Is there any evidence that food measurably lowers bodily signs of inflammation?
My Australian friend Izzy, more formally known as Dr. Isobelle Smith, posed an interesting question to me during an Instagram chat last week.
My predictable response – let’s write a blog and find out!
For myself personally, the timing for such a post could not be better.
The release of my new pescatarian cookbook is only a week away and the anti-inflammatory potential of the omega-3 fatty acids in fish is one of the big topics I explore in that publication.
Anti-inflammatory, to be sure, it is an overused buzzword.
But what is inflammation really?
Is it always bad? And can food REALLY have a measurable effect on it?
How would we even know?
These questions are exactly what Dr Smith and I explore in today’s article.
A Foreword On Inflammation By Dr. Isobelle Smith
Have you ever wondered why if you cut your skin it heals but might feel a bit warm and itchy as it heals?
Or why you have a temperature when you have an infection?
That’s due to the wonders of inflammation!
Inflammation is a complex system of different cells and chemicals made by our immune system in response to infection or to heal and repair damaged tissue.
Inflammation gets a bad rap, but some inflammation and a healthy inflammatory response is critical to health.
We can consider inflammation at a microscopic level (looking at cells under a microscope) but what is much more useful is considering the 5 cardinal signs of inflammation that we see at a macroscopic level (visible by the human eye).
These 5 cardinal signs were first described by human encyclopedia Aulus Cornelius Celsus (in first century AD!) and include;
- Rubor (redness),
- Calor (increased heat),
- Tumor (swelling),
- Dolor (pain), and
- Functio laesa (loss of function).
Alternatively think about a pimple, a sprained ankle or sunburn… These are all classic examples of inflammation. They may be hot, red, swollen and sore for a short time, but that is part of the healing process.
You’ve probably wondered, so if inflammation has been known about for literally 2000 years, why is it getting so much hype in the wellness/health/fitspo world now?
For some good reasons but also due to bit of wellness hype.
Sometimes I’ve seen the statement “inflammation is the root cause of all diseases” which is a bit over simplified and not exactly true but does has some merit.
Inflammation to fight infection or heal damaged tissue is important but when we have inflammation for no good reason is when we start to run into trouble.
Inflammation is associated with something called “oxidative stress” and is especially damaging to our very small blood vessels. Conditions like heart disease, strokes, dementia, diabetes, arthritis, some cancers and even depression are linked to low grade raised levels of inflammation.
Mildly elevated C reactive protein (CRP) has been shown to predict risk of heart disease as accurately as elevated cholesterol and is associated with a 3x risk of having a heart attack!
Auto-immune conditions are causes by our immune system going haywire and creating heaps and heaps of inflammation which can cause significant
So what causes inflammation if there isn’t a tissue damage or an infection?
Smoking, alcohol, carrying too much extra weight and likely a diet high in saturated fat are all linked to inflammation.
Inflammation can also be caused by auto-immune diseases. This is where the immune system goes haywire and produces very high levels of inflammation and causes significant tissue damage such as in inflammatory bowel disease or multiple sclerosis.
The exact cause of these conditions is complex and not completely understood but is thought to be a complex interaction between our genetics and environmental factors such as exposure to viruses, if we were breast fed or even things like vitamin D levels.
So if we know high levels of inflammation is associated with increased risk of certain diseases… What can we do about it?
Apart from the obvious stuff like not smoke or drink a bottle of tequila per night, I am OBSESSED about the health benefits of exercise and lowering inflammation is one of them.
Exercise in the short term (whilst and directly after) can increases levels of inflammation but overall has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. Gym for the win!
Now over to Andy to give us the low-down on if what we eat can impact our levels of inflammation?
Inflammation & Diet: A Look At The Evidence
Andy De Santis
So can dietary changes or choices have a truly measurable impact on your state of bodily inflammation?
I took a look at three studies that address that question directly.
This particular study looked at inflammatory markers in a group of Nordic people living with metabolic syndrome provided either a “healthy” or “standard” diet.
The healthy diet was characterized by more frequent inclusion of items such as berries and fish, which as I mentioned earlier, are generally considered to have anti-inflammatory capacity.
The study found that, unlike the healthy diet group, the control group experienced an increase in the inflammatory marker ILRa1 – an anti-inflammatory protein released in the presence of inflammation.
This observational study looked at 3,000 greek male adults, both male and female, and measured the correlation between their adherence to a mediterranean diet pattern and blood levels of well known clinical inflammator markers such as ( TNF, IL, CRP and so on).
They found that the level of many these markers tended to be significantly lower in individuals whose dietary pattern was more strongly mediterranean.
For those who may not know, the Mediterranean diet pattern holds resemblance to a pescatarian style of eating and is characterized by the frequent consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes with some fish and infrequent consumption of other foods of animal origin ( diary, eggs, beef etc).
This particular study compared the effect of two healthy dietary patterns on inflammatory markers in those living with diabetes.
Participants were provided two different types of what could fairly considered to be “healthy” diets.
One was explicitly assembled with “anti-inflammatory” principles and the other was based on American Diabetes Association guidelines which would suggest a certain level of quality and adequacy.
The study found that BOTH diets helped with inflammation and the explicitly labelled “anti-inflammatory” diet did not provide additional benefits.
Although the above are just simply a sample of 3 out of hundreds of studies, I think they do the job fleshing out the key message I want to share:
Yes, dietary changes can absolutely lead to measurable changes of inflammatory markers in your body.
Yes, you should probably pursue a diverse and varied diet that includes classical “anti-inflammatory” foods.
But no, you don’t need to frame your dietary goals around the singular purpose.
From Dr Isobelle Smith
Thanks for that Andy… So interesting! I had no idea that there was such good evidence on the impact of diet on inflammation.
It’s great to know that my love of berries is also lowering my levels of inflammation however its also important to recognize that changing our diet is never going to lower levels of inflammation as much as anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen or stronger immune suppressing medications.
So although changing our diet might not be able to get something like a Crohn’s disease or arthritis flare under control, its great to know it can still be an important part of management and maintenance of these conditions as well as decrease the risk of conditions like heart disease, diabetes + more.
Kale with a side of berries anyone?
Fun Fact: Dr Smith happens to be a pescatarian!
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