“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Hippocrates
Inflammation keeps us alive. Every bruise, rash or fever are the results of inflammation. It’s a natural body response to infections. However, uncontrolled inflammation could be very dangerous. Since the 1950s neuroscientists have known that inflammation plays an important role in a complex brain disorder called Rasmussen’s encephalitis. Inflammation caused such severe damage to the brain that the classic treatment for this condition was the surgical procedure where one of the brain's hemisphere had to be removed.
Uncontrolled, chronic inflammation is now considered a major factor in the pathway to many conditions like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, asthma, depression, peripheral vascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. These conditions have joined the group of so called, “inflammatory diseases” previously reserved for arthritis, lupus or periodontal disease.
We still don’t know whether inflammation may cause these diseases, but we know for certain that it significantly contributes to disease progression by damaging tissues and ultimately leading to organs failure. For many decades, inflammation was considered a passive process. In recent years, more data is supporting a biochemically active process with hundreds of different molecules being released.
Advances in medicine have translated into new effective ways of treating old diseases, but what can we do to avoid them in the first instance?
Almost every food we eat either fights inflammation or promotes inflammation. Foods like sugar, soda, trans-fats and refined carbs accelerate the inflammatory process. The heroes that fight inflammation are: olive oil, nuts, almonds, ginger, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines), fruits (strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges), vegetables (tomatoes, beetroot, broccoli, garlic, green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale). Some herbs, spices and vitamins also have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect.
A few observational studies confirmed that curcumin found in turmeric can be successfully used to counter inflammation induced by arthritis, cancer, asthma and atherosclerosis. Curcumin inhibits production of inflammatory prostaglandins and reduces the effect of nitric oxide, an inflammatory oxidant generated in the body.
A meta-analysis of 17 randomised trials enroled more than 2,300 people, looking at how the Mediterranean diet may be associated with a level of inflammation. Researchers concluded that following the Mediterranean diet for minimum twelve weeks improved endothelial function and significantly decreased inflammation markers like C-reactive protein and other pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Another prospective study involved 510 people at high risk of cardiovascular disease looking at a potential link between dietary vitamin K consumption and a level of inflammation. The study has shown that after twelve months those who increased their dietary vitamin K intake by 70 mcg a day or more, had 30% lower level of inflammation markers like IL-6 and TNF-alpha, compared to those who didn't increase their dietary vitamin K consumption.
One of the largest meta-analyses of 10 randomised clinical trials was looking at how vitamin D supplementation may be associated with inflammation. Scientists found that vitamin D supplementation significantly decreased the level of C-reactive protein by an average of 1.08 mg/L.
Take home message
1. Anti-inflammatory foods help boost the immune system and naturally counter inflammatory agents.
2. Common signs of inflammation include fatigue, mood swings, headaches, acne, sleep problems or irritable bowel.
3. To reduce levels of inflammation, aim for natural foods. The Mediterranean diet, high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils is a great example to follow.
4. Anti-inflammatory heroes are beneficial not only for reducing the risk of chronic diseases but also for improving mood and the overall quality of life.
5. Replace processed foods with whole, ideally organic foods, but don’t go to extremes. A piece of beef contains both inflammatory saturated fats and high amounts of anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fats. Moderation is key.