What is an anti-inflammatory diet? Can it help you? (SQ-145)
Inflammation is an integral part of how your body fights with infections and heals itself. It is an important process that keeps you healthy, safe and protected. Typical signs like redness, swelling, heat, immobility and pain that usually appear after tissue injury, illness or an infection show that your immune system has sprung into action to help the body repair and regenerate.
These characteristic signs of inflammation occur as your immune system releases chemicals, white blood cells, proteins and nutrients to the site of injury to fight the infection and speed up the healing process. This response by the immune system leads to acute inflammation and occurs immediately after an injury. It is short-lived and goes away as soon as the source of inflammation is eliminated.
Acute inflammation is a very important part of your body's natural defense and repair mechanism. However sometimes, recurrent infections or other triggers (external or internal) may cause our immune system to keep fighting and pumping out chemicals and immune cells. This kind of aggressive and never-ending firefighting creates chronic inflammation in the body.
What causes chronic inflammation?
Recurring infections, poor food choices, sedentary lifestyle, insufficient sleep, chronic stress, excessive smoking and drinking, and chronic exposure to environmental toxins such as pollutants, pesticides and heavy metals, can contribute to low-grade inflammation in the body. Inflammation is also a part of the ageing process. As you grow old, low-grade inflammation in the body gives rise to chronic health conditions.
Chronic inflammation and your health
Over a period of time, chronic inflammation starts damaging tissues and organs. Studies show that chronic inflammation can worsen and even trigger the onset and development of many chronic conditions such as arthritis, cancer, diabetes, obesity, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, cancer and autoimmune disorders. And while this long term inflammation can cause chronic health conditions, the presence of these conditions can additionally create an inflammatory environment in the body.
Some of the common signs that you may have chronic inflammation are chronic fatigue, poor energy levels, muscle weakness, muscle pain, joint pain, gastrointestinal issues (poor digestion, bloating, and constipation), skin problems, recurrent infections and allergies, sleep issues and brain fog. Chronic inflammation also negatively affects mood and may cause depression, anxiety and loss of focus.
Can anti-inflammatory diets help?
Lifestyle and dietary changes can help a lot in reducing inflammation in the body. Your diet plays an extremely important role in keeping your body healthy and free of disease. Poor dietary choices such as processed foods containing refined sugar, refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats are likely to damage your health in the long run, increasing your risk of chronic inflammation and health conditions like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It also weakens your immunity.
On the other hand, a healthy diet comprising of fresh and whole foods will give your body the nutritional and antioxidant support to stay healthy, reduce inflammation and fight infections.
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
An anti-inflammatory diet includes foods that can help the body keep inflammation in check. It also involves eliminating foods that may trigger low-grade, chronic inflammation.
Foods that help lower inflammation
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Dried fruits, nuts and seeds
- Herbs and spices
- Lentils and whole grains
- Fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel
- Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts and seeds
- Green tea
- Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and desi ghee
- Dark chocolate
- Dietary supplements
Foods that trigger inflammation
- Foods that have high sugar and refined carbohydrate content
- Processed food containing artificial colour, preservatives, and other additives
- Processed and frozen meat
- Certain vegetables such as tomatoes and brinjal, also known as eggplant or aubergine
- Trans fats and certain vegetable oils like corn oil and soybean oil
There is a lot of research suggesting that an anti-inflammatory diet may help in certain health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, obesity, insulin resistance and even cancer. Several studies show that regular consumption of fresh fruits, a source of important phytochemicals, can reduce oxidative stress and inflammation.  On the other hand, there is also data that suggests common sense is required when deciding your diet as an unsuitable pro-inflammatory diet can increase the risk of all-cause mortality. 
The Mediterranean diet, for example, consists of foods that help in controlling inflammation. This diet mainly comprises fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, fish and seafood, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil. It also includes moderate amounts of dairy (cheese and yoghurt).
