Controlling Inflammation: Global Spices and Foods Provide Anti-Inflammatory Benefits

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by Dr. Michael Wargovich, PhD

Scientific evidence suggests that chronic inflammation is associated with increased risk for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other diseases. Although inflammation is part of the body’s natural defense system and healing process, when it is prolonged it can damage the body’s tissues.

Nature provides a bounty of anti-inflammatory foods that people have consumed for centuries in many underdeveloped parts of the world. Cultures with access to these spices, herbs and teas have enjoyed reduced risk for many cancers, compared to westernized countries.

Natural Anti-inflammatories

Spices that are excellent sources of inflammation-fighting phytochemicals include cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, black cumin seed and rosemary. Dark chocolate is also a good source of anti-inflammatories, while resveratrol, the pigmented compound in red wine, is another. The health benefits of green tea are widely known—it was one of the first sources of inflammation inhibitors to be scientifically validated.

Modern acculturation means that formerly protected populations are abandoning the use of protective foods in favor of a high-calorie, phytochemical-poor diet. If you look at the world “cancer map” compiled by the IARC and Globocan, you will see that cancer rates today are highest in western and westernized countries; however, by 2020 the biggest rates of increase will be in developing and newly industrialized countries.

Studies of the eating and drinking patterns of the world’s populations that have historically been protected against breast, colon and prostate cancer indicate that the way they’ve been protected has been cultural – it is attributed to their everyday exposure to healthy phytochemicals. That’s where your effort comes in, incorporating some of the natural anti-inflammatories into everyday eating. The best way to do this is to get these agents from foods rather than from dietary supplements.

A Little Help From Nature

Nature, however, sometimes needs a little help. The truth is that many food-sourced antioxidants and antiinflammatory compounds are poorly absorbed by our bodies once we eat them. But there are things that boost the uptake of these health-sustaining agents.

For example, a squirt of citrus juice (lemon, lime, orange) provides ascorbic acid that can improve the bioavailability of tea antioxidants ten-fold. And a secret from the cuisines of India, already loaded with anti-inflammatory spices, is the critical addition of just one: black pepper. Black pepper contains a natural compound known as piperine. Think of piperine as an ally in the battle of bioavailability; its addition to a spicy dish will also greatly enhance the intake of natural antioxidants. And the fire of chili peppers is provided by capsaicin, which also accelerates the intake of spice-based antiinflammatories.

So rather than examining the labels of processed foods and supplements to see if you’re getting your recommended daily allowances, you’ll be a lot better off (and enjoy eating more) if you include small but daily amounts of a variety of spices, fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs and teas in your family’s diet.

Dr. Michael Wargovich is an internationally recognized expert in nutrition, cancer chemoprevention, and the prevention of colorectal cancer. He joined the Cancer Therapy & Research Center at the UT Health Science Center in 2012 as a professor of molecular medicine and the Cancer Center Council Distinguished Chair in Oncology. He is also the co-leader of the CTRC Cancer Prevention and Population Science Program. After obtaining his Ph.D. in microbiology at Texas Tech University, Dr. Wargovich distinguished himself through his research involving the use of natural products to prevent cancer while offering the collateral benefit of reducing the risk of other chronic inflammatory diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

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