Brain on Fire Part II – Lifestyle Modification; Nutrition, Exercise and Stress Reduction as Powerful Tools Against Inflammation
Stay tuned to the BLOG for parts three and four in this “Brain on Fire” series by Dr. Wiley!
Our environment is largely responsible for the degree to which we experience inflammation. The high carbohydrate diet, which is high in saturated fats and low in nutrient dense foods such as vegetables, fruit and whole grain fiber, is directly linked to inflammatory disease . A high stress and sedentary lifestyle dominated by technology with limited exercise and “activities of daily living” promotes inflammatory hormones and poor body composition. The result is inflammation. While the task of decreasing inflammation may seem insurmountable under these circumstances, your Naturopathic doctor can help you develop a lifestyle modification plan that is simple to follow and has many health benefits.
Let’s start by taking a look at nutrition. Our diet lays the foundation for either promoting or reducing inflammation. The one of the biggest contributing factors to inflammation in or diet is sugar. The average Canadian consumes over 23.1 kg of sugar per year. Sugar can be found in high concentration in many hidden places from cereal to white bread, bagels, pasta, potatoes, rice, candy, and processed foods. In contrast, low carbohydrate diets such as the Paleo diet and Ketogenic [5-6] diet are associated with a reduction in inflammation. Similarly, healthy dietary fats such as coconut oil and olive oil have been show to have ant-inflammatory properties while saturated animal fats and hydrogenated or chemically-modified fats promote inflammation [5-6]. Thus, consuming a low carbohydrate diet that is rich in healthy fats is a great place to start.
The brain-gut connection is also something that needs to be considered. Our immune system is in direct communication with our digestive system, scanning for foreign invaders and ready to mount an inflammatory response. If we chronically expose ourselves to foods or allergens that irritate our digestive-immune system we will promote inflammation . Our brains are sensitive to this inflammation, which is why many individuals report improvement in their mental health when they remove food sensitivities from their diet . Your naturopathic doctor can teach you how to identify and eliminate your food sensitivities.
Exercise or simply moving your body has powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Research has shown that exercise is an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression . In Japan the practice of “shinrin-yoku” meaning forest bathing has demonstrated a huge benefit to a population struggling with an epidemic of exhaustion and depression. In one study, forest walking reduced inflammatory cytokines and lowered cortisol levels . Here in Toronto, Dr. Mike Evans, a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital, synthesized research in a presentation entitled “23 and ½ hours: What is the single most important thing for your health”. The research documents many of the powerful anti-inflammatory effects of simply walking for 30 minutes a day . When we consider how these activities affect inflammation on a cellular level, we see that exercise not only decreases the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and C-reactive protein but also simultaneously enhances the concentrations of anti-inflammatory cytokines when compared with controls . Many different types of exercise have been studied with great success and the secret is that the activity does not need to be complicated. From running to cycling, strength training to yoga, all types of activity can have benefit so it is best to choose activities that you like and can sustain.
There is no doubt about it, stress is inflammatory and is associated with depression. Stress rates among Canadians continue to increase. According the Stats Canada’s Community Health Survey, in 2011 approximately 23.6% of Canadians 15 years of age or older reported that most days felt “extremely or quite a bit stressful”  Psychological stress is strongly associated with depression and fuels pro-inflammatory cytokine production . How we manage our stress and the support systems available to us go a long way to support depression treatment and prevention. In particular, practices such as Mindfulness Meditation, Yoga , and Tai Chi have consistent show benefit in the reduction of perceived stress levels and depression [15,16,17]
A comprehensive lifestyle approach to decreasing inflammation is necessary for addressing the environmental links to the development depression, and implementation of these tools can help treat and alleviate symptoms. The safety profile for these interventions is impeccable and the interventions have numerous additional health benefits. Optimal nutrition, such as consuming a low carbohydrate diet that is rich in healthy fats, avoiding food sensitivities, exercising for thirty minutes a day, and participating in stress reducing activities offers choice in a variety of supportive treatment options. Your Naturopathic doctor can help you develop an individualized plan designed to meet your health goals and set you on the path to decreasing inflammation and preventing or treating depression.
While these lifestyle interventions are necessary to address the root cause of our susceptibility to inflammation, they are not the only tool we have available as we build our anti-inflammatory lifestyle. In parts three and four of this series we will explore how supplements can be used for their anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and genetic modification properties.
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Dr. Erin Wiley is a naturopathic doctor with a strong focus on preventative and integrative medicine. She is the Co-founder and Clinic Director of the Integrative Health Institute, an integrative medical clinic located in downtown Toronto. Erin has a strong clinical emphasis on stress related illness, anxiety, depression and hormone balance. As a naturopathic doctor, Erin is passionate about working with people to help them better understand their health and achieve their health goals.
About Integrative Health Institute:
The Integrative Health Institute (IHI) is a modern and dynamic clinic, founded in naturopathic philosophy and embodying team-driven healthcare. IHI reflects a vision to create an urban health centre that is driven by a team of practitioners passionate about health promotion and illness prevention. Since its inception, IHI has grown to become a full service integrative health clinic, with more than 13 practitioners including naturopathic doctors, osteopathic & chiropractic doctors, massage therapists, and nutritional/lifestyle coaches.