Foods and Inflammation: Cooling the Fire Within

Dietary patterns can influence our inflammatory responses.

Inflammation can be a positive reaction of fighting bacteria or viruses, or of bringing blood flow to an injured area to help the healing process. However, not all inflammation is beneficial. Often, undetected low levels of inflammation can remain for an extended period of time, wreaking havoc in the body. Repeated or uncontrolled inflammatory processes unleash various defensive responses that negatively disturb the normal function of cells, and set the stage for disease development. In fact, research suggests that chronic inflammation is at the root of many serious, age-related diseases including heart disease, cancer and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Evidence also suggests that it may contribute to psychological disorders.

Genetics, lifestyle, stress and environmental toxins can all impact inflammation. In addition, a sedentary lifestyle, and exposure to smoke and other environmental chemicals, can also promote inflammation. Diet is one of the key factors in impacting inflammation. Dietary patterns high in refined starches, sugar, and saturated and trans-fatty acids, may cause an activation of the innate immune system that triggers the production of pro-inflammatory compounds. The good news is that a growing body of evidence is finding specific foods and eating patterns may help cool this response and lower levels of inflammatory markers. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found an anti-inflammatory diet may even reduce early mortality. The research, which studied 68,273 Swedish men and women between the ages of 45 and 83 years, found people who ate more anti-inflammatory foods had an 18% lower risk of all-cause mortality, a 20% lower risk of cardiovascular mortality, and a 13% lower risk of cancer mortality, when compared with those who followed the diet to a lesser degree.

Go Mediterranean. Following a traditional Mediterranean diet—characterized by a high intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, good fats and moderate amounts of fish and lean proteins – can help reduce inflammation. Consumption of a Mediterranean-type diet reduces plasma levels of proinflammatory biomarkers including CRP, TNF-alpha, and NF-kB. Findings from PREvencion con DIeta MEDiterranea (PREDIMED), the landmark Spanish trial, found significant improvement in inflammatory markers in those following a Mediterranean diet compared to those following a standard low fat diet.

Whole over Processed. A diet high in refined starches, sugars, saturated fats, and trans fats, and low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids appears to turn on the inflammatory response. Findings from the Nurses’ Health Study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found women who ate a westernized diet—high in red and processed meats, sweets, desserts, French fries, and refined grains—had higher rates of inflammation as noted by elevated levels of CRP, IL-6, E-selectin, sVCAM-1, and sICAM-1, than those who consumed a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes, fish, poultry, and whole grains.

Produce Power. A diet high in fruits and vegetables may be one of the best defenses against chronic inflammation. Fruits and vegetables are packed with anti-inflammatory compounds including vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. A cross-sectional study examining fruit and vegetable intake among adults found those with the highest consumption had significantly lower plasma levels of the pro-inflammatory markers including CRP, IL-6, and TNF-alpha, as well as decreased biomarkers of oxidative stress. Because different colored produce offers different anti-inflammatory compounds, it is best to include various colored fruits and vegetables to obtain a rainbow of nutrients and anti-inflammatory elements.

Opt for Omega. Evidence is growing that omega-3 fatty acids can moderate inflammation in the body, and may in turn help reduce the risk and symptoms of a variety of disorders influenced by inflammation including heart attack, stroke, several forms of cancer and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Findings report benefits of the consumption of omega-3s in the form of fatty fish, including salmon and sardines, as well as plant forms such as walnuts, flax, and chia seeds.

Fill up on Fiber. High-fiber foods appear to have a beneficial effect on inflammatory biomarkers. Studies have found that people who eat diets high in fiber have lower CRP levels—a marker of inflammation—in their blood. Researchers have suggested high-fiber foods can feed beneficial bacteria living in the gut, which then release substances that promote lower levels of inflammation. In addition, high fiber foods typically also provide phytonutrients—beneficial plant chemicals that may also assist in lowering inflammation. To boost fiber, incorporate plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Get Spicy. Not only do spices and herbs add delicious flavor, but ingredients like garlic, ginger, and turmeric have been found to contain potent anti-inflammatory compounds and may help prevent and treat certain chronic diseases. In fact, epidemiological studies indicate that the incidence of certain chronic diseases in countries such as India, where spices are consumed daily, is much lower than those where spices are not consumed, such as the United States.

—Kaley Todd, MS, RD

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