Combat Inflammation With Nutrition
Should we adjust our diets to push back against inflammation? After all, isn’t inflammation sometimes a good thing?
It’s true that acute inflammation is necessary in healing our tissues and creating cellular-level defense mechanisms against threats to our health. But chronic inflammation is a problem because it can erode healthy cells over time. We discussed how that happens here.
Further, a growing body of science demonstrates that it is possible to curb chronic inflammation by making certain lifestyle choices—including dietary choices.
In this post, we will dig deeper into the immune system’s functioning to explore the connection between inflammation and what we eat.
Our Immune Systems and Inflammation
The immune system protects us from harmful invaders.
Everyone has an innate immunity—it gives our body the ability to protect ourselves from harm. If an outside agent, such as a virus or a bacteria, comes into contact with our body and has the potential to cause damage, the immune system will send out alerts to activate protective substances like mucus and stomach acid.
As we grow up, our immune systems adapt to our environments. They keep a record of threats and build up a pre-programmed set of defensive biological responses. Inflammation is one of those responses.
Inflammation, therefore, is a necessary response to protect and heal the body. Inflammation only becomes a problem when the immune system does not correctly regulate its inflammatory responses to danger. When this happens, short-term acute inflammation becomes harmful chronic inflammation, and that can lead to tissue damage and inflammatory diseases.
We Can Mitigate Chronic Inflammation Through Nutrition
Because chronic inflammation has a long onset period and its symptoms are not obvious, it is difficult to recognize and treat timely.
Further, some medical treatment for chronic inflammation can be harmful to our bodies. Researchers Joseph C. Maroon, Jeffrey W. Bost and Adara Maroon from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have found that herbs and dietary supplements might offer a safer, better treatment option for chronic inflammation than certain pharmaceutical treatments can.
Our diets may be the key to keeping our inflammatory responses balanced in addition to being an important component of living a long, healthy life. According to a study published in the Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, healthy aging and longevity are likely the results of not only a lower tendency to mount inflammatory responses but also of efficient anti-inflammatory networks. Anti-inflammatory dieting and supplementing can therefore extend human healthspans.
The Ingredients in an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
The dietary choices you make can help limit chronic inflammation. Some foods, however, are better than others. Let’s have a look at what scientists say when it comes to anti-inflammatory foods and their protective mechanisms.
1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
At the University of California at San Diego, researchers Paul Norris and Edward Dennis found omega-3 fatty acids have both cardioprotective and anti-inflammatory effects on the body.
Research is ongoing as to what precise biological pathways the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s use, but research by The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health suggest omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids manage inflammatory diseases via intracellular signaling pathways, transcription factor activity and gene expression.
Researchers at Cardiff University saw a similar effect in arthritic bone tissue when omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids were introduced.
Sources of omega-3s include:
- Cold-water fish and shellfish. This includes salmon, herring, mackerel, trout, sardines, anchovies and oysters. Oysters in particular are helpful because they contain copper, which helps to “maintain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant responses in the body,” according to nutritionist Willow Jarosh.
- Nuts, beans, seeds and oils. Plant-based omega-3s are also helpful in fighting chronic inflammation. This includes everything from walnuts to kidney beans to chia seeds to flaxseed oil.
2. Vitamin D
As researchers Kai Yin and Devendra K. Agrawal from the Creighton University School of Medicine point out, vitamin D plays an important role in the modulation of inflammatory responses by regulating the production of inflammatory cytokines and inhibiting the proliferation of proinflammatory cells.
Sources of vitamin D include:
- Fatty fish. This includes tuna, salmon and mackerel.
- Dairy and eggs. This includes milk, cheese and egg yolks.
- Sunlight. It’s not part of your diet, but the fact that the sun can provide you with certain anti-inflammatory nutrients goes to show how a healthy, active lifestyle has self-reinforcing benefits.
Curcumin, which gives the yellow color to turmeric, has been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. According to researchers at The University of Texas, the anti-inflammatory effects are mediated through the regulation of inflammatory cytokines.
4. Chilli Pepper
Capsaicin, found in chili pepper, inhibits the protein complex NF-kB that controls cytokine production (aka inflammation), according to a study in Mutation Research. That means chili pepper can produce an anti-inflammatory effect and can provide a nutritional method for fighting chronic inflammation.
Researcher Bochra Laribi and her team have studied the bioactive constituents of coriander, and their review highlights, among other things, the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities of both the seed and the herb’s essential oils.
Professor Janet Funk, MD at the University of Arizona lead a team of researchers who studied the anti-inflammatory effects of ginger. The team found that ginger does have anti-inflammatory properties, but not merely in its form as a ground root. Its essential oils and its gingerols—the compounds that make ginger taste spicy to us—are also useful in curbing chronic inflammation.
The anti-inflammatory effects of garlic’s molecular compounds were confirmed in a study on cancer chemoprevention treatments in the Medicinal Chemistry Journal and another study in the Journal of Medicinal Food.
A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that dietary fiber is protective against high sensitivity C-reactive proteins—markers of acute inflammation and independent predictors of future cardiovascular disease and diabetes. You can find fiber in:
- Whole grains. Barley and oatmeal are great sources.
- Fruits. Opt for bananas and blueberries.
- Vegetables. Okra, eggplant and onions are all high in fiber.
9. Green Tea
Green tea can help reduce both inflammation and oxidative stress, according to a study in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, because it contains polyphenols. These compounds inhibit the molecular pathways that prompt the cells to dial up oxidation and inflammation levels. In other words, green tea supports our cellular health on multiple levels.
10. Dark Chocolate
Researchers from Louisiana State University report that certain bacteria in the stomach eat up dark chocolate and ferment it into compounds that deactivate genes linked to inflammation.
Avoid These Foods
As important as it is to eat anti-inflammatory foods, it’s equally important to avoid certain other foods. These include:
- Refined carbohydrates
- Saturated fats and trans fats
- Soda and other sugary drinks
- Red meat and processed meat
If you can limit your intake of the above foods, you will be doing your health a favor. As Dr. Frank Hu at the Harvard School of Public Health says, pro-inflammatory foods “have been associated with an increased risk for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease."
Building a Complete Diet for a Healthier You
Oxidation and inflammation often work in tandem to cause damage to our body.
Excessive oxidation can ramp up the production of destructive free radicals and cause chronic, excessive inflammation. Both excessive oxidation and excessive inflammation can kickstart the vicious cycle of oxidative stress and chronic inflammation, which are harmful to our body and healthy aging.
Fortunately, there are foods that are effective in combating both chronic inflammation and oxidation. Researchers from the Central Food Technological Research Institute in India found antioxidant properties in garlic, ginger and pepper, for example.
Further, cumin powder—the main component in many spice mixes and curry powders that also feature turmeric—also has antioxidant properties, according to a study published in the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
Taken all together, we see clear signs that a healthy diet can be a long-term way to protect against the degenerative effects of inflammation as well as oxidation. Those diets should include antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredients, and you can supplement them with vitamins and minerals.
Do this, and you will have taken an important step toward a healthy, fulfilling life.