Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury and infection.
However, chronic inflammation — which may be influenced by diet, inadequate sleep, and high stress levels — is linked to overweight and obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer (1, 2, 3).
Fortunately, studies have shown that some cultural foods common to the Caribbean region, as well as overall lifestyle habits, fight inflammation.
Here are 8 anti-inflammatory foods common to the Caribbean and its diasporas.
1. Cocoa and dark chocolate
The Caribbean has a longstanding history of producing quality cocoa products, with the Trinidad & Tobago Fine Cocoa Company among the oldest.
Flavanols — antioxidants found in cocoa products — have anti-inflammatory properties that may protect blood vessel health, potentially reducing your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. They may also improve exercise performance and recovery (4, 5, 6, 7).
Furthermore, flavanol-rich cocoa and dark chocolate guard against blood vessel damage from oxidative stress, which occurs with age and in people who smoke, by increasing nitric oxide production (8, 9).
Nitric oxide is a compound that may reduce inflammation and support healthy blood flow (10).
The higher the percentage of cocoa that dark chocolate contains, the more flavanols and greater antioxidant properties it has — although it may be slightly less palatable, as high percentages of cocoa increase bitterness (7).
Enjoy dark chocolate bites for a snack or sip a warm cup of cocoa tea at night.
Shop for cocoa products from Trinidad & Tobago Fine Cocoa Company online.
Flavanols in cocoa and dark chocolate may reduce inflammation and support your blood vessels, potentially reducing your risk of developing heart disease and stroke.
2. West Indian cherry (acerola)
West Indian cherry, also called acerola (Malpighia emarginata), is lauded for the high levels of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) that it provides (11, 12, 13).
One cup (98 grams) of this fruit contains 1,650 mg of vitamin C. That’s 18 to 22 times the daily intake recommendation of 75 mg for women and 90 mg for men (14).
Vitamin C fights inflammation by reducing the number of free radicals — the by-products of metabolism — in the body. Current research is exploring its potential to reduce the risk of developing some cancers (15, 16).
West Indian cherry is rich in other anti-inflammatory compounds, such as carotenoids, polyphenols, and flavonoids, and may have anti-aging properties (11).
The fruit blooms between the spring and autumn and may be enjoyed raw or made into a juice.
West Indian cherry (acerola) is a potent source of the anti-inflammatory antioxidant vitamin C. It provides up to 22 times the daily recommended value.
3. Pimento pepper
Peppers of the capsicum family, including pimento pepper (Capsicum annum), contain phytochemical compounds that may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (17).
These include flavonoids, quercetin, alkaloids, carotenoids, and capsaicinoids (17).
In animal studies, capsaicin — the spicy component of mild and hot peppers — reduced the release of pro-inflammatory compounds by adipose tissue in rats with obesity. It also reduced cell damage in the guts of mice (18, 19).
However, human research is needed.
The pimento pepper is related to the habanero pepper (Capsicum chinense), but it’s less spicy. It’s traditionally used to add flavor to myriad cooked dishes, including stews and soups.
The pimento pepper, a member of the Capsicum pepper family, contains phytochemicals that may have anti-inflammatory properties. However, more human research is needed.
4. Red sorrel
Red sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa), also called roselle, is a mainstay in traditional medicine.
Both animal and human studies found that red sorrel may lower blood pressure and cholesterol. It may also reduce body weight, insulin resistance, and markers of inflammation (20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25).
One study determined that the plant is a good candidate to investigate for its role as an herbal supplement for cancer prevention and treatment. More human clinical trials are needed, though (26).
The benefits of red sorrel may be attributed to its abundance of anthocyanins, in addition to other polyphenols, and hibiscus acids (21, 23, 25).
Roselle tea is quite popular as a hot or cold beverage. In the Caribbean, fresh and dried leaves of the plant are primarily used to make the traditional Christmastime drink sorrel juice.
Red sorrel, or roselle, tea is a popular beverage that may have anti-inflammatory properties. It may reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, body weight, and insulin resistance.