There is very strong evidence that the traditional Mediterranean diet helps in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.  The findings of this 2018 study shows that a Mediterranean diet improves several risk factors that affect heart health, such as inflammation, glucose metabolism, and insulin resistance. 
Vegan, Mediterranean and elimination diets (where some foods that may aggravate symptoms are removed from the diet) have been found helpful in controlling inflammation and reducing symptoms and disease activity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an inflammatory auto-immune disorder affecting joints.  Research suggests that besides genetics, exposure to food antigens and environmental factors may influence the severity and progression of RA. These factors can contribute to increased inflammation in the joints and synovial membrane.
Other traditional diets such as the traditional Okinawa diet are also considered highly anti-inflammatory in nature. The traditional Okinawa diet is basically a dietary and lifestyle pattern followed by the people living on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
It is believed that the Okinawa diet - which mainly consists of soy-based foods, root vegetables, seaweed, green and yellow vegetables, mugwort, turmeric and green tea - is the secret behind Okinawans' long, healthy and disease free lives.
The traditional Okinawa diet also includes fish, meat and grains in moderate proportions. One of the main sources of carbohydrates in their diet is Okinawan sweet potato, which is loaded with anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant substances. Okinawa is identified as one of the blue-zones in the world - areas where people live the longest and have lower rates of age-related disease such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and obesity.
Role of dietary supplements in controlling inflammation
In chronic inflammation, the immune system is constantly pumping out inflammatory chemicals that can cause increased sensitivity to pain and increased symptoms of inflammation such as redness, swelling and heat.
People with inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and inflammatory bowel syndrome deal with ongoing pain and other signs of inflammation almost on a daily basis. This impacts their overall quality of life, taking a toll on sleep, energy levels, work performance, social life and personal relationships.
Non-steroidal drugs (NSAIDs) and steroids that are typically used to alleviate pain and reduce signs of inflammation are known to cause severe side effects. Long term use of such drugs can damage your liver and kidneys, weaken immunity, increase your risk of heart disease and cause gastrointestinal complications such as bleeding, peptide ulcers, heartburn and stomach pain.
Role of dietary supplements in reducing inflammation
Research suggests that dietary supplements can help in controlling the inflammation without any unwanted side effects. Supplements such as curcumin, glutathione, resveratrol, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin D, green tea, and probiotics can be very effective in reducing the signs of inflammation in several chronic conditions. For example, this study shows that dietary factors such as curcumin, green tea and certain vitamins such as Vitamin D and B12 may be helpful in people with inflammatory bowel disease. 
Let’s look at some important dietary supplements with amazing anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant benefits.
Curcumin, a bioactive compound found in the spice turmeric, has been found to be very effective in reducing pain and inflammation, especially in conditions such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. It works by blocking the production of inflammatory chemicals such as cytokines and prostaglandins. This is also how most NSAIDs work.   In fact, studies show that curcumin could even be better than diclofenac, a prescription medicine, in reducing tenderness, pain and swelling in joints in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis. 
2. Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are extremely important for your brain, eye and heart health. These unsaturated fats are found in fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, avocado, and fish oil supplements. Omega 3 fatty acids reduces the formation of pro-inflammatory molecules (cytokines and eicosanoids) and helps in the production of anti-inflammatory molecules (resolvins, protectins, and maresins). 
3. Green tea
Green tea is a rich source of polyphenols known as catechins, plant based bioactive compounds with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. One of the most important and most studied components present in the green tea is epigallocatechin 3-gallate (EGCG), a strong antioxidant compound that protects cells and tissues from damage caused by free radicals. Many studies have shown green tea to be helpful in neuro-degenerative disease, inflammatory disease and cardiovascular disease. 
In Ayurveda, many herbs are used as medicine to treat chronic diseases. For example, Boswellia serrata (known as Indian frankincense) and Withania somnifera (known as ashvagandha) are two well-known ayurvedic herbs with many medicinal and health promoting benefits.
