I had inadvertently set myself on fire.

Everything about me was hot and bothered. I was consumed by inflammation — overwhelming fatigue, painful joints and burning skin — and it was taking me down. I was just 32 years old with a 6-week old baby girl. Prior to that I was the picture of health — a competitive athlete and registered dietitian — but suddenly I found myself facing a debilitating autoimmune disease (rheumatoid arthritis) without reliable predictors to determine how quickly it would progress.

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, compromised gut health 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 evidence-based — although not mainstream — diet and lifestyle modification to reduce the inflammation that was fueling my disease, just as it does for so many others.

Inflammation Defined
Simply put, inflammation is the immune system’s response to a stimulus that is viewed as foreign or toxic to your body (also known as an “antigen”). Your immune system constantly monitors for anything that appears as a foreign intruder (like an infectious bacteria or other material), and is always at the ready to signal its highly-specialized troops of cells and molecules to attack and dispose of the foreign matter.

Inflammation can play an essential role in our health and healing as the primary defense mechanism against acute conditions — like when a fever fights off an infection, or blood rushes to a sprained ankle to help heal the tissue. 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
  • fatigue
  • depression
  • digestive upset
  • skin problems (acne, eczema, psoriasis)
  • food sensitivities
  • resistant weight loss
  • autoimmune conditions

Putting Out the Flames: A Comprehensive Approach
Our bodies and systems are complex, and fixing an issue within them can be as well. Addressing inflammation naturally 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, including:

Compromised Digestive Health
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 “leaky” (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.

Unbalanced Hormone Levels
Hormones like insulin (triggered by refined carbohydrate intake) and stress hormones are inflammatory to your system and can suppress your immune system. Endocrine disruptors (found in many personal care products as well as pesticides) can suppress thyroid hormones, which not only regulate metabolism, but are involved with gut health and inflammation. They also play a critical role in nearly every physiological process in our bodies.

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. However, a compromised digestive system, poor nutrition, certain medications and/or health conditions can all contribute to nutrient deficiencies.

Taking Action
It can be overwhelming to create a diet and lifestyle plan that will address all three of the areas above, but it is achievable when you focus on small, specific action steps.

Here are 10 to get you started:

1. Balance your fats.
With our current Standard American Diet (SAD), we are consuming an excess of processed, omega-6 fats in relation to omega-3 fats. Historically, the ratio was close to 1:1, but now it is estimated at 15 (omega-6):1 (omega-3). And it is this skewed RATIO — not the TOTAL fat –that is causing inflammation and the related health conditions.

In order to get back in balance, try to avoid processed vegetable oils — corn, soy, canola and margarine — replacing with organic, cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive; macadamia; flax; avocado; coconut; organic, grass-fed ghee or butter.

2. Choose animal protein that is organic and grass-fed, or pastured.
Animals that eat grass will have more anti-inflammatory, omega-3 fats and will not be fed antibiotics or synthetic hormones that can disrupt your microbiome. As a rule, treat all animal protein like a side dish, rather than the main course.

3. Up your intake of dark, leafy greens.
This class of vegetables is a nutritional powerhouse, providing many essential vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin E (a potent inflammation-fighter), B-vitamins, disease-fighting phytonutrients, and calcium. Enjoy them cooked in the good fats listed in point number one, integrate them into a smoothie, or add to everyday dishes like eggs, soups, and sauces.

4. Swap out processed, gluten-containing grains for root vegetables.
Gluten is a large, hard-to-digest protein that can contribute to a leaky gut and is a common food sensitivity — linked to over 50 disease states. Try replacing gluten-containing grains with sweet potato or yucca, or gluten-free ancient grains (e.g., quinoa, millet) to ensure your diet is still in balance with adequate fiber, prebiotics and B-vitamins.

5. Eliminate pasteurized cow’s milk.
Pasteurization kills the active enzymes and live active cultures that allow your body to digest dairy properly and also decreases the absorption of many vital nutrients, including: fat-soluble nutrients (Vitamins A, D, E, K), certain minerals (manganese, copper, and iron), Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin A. Cow’s milk also contains an inflammatory, difficult-to-digest protein — casein. Similar to gluten, casein is a common food sensitivity and linked to several health conditions.

Opt for dairy-free nut or hemp milks instead. If you’ve confirmed you don’t have a sensitivity, goat, sheep, or raw cow’s milk are still better options anyway, as they are easier to digest and less inflammatory.

6. Clean up your products.
Gradually eliminate home and personal care products made with endocrine-disrupting parabens, fragrances (often contain phthalates), and BPA. Instead, try products made with essential oil–based fragrances, and swap plastic food storage containers with glass.

7. Limit refined sugar and avoid artificial sweeteners.
Refined sugar is devoid of nutritional value, feeds pathogenic bacteria, and suppresses your immune system. Artificial sweeteners can suppress beneficial gut bacteria, are associated with many chronic conditions and adverse effects, and still raise blood sugar, increasing inflammatory insulin levels. Substitute soda for plain filtered water, club soda, mineral water, or kombucha. Replace refined sugar with more nutrient-dense options, like black strap molasses, raw honey, or organic maple syrup.

8. Incorporate probiotics.
Probiotic supplements and fermented foods (e.g. kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha) provide beneficial, or commensal, bacteria for your microbiome, allowing it to carry out its essential functions for digestion, nutrient absorption, and immunity.

9. 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 to lower the damaging hormonal response to chronic stress. Find five other great tips here.

10. Get at least seven hours of sleep per night — but aim for eight.
Lack of sleep — even mild or short-term deprivation — can increase inflammation and contribute to chronic disease. Be sure to turn off your electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime and get to sleep no later than 11 p.m. to be within the most restorative window.

For more guidance on healing inflammation, check out my book, INFLAMED: Discover the root cause of inflammation and personalize a step-by-step plan to create a healthy, vibrant life. The book details my entire journey of healing and provides a comprehensive, evidenced-based approach to fighting inflammation with diet and lifestyle.

Originally published at medium.com