment in order to understand a patient’s risk potential.  

So, that being said, let’s chat about inflammation in the body.  We have long known that inflammation is often a first indicator that the precarious sense of equilibrium inside our body has begun to falter.  So many of the early signs related to imbalances are expressed through the language of inflammation.  Arthritis is inflamed joints. IBS, Colitis, etc. indicate inflammatory response in the intestines.  Headaches, migraines, etc. are of the brain.  Eczema, dermatitis, etc. are of the skin. And so on and so on.  You get the point.   We can trace inflammation back to the vast majority of physical symptoms.  As it turns out, certain depressive patterns are also an indicator of inflammation within the brain.  Historically speaking, we have treated these types of inflammatory reactions with suppressant medications.  As a clinician, I more than understand the instinct to want to “fix” what ails your patient.   A patient arrives in your office with unwanted and painful symptoms and historically speaking it has been the obligation of the doctor to “cure” that “problem.”   The unfortunate by product of the successful efforts to suppress people’s pain is that we lost the drive or focus or willingness to engage in a journey of figuring out why some people had such high levels of inflammation.  Furthermore, we failed to develop a protocol to help the patient reduce the inflammation through empowered lifestyle choices.  We also, inadvertently, created a pattern where patients became increasingly disintegrated from participating in the process of becoming well.  As patients, we began to believe that the remedy was external.  We lost focus on the part of wellness that is our responsibility and the aspect of our health that is, at its core, a collaborative endeavor between patient and doctor.

Psychology and psychiatry have had a similar developmental arch, with the past several decades being heavily focused on medications that suppress or minimize the symptoms of our emotional pain.  Research in a number of articles examining post mortem brain structure of people with depression (and Schizophrenia) indicates high levels of inflammation. Additionally, there are a growing number of researchers examining treatment protocols aimed at creating medications that will reduce brain inflammation with patients who endorse symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).   While the results are promising, the research is still in its infancy in terms of understanding the complex molecular dynamics between psychiatric symptoms and brain inflammation.  

In the meantime, there are a lot of ways you can start to address brain inflammation right in the comfort of your own home (and it will subsequently impact all forms of inflammation in your body.  It’s that old adage, “how you do one thing is how you do all things”).  Most of the interventions are actually quite simple.   Again, if you are struggling with profound depression, or you are already in the care of a psychiatrist, or you are deeply emotionally fragile in other ways, it will be best for you to seek partnership with both a functional medicine doctor/naturopathic doctor (ND) and a mental health professional in order to understand your own unique needs.   In my private practice, I work closely ND’s and functional medicine doctors to help educate my patients about inflammation and how it might be contributing to his/her psychiatric presentation.  We also work together to develop and implement strategies to begin healing/reversing this pattern.   What we have come back to time and again are principles that are simple and straightforward.  These principles, which we call The Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle, are ideas and concepts you already know.  I ask of my patients (those that arrive at their first office visit already emotionally ready to “work”) to follow these guidelines fairly strictly for at least a month before we assess his/her baseline level of emotional functioning.  What I am most interested in seeing is how do you think and feel when you are “clean” so to speak, meaning you have made a reasonable effort to clean up your diet, sleep and exercise moderately.   That is what I would consider your “baseline level of functioning.”   From this starting point we can work together to untie the emotional and psychological patterns that bind you to a cycle of pain and suffering (both emotionally and physically.  They are related.  I promise).  Notice that the strategies I suggest do not focus on elimination of foods, but rather adding in more and more nutritiously dense foods.  The theory is that if you add in healthy food it will eventually crowd out the less beneficial foods.  Below are the general guidelines I ask my patients to follow for at least 30 days: 

A diet that is widely comprised of plant based foods, especially dark green leafy ones. Plants are loaded with phytonutrients that are highly bioavailable (meaning our bodies can readily and easily metabolize the nutrients). You can drink the veggies in smoothies and juices, eat them raw in salads, sauté them in a pan.  All that matters is that you get them.  Lots of them.  Aim for 6 cups/day.   Consume clean forms of animal and fish protein.  Think humane, local, and organic. With those three principles in mind, you should be good in terms of quality of animal protein.  Try to add 1-2 cups of fresh organic berries to your daily diet.  Please try to make sure you are eating enough “healthy” fats, like nuts, seeds and avocados.  These sources of fat are critical for our brain development and functioning.   

If you can tolerate it, take a turmeric supplement or finds ways to include it in your diet.  

Exercise-3-5x/week.  You can define exercise however you would like.  Walk.  Run.  Walk slow.  Yoga.  Hike. Swim.  Bike. Etc.   Move your body 3-5x/week enough to sweat a little.  You do not have to like it.

But you gotta do it.  

Sleep.   Then, sleep some more.  

Significantly minimize alcohol.  If you find that hard to do, explore that relationship and be curious about the nature of that “partnership. “ 

Attempt (emphasis on attempt) to minimize stress through some application of mindfulness.  
Make an anti-inflammatory tea each evening.  Drink at least one cup (see below for recipe).  Recipe credit goes to Dr. Kristen Coles, ND at Steelsmith Natural Health Center here in Honolulu (808-943-0330). 

Be curious about how you feel, emotionally and psychologically.  Investigate your feelings, thoughts, physical sensations and ideas from a standpoint of wonder.  Attempt to abandon judgment, preconceived notions, or expectations.  

Elective:
Try to locate a Functional Medicine doctor or naturopath in your area to work with to better understand the nature of your particular needs when it comes to your psychological equilibrium.   There are a plethora of treatment options for mild to moderate depression that do not include the use of psychotropic medications.    

Anti-Inflammatory Tea: 
2-inch section of Ginger root
2-inch section of Turmeric Root
2 Sticks of Cinnamon     
1 Tbsp. of coconut cream

Boil two cups of water with the cut up ginger and turmeric root and 1 stick of cinnamon.  Boil for 20 minutes or longer.  Place 1 tbsp. of coconut cream in a teacup.   Pour in the tea.  

Drink and enjoy. 

If you are interested in finding out more about Naturopathic doctors or locating a practitioner, check out: www.naturopathic.org

If you are interested in learning more about Functional Medicine or locating a practitioner in your area, check out: www.functionalmedicine.org