5. Passion fruit
Extracts of the Passiflora family, including passion fruit (Passiflora edulis), have long been used in herbal medicines to treat anxiety and convulsive disorders (27, 28, 29).
It contains potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, such as flavonoids, piceatannol, and triterpenoids, which may lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and high blood sugar levels (29, 30, 31).
One study found that piceatannol extract from passion fruit improved insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and heart rate in men with overweight. However, it didn’t have the same effect on women with moderate weight or women with overweight (32).
More human research is needed.
Passion fruit is tart, but you can eat it raw or make it into juice or lilikoi jelly, a staple breakfast food in Hawaiian culture.
Passion fruit has anti-inflammatory compounds that may help reduce blood sugar and cholesterol. It may also have antihypertensive effects.
6. Curcumin (turmeric)
Curcumin may have anti-inflammatory health benefits that protect brain health and fight against diabetes, heart disease, bowel disease, arthritis, obesity-related inflammation, and cancer (33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38).
Curcumin is the active compound in turmeric that provides the spice with its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Combining curcumin with piperine, the active ingredient in black pepper, may enhance your body’s curcumin absorption, making more of this powerful compound available to reduce inflammation (39).
In the Caribbean, turmeric is commonly added to dishes prepared with Indian spices, including curry and geera (ground cumin).
Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric and is responsible for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Piperine from black pepper may enhance the absorption of curcumin in the body.
Ginger is common in cooked foods and hot beverages throughout the Caribbean.
Its major active components — 6-gingerol and 6-shogaol — improve enzyme pathways related to obesity-induced inflammation, rheumatoid arthritis, aging, and neurocognitive diseases (40, 41, 42, 43).
Studies show that whole ginger extract, or 6-shogaol, may reduce chronic lung inflammation. One in vitro study suggests that it could be used as a therapeutic treatment for asthma in the future (43).
However, more human research is needed.
Ginger may have anti-inflammatory benefits that protect against rheumatoid arthritis, aging, and neurodegenerative diseases. It’s being studied for potential use as an asthma treatment.
Cinnamon is well-known for its role in reducing blood sugar levels (44).
Rats on a high fat diet supplemented with polyphenol extracts from cinnamon bark experienced a reduction in inflammation from adipose tissues and improved insulin resistance (45, 46).
However, human studies have yielded conflicting results.
For instance, one review showed that supplementation with cinnamon significantly reduced most markers of inflammation (47).
But on the other hand, two clinical trials in people with type 2 diabetes showed that cinnamon supplementation reduced cholesterol levels, but inconsistently reduced markers of inflammation (48, 49).
More research is needed, but studies suggest that cinnamon may be used as an adjunct to conventional medicine to combat inflammation.
Cinnamon is a popular spice that may reduce blood sugar levels and cholesterol, but more human research on its potential anti-inflammatory properties is needed.
Lifestyle modifications: Sleep and stress management
In addition to fueling your diet with nutritious, anti-inflammatory foods, it’s important that your lifestyle habits do not contribute to high levels of inflammation.
Poor sleep — specifically, sleep disturbances — is linked to compromised immune health and increased inflammation (50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55).
Furthermore, emotional and psychological stress are associated with poor cardiovascular health and may raise your risk of experiencing acute coronary heart disease events (56).
What you can do:
- Aim for 7–9 hours of sleep per night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults 18 years and older get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night (57).
- Move your body. Moderate-intensity exercise may reduce inflammation and depression. Most people should engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, along with at least 2 days of muscle-strengthening exercises (58, 59).
- Manage your stress levels. Take care of your emotional health by making time to unwind, connecting with friends and family, or seeking support through therapy with a licensed professional.
Poor sleep quality and high stress levels may increase inflammation, as well as your risk of developing heart disease. Aim for 7–9 hours of sleep, get sufficient exercise, and manage your emotional health to fight inflammation.
The bottom line
Chronic inflammation can increase your risk of chronic illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Cultural foods, such as red sorrel, turmeric, and passion fruit, contain phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may support your health.
Be sure to support an anti-inflammatory diet by getting enough sleep, exercising, and managing your emotional health.
Read this article in Spanish.