As someone who is lucky enough to need to wear gloves from late September to mid March I can definitely attest to the fact that we are currently experiencing the warmest winter in recent history (I am not complaining!). However the long, dark evenings are definitely still there and without a doubt require lovely warm, comforting dishes to come home to. So wouldn’t it be fabulous if a few simple tweaks could take an old favourite to a new level where it not only gives our tummies a good old cuddle but also sorts out our aches and pains at the same time? Intrigued? Great let’s do it.
So the process we’re talking about today is inflammation.
When a cell is damaged by contact with bacteria, viruses, toxins, trauma, heat, cold or any other cause it releases a number of chemicals including histamine, bradykinin and prostaglandins. These act like little red flags and cause fluid to leak from the blood vessels into the surrounding tissue (what we see as swelling) whilst alerting the immune system to come to the injured cell’s aid. Both of these mechanisms will isolate whatever has caused the damage to prevent it spreading past the original site of injury. This is what we refer to as acute inflammatory response and it literally saves our lives.
So why would we want to stop it? The short answer is we don’t, not in this form at least. We may want to tone it down, for example if you sprain your ankle your doctor would advise you to elevate and ice it to help dissipate the fluid as the pressure may cause pain. It is more than likely they will advise some kind of anti-inflammatory medication as well such as Ibuprofen. Now I am not saying that today’s recipe is there to replace medication after a serious trauma but the specific components I will go on to discuss can be extremely helpful in other situations where inflammatory response gets a little over excited and causes symptoms. Hay fever for example is caused by an overproduction of histamine in response to pollen so maybe next time instead of reaching for an anti-histamine pill you’ll grab a red onion for its Quercetin content instead (a natural anti-histamine).
There is also another dark side to inflammation that we can move on to now we have the basic process covered.
Referred to as chronic or low grade inflammation, this insidious state has been implicated in the development of many conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. The mechanism is exactly the same but the triggers and progression are different, luckily for us this is where we can act.
So what’s setting off our inflammatory cascade then? A few of the big examples would be chronic stress, being overweight, smoking, pollutants and toxins.
The stress response is again designed to save our lives; you come face to face with that sabre tooth tiger and your ‘fight or flight’ response will cause a cascade of biological reactions that allow you to run like hell. Now not many people tend to find themselves regularly faced with such aggressive predators anymore, but stress itself has morphed and appears as juggling the kids with work, running late for a meeting, not having enough sleep and living off caffeine and sugar…the list is endless. The critical point here is that it is also continuous. When you legged it away from the tiger your requirement for that response then ended and your body returned to its happy ‘rest and digest’ state. Nowadays however most people will have some form of stress within their lives all the time so their bodies never have the opportunity to recover.
So how does this link with inflammation?
The stress response is caused by the release of the hormone Cortisol which should act to reduce inflammation by suppressing the immune system. The problem is when you keep the Cortisol levels high by remaining in this constantly stressed state your cells becomes less sensitive to it and so inflammation runs rampant behind the scenes.
Being overweight causes a similar situation as just carrying the extra burden is a stressful situation for the body. In addition to this a specific form of fat (Visceral Adipose Fat – the stuff that concentrates around your middle and is tough to shift) actually produces its own pro-inflammatory cytokines (the red flags from the beginning). Normally these would be turned off super quick once their message is delivered but in this situation they can’t be as they are continuously being produced. And so the low grade inflammation continues.
Smoking, pollutants and toxins actually trigger the inflammatory response in the way it was meant to act as they all cause damage to our tissues but again continuous environmental exposure to these substances means there is no recovery period for our bodies. This is where antioxidants are also important as continuous exposure requires just as continuous mopping up of free radicals created by these substances (which is why we all need our fruits and veggies, those colours = our lifesaving antioxidants).
So this is all going on and unfortunately packing up and moving to the virgin rainforest is not really convenient this week, so what do we do? We take a deep breath, grab our Poseidon-esque tridents and head into battle with our three pronged approach.
- Number 1: we bring our cortisol levels under control.
- Number 2: we load up on lovely anti-inflammatory nutrients to counteract the inflammation caused by situations we can’t avoid.
- Number 3: we boost our antioxidant levels to help mop up those toxins before they start damaging our tissues.
I’m not going to go into too much detail with Number 1 right now as that’d ruin the surprise I’ve got planned for next week but I’ll give you a couple of points to get ahead of the game. Firstly try and cut down on your caffeine intake, get some good sleeps in and take a moment for yourself every now and again to just be (no mobile, no TV, just chill. Maybe have a bath and take a couple of really deep breaths). Another great way to bring your cortisol down is by mindful relaxation so meditating or taking a yoga class. Try the Headspace app for free, it takes you through a guided meditation for 10 minutes a day and if it could save you from cancer or a heart attack in the future it’s worth a try at least?
I don’t know about you but I’m starting to get a little peckish so I think it’s probably about time we started to talk ingredients.
Organic, grass fed meat: some of you may be scratching your heads at this point, especially after the news headlines in the last few months linking red meat to increased cancer risk. The organic, grass fed bit here is the tipping point. Choosing this high quality meat means you gain a fatty acid profile closer to that of the oily fish you hear being extolled for its brilliant omega 3 content. It’s these omega 3 oils that are the anti-inflammatory agents in this chapter of the story.
Other forms of red meat will have a higher omega 6 : omega 3 ratio which pushes the scales in the opposite direction and makes them pro-inflammatory so this is a non-negotiable point! I do realise that this higher quality comes with a higher price tag but it’s your health, isn’t that the most important thing you’ve got? If you’re still struggling budget-wise substitute some of the meat with red lentils and you’ll still end up with a scrumptious delight without having to forgo anything at the end of the month.
