Chronic inflammation may increase our risk of developing conditions such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s. We ask nutritional experts to explain the science behind inflammation and whether foods can have anti-inflammatory effects.
Confused about inflammation? You’re not alone. It’s worth getting clued up as researchers are beginning to find direct links between chronic inflammation and long-term diseases.
But, exactly how powerful is our diet and other lifestyle factors when it comes to protecting our health? Here, we ask two nutritional experts to share their advice on combatting inflammation for good…
What exactly is inflammation and what is its effect on the body?
“Inflammation is a defensive response initiated by our immune system,” explains nutritionist Penny Crowther. “It typically manifests as redness of the skin, heat, pain or swelling. As a short-lived response to, for example, a bacteria or injury, inflammation is a natural part of the healing process.”
It’s important to remember that not all inflammation is bad for us; in fact it’s the body’s efficient way of repairing damage. “This is short term or ‘acute’ inflammation,” says Sarah Danaher, registered dietician.
“However, inflammation can become harmful when it occurs over longer periods of time and can occur all over the body in a less obvious way. As a result, this can damage cells.
“Chronic inflammation is thought to be a risk factor for diseases like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, dermatological conditions, dementia and cancer.”
What are the main causes of inflammation?
Experts have cited a range of lifestyle issues as direct causes of inflammation, including being overweight, eating a nutrient-poor or processed diet and smoking. But perhaps the most common cause is thought to be stress.
“Research shows that prolonged psychological stress can activate the same pro-inflammatory pathways as physical causes such as a poor diet and smoking,” says Sarah. “Long-term stress can be pro-inflammatory, and for many people, stress can lead to overeating unhealthy foods. This can then lead to being overweight, which in itself is also pro-inflammatory.”
After investigating further, a study by Medical University of Shanghai also found that stress can upset the balance of our immune system, and the result of an over-activated immune system leads to inflammation throughout the body.
How can inflammation be linked to so many long-term diseases?
Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation is long-term. This produces a constant, low-level of inflammation throughout the body, which can contribute to the development of disease, according to a summary in the Johns Hopkins Health Review.
“Prolonged chronic inflammation generates a series of destructive reactions in our body that damages cells and eventually leads to the clinical symptoms of disease,” says Sarah. “There is also emerging research that mental health issues such as depression and skin conditions such as acne have an underlying inflammatory cause.”
How significant is our diet when it comes to inflammation?
“There are now large studies, including the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study and Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) study, which suggest that certain dietary patterns can reduce inflammation,” says Sarah. “These diets are low in refined carbohydrates, high in fibre, healthy fats (particularly omega-3s and plant foods.”
“In my practice, I regularly see patients whose inflammatory conditions (from Crohn’s disease to acne) can be significantly improved with diet.”
Which foods can cause inflammation?
There are some key food groups proven to cause inflammation. According to the experts at Harvard Health these are:
- Refined carbohydrates such as pastries, cakes and pies.
- Fizzy drinks and other sugar-sweetened drinks.
- Ready-made sauces and curries.
- Red meat such as beef and processed meats such as hot dogs and sausages.
- Fried foods such as chips.
“Alcohol is also pro-inflammatory,” explains Penny. “The liver contains specialised immune cells, which break down inflammation-causing bacteria. Alcohol gives the liver extra work to do and can therefore cause inflammation.”
However, it’s worth noting that there’s no need to become obsessed with inflammatory foods. Just try to minimise them in your diet. For example, try eating red meat only once or twice per week.
And which foods can have anti-inflammatory effects?
1. Fruits and vegetables
Simple, but very effective. “A diet high in fruits and vegetables may be one of the best defences against chronic inflammation. They’re a great source of so many vitamins, minerals, fibre and polyphenols with anti-inflammatory activity,” says Sarah.
Interestingly, recent studies have shown that a daily dose of tart cherries reduced tart cherry juice may help to reduce inflammation in people with osteoarthritis, while pineapple contains an enzyme bromelain, which has anti-inflammatory properties.
“More and more studies are revealing its potential benefit on various health problems including high cholesterol, diabetes, liver function and cognitive decline,” says Penny. “The benefits come from the active ingredient, curcumin, a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent.
“Added to food, it is very safe, but you can also find it in capsules and this is more concentrated, bringing with it some contraindications with medications. So, always check with your GP before taking supplements.”
3. Omega-3 fats
“The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA found in oily fish and fish oil supplements suppress inflammation and stimulate the body to produce anti-inflammatory compounds,” says Sarah. “Salmon, mackerel and sardines are the best source (try to have them 2-3 times per week). If you don’t like oily fish, you could take an omega-3 supplement made from fish oil.”
4. Whole grains and soluble fibre
“In an analysis of 466 participants, whole grain consumption has a significant effect on levels of CRP (C Reactive Protein), a common measure for chronic inflammation,” says Sarah. “This suggests that whole grains such as oats, brown rice and quinoa, plus soluble fibre found in lentils and beans, might affect our overall health status.”
“Probiotic foods promote healthy gut bacteria and help to prevent inflammatory issues in the gut,” says Sarah. Try yogurts containing lactobacillus or bifidobacteria, or kefir, a fermented milk drink.