Boswellia serrata is loaded with boswellic acids, natural compounds that have shown immense promise in treating inflammatory diseases. Ashwagandha supplements are popular supplements used to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Managing stress and anxiety is an important strategy in keeping inflammation in control.
5. Vitamin D supplements
We know vitamin D as an important nutrient that helps in the development of healthy bones and muscles. Besides its quintessential role in helping the body absorb calcium, vitamin D is also a key player in regulating immunity, an important mechanism in decreasing inflammation.
Vitamin D boosts natural immunity by stimulating the production of proteins that work as natural antibiotics and help the body fight a wide range of infections. In addition, vitamin D also keeps a check on your adaptive immunity and prevents the immune system to go into an overdrive and launch undesirable inflammatory responses leading to chronic inflammation and autoimmune conditions. Health experts believe that vitamin D deficiency can be an important missing link in the development inflammatory health conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, Hashimoto’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
Vitamin D reduces inflammation by influencing the production of cytokines, pro-inflammatory chemicals implicated in pain inflammation. Taking high quality Vitamin D supplements can help in maintaining the health of your bones. It can also reduce your risk of autoimmune disorders, heart disease, allergies, asthma and respiratory tract infections. While you should strive to keep your vitamin D levels in a healthy range, it is also important to keep an eye on your magnesium intake. Your body needs magnesium to fully utilize and absorb the vitamin D you are getting either from your supplements or through sunlight exposure. Nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables and whole grains are a natural source of magnesium.
6. Vitamin C
Your body uses vitamin C to heal wounds, boost immunity and absorb iron. It cannot make collagen without the help of vitamin C. Collagen is a fibrous protein that is an important component in the connective tissues such as skin, bone and blood vessels. Vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory substance. It reduces the synthesis of inflammatory chemicals and protects cells and tissues from the oxidative damage and resulting inflammation caused by free radicals. The role of vitamin C in making collagen and in reducing inflammation makes it an incredibly important vitamin for heart, skin, eyes and bones.
Your lifestyle choices also make a big difference in reducing inflammation. Besides making healthy food choices, what also matters is getting a healthy amount of sleep at night, being active, managing your stress levels, maintaining a healthy weight, and addressing any nutritional deficiencies.
A combination of healthy diet, healthy lifestyle, and dietary supplements can do wonders in lowering your inflammation, keeping you healthy, and reducing your risk of chronic ailments.
- M Islam et al. Dietary Phytochemicals: Natural Swords Combating Inflammation and Oxidation-Mediated Degenerative Diseases. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2016
- AnaGarcia-Arellano et al. Dietary inflammatory index and all-cause mortality in large cohorts: The SUN and PREDIMED studies. Clinical Nutrition. 2019.
- M A Martínez-González et al. The Mediterranean Diet and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation Research. 2019.
- Ahmad at al. Assessment of Risk Factors and Biomarkers Associated With Risk of Cardiovascular Disease Among Women Consuming a Mediterranean Diet. JAMA Netw Open. 2018.
- Shweta Khanna et al. Managing Rheumatoid Arthritis with Dietary Interventions. Front Nutr. 2017.
- Rossi et al. The role of dietary supplements in inflammatory bowel disease: a systematic review. Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2016
- V Kuptniratsaikul et al. Efficacy and safety of Curcuma domestica extracts compared with ibuprofen in patients with knee osteoarthritis: a multicenter study. Clin Interv Aging. 2014
- Bannuru et al. Efficacy of curcumin and Boswellia for knee osteoarthritis: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Semin Arthritis Rheum. 2018
- Chandran et al. A randomized, pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of curcumin in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis. Phytother Res. 2012
- Calder et al. Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes: from molecules to man. Biochem Soc Trans. 2017
- Khan et al. Targeting multiple signaling pathways by green tea polyphenol (-)-epigallocatechin-3-gallate. Cancer Res. 2006