Ginger: Long touted as an anti-inflammatory agent ginger has been shown to be particularly effective in the treatment of Arthritis (the -itis at the end means inflammation). Two clinical studies were conducted on patients some of whom had responded to conventional treatment and others who hadn’t. 75% reported a reduction in pain and measurements of swelling around the knee joint decreased by up to 4cm following the regular inclusion of ginger into their diet.
It is believed that the gingerol compounds within this sensational spice are responsible for its anti-inflammatory powers. And just to get you reaching for a bigger piece next time you’re in the supermarket, these gingerols are also amazing antioxidants. I personally love a good double whammy so lets all get grabbing the ginger!
Turmeric & Black Pepper: Now I’ve put these two together because the potent anti-inflammatory action of turmeric is massively increased by the presence of piperine (a compound within black pepper). And when I say turmeric is potent I mean potent. Numerous trials have shown that the anti-inflammatory capacity of curcumin (the active component in turmeric) is comparable to that of the drugs Hydrocortisone and Phenylbutazone. Add to that the research showing that 2 micrograms of piperine can increase the bioavailability of curcumin by up to 2000% and I’d say we’ve got a good thing going here.
Sweet potatoes: As we mentioned last time (here) these guys absolutely top the scales in terms of their beta-carotene content (another extremely potent antioxidant). So swopping them in in the place of their white comrades starts to shoot this dinner up into the stratosphere of awesomeness. Combine them with the fabulous fat content of the meat and coconut oil and you’ve maximised your absorption as well.
But that’s only the beginning of the story with these babies. Sweet potatoes also contain other pigment compounds (including anthocyanin) that act directly to turn off the inflammatory cascade (fill your pockets team!). Chuck in the extra titbit that they have recently also been shown to prevent the breakdown of the Myelin Sheath (the covering that surrounds and insulates our nerve cells) and you can specifically add Multiple Sclerosis and Motor Neurone Disease to the list of future issues we’re guarding against.
So that inflammation is absolutely stopping in its tracks right now and we’re not even finished!
Garlic: The basis of garlic’s astronomical anti-inflammatory powers lie in its sulphur compounds. And due to the fact that they are so numerous this little trooper doesn’t just confine his prowess to one area of the body, oh no, he stomps about all over the place like a fireman quelling inflammation where ‘ere he treads (figuratively speaking of course due to the lack of feet but you get my gist). Particular areas of benefit include the maintenance of good cardiovascular health (garlic also has anti-coagulant properties, bit of an overachiever ey!) and the treatment of allergic airway conditions like asthma.
Most excitingly in my view (not to diminish the above in any way) is the emerging research into the effect of garlic on the evolution of fat cells. A mature fat cell is known as an Adipocyte but before it reaches this stage it is a Preadipocyte. A specific sulphur compound in garlic (1,2,-vinyldithiin or 1,2-DT) has been identified in preventing the maturation from a Preadipocyte to an Adipocyte. As we mentioned earlier obesity is both a causative factor in and a condition characterised by chronic, low grade inflammation so this could be an extremely exciting area of research to keep an eye on (or maybe I’ll keep an eye on it and let you know what happens!). Good old garlic, we love you even if you do make our breath a little ‘fragrant’….!
Onions: Although not as widely researched for their anti-inflammatory capacity as their good old friend Mr Garlic, specific compounds found only in onions have been identified as inflammatory cascade breakers. Onionin A is a unique sulphur based compound found within the onion bulb which inhibits the activity of certain immune cells (macrophages) which are involved in the triggering of large scale inflammatory processes.
Onion’s trademark antioxidant Quercetin (along with others) also act to prevent the oxidation of fatty acids within the body. Oxidised fatty acids are big producers of those pro-inflammatory chemical messengers so cutting down their numbers will help our cause no end.
And with that lovely thought I think we’ll call it a day, I’m heading off to make some ginger tea and get cracking on the pile of sweet potatoes in the kitchen, Happy Cooking!
Indian Spiced Shepherd’s Pie Serves 4-6
FOR THE TOPPING:
- 750g sweet potatoes
- Salt & pepper to taste
FOR THE FILLING:
- 3 cloves garlic, grated
- thumb size piece of fresh ginger, grated (skin on for organic or peeled if not)
- 1 large or 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 2 carrots, finely chopped
- 2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 400g organic grass fed beef or lamb mince or 250g mince & 150g red lentils
- 750ml organic beef stock or bone broth
- To serve: Steamed broccoli or another green leafy vegetable such as kale, cavelo nero, swiss chard or cabbage
- Grate the garlic & ginger and leave to one side.
- Melt 1/2 teaspoon of coconut oil in a large pan and quickly brown the mince over a high heat, remove from the pan and set aside.
- Add a little more coconut oil then sweat the diced onion/leek for 5 mins before adding the celery and carrots. Continue to cook for a further 5 mins then add the dried spices, garlic and ginger. Cook on low (keep stirring so nothing catches) for a 2 mins then return the mince to the pan. Add the lentils at this point if using.
- Add the stock, bring to a gentle simmer and leave to cook slowly for 30-40 mins or until the sauce is reduced.
- Whilst the mince is cooking peel and chop the sweet potatoes, add to a pan and cover with water with a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil and simmer gently until tender, about 10-15 mins depending on the size of the pieces. Drain and leave to steam in the colander when done. You don’t want to mash them when they’re too hot as the result will be watery.
- Preheat the oven to 220°C
- Mash the cooled sweet potatoes and season to taste.
- Stir the peas through the mince then spoon into a casserole dish, top with the sweet potato mash and put into the oven until crisp and bubbling, approx 10-15 mins.
- Serve with your steamed veg of choice and give yourself a big old pat on the back!