Inflammation is the term given to describe the biological response that occurs as a result of tissue damage. Bacterial infections, trauma, chemical exposures and dying tissue may all start the inflammatory cascade. In human physiology there are two kinds of inflammation. First, there is the acute form. In this form of inflammation the body responds to an injury by creating an environment that is conducive to healing and tissue repair. The body does this by sending fluids and blood to the area. That’s why the injury swells, turns red and becomes warm to the touch. This is a necessary step after an injury.
There are times, however, when inflammation is not appropriate. When chronic inflammation occurs, it can become very dangerous and cause a litany of diseases. In the United States, as well as most industrialized countries, diseases associated with chronic inflammation are on the rise. Diseases such as asthma, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease and cancer all have links to chronic inflammation. Recent research suggests obesity and Alzheimer’s are also on the verge of being included in this group.
If we consider heart disease and cancer alone, there will be 1.2 million deaths this year from diseases linked to chronic inflammation. Therefore, while we must consider acute inflammation as a necessary and beneficial part of healing, chronic inflammation should be equated with disease and destruction of otherwise healthy tissue.
So what contributes to chronic inflammation? In this country, most people eat a “pro-inflammatory” diet. That is, they consume food that consistently feeds the inflammatory cascade in the body, leading to chronic inflammation. As previously pointed out, chronic inflammation leads to tissue destruction and many disease states. In order to fully understand why our diets lead to this state, we must understand the basics of fatty acids.
Fatty acids are individual molecules that make up triglycerides in our body. Triglycerides are the storage form of fat that humans use for energy. In human physiology there are three important fatty acids. There are omega-3 (n-3), omega-6 (n-6) and omega-9 (n-9) fatty acids. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential in the human diet. This means that we must consume them in our diet in order to survive. Omega-9 fatty acids are classified as non-essential because we are able to synthesize them from other unsaturated fats in our body. It is the balance of these fatty acids that is critical for controlling and reducing inflammation in human physiology.
First, we must examine the role of fatty acids in our body when speaking about inflammation. Fatty acids work to produce a variety of chemicals in the body called eicosanoids. These chemicals are at the heart of the inflammatory cascade. Some eicosanoids are beneficial while others can contribute to inflammation. The harmful eicosanoids that contribute to the inflammatory cascade are related to an omega-6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid. If arachidonic acid is incorporated into a specific eicosanoid then it becomes pro-inflammatory. If it is not incorporated it becomes anti-inflammatory. It is arachidonic acid that will fuel the inflammatory cascade and lead to tissue death and disease if not properly controlled.
So, we must take a closer look at this specific fatty acid called arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is found preformed in animal products, especially meat. In addition it is easily converted in the body from the fatty acids found in grains and vegetable oils like corn, safflower and sunflower oil. Also, animals fed a steady diet of grain are exceptionally high in arachidonic acid.
Obviously, what we eat will determine our fatty acid profile and potentially contribute to chronic inflammation. One might think, based on the information given above that becoming a vegetarian would significantly reduce one’s overall inflammatory load. And it does make sense especially if we take into account that arachidonic acid is preformed in meat. It has been shown, however, that the opposite is true.
The average American diet has unfortunately shifted to promote excessive production, storage and utilization of arachidonic acid. This leads to the over-production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids. Research has shown that man evolved with a ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids of about 1:1. Today, the average ratio in the diet is anywhere from 10:1 to 20-25:1. This is disadvantageous because we know that omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and have a wealth of other health benefits. Plainly put, our diets have shifted to favor inflammation.
As mentioned earlier, it would seem that vegetarian diets would be most beneficial in creating an anti-inflammatory state because animal products are high in preformed arachidonic acid. This hypothesis, however, has not held up in clinical studies. It has been shown that vegetarians in fact have a higher plasma level of arachidonic acid and an essentially equal level of arachidonic acid found in red blood cells when compared to meat eaters. The study also showed that vegetarians have lower levels of the protective and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA.
This suggests that perhaps vegetarian diets shift people closer to an inflammatory state than they probably desire. The drawbacks of a vegetarian diet are many. Rarely do vegetarians consume enough of a variety of fruit, vegetables and grains to meet the demands of the body for the many macro and micronutrients that it requires. Vegetarians also tend to be hypoglycemic which in turn puts a huge burden on the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands must constantly secrete cortisol in a losing effort to stabilize blood sugar. This burden often leads to adrenal fatigue after years on a meatless diet. This, however, does not mean that fruits and vegetables are worthless in our fight against inflammation. It is quite the contrary.
A diet high in fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins and fats it ideal for stopping and preventing chronic inflammation. This sort of diet will invariably be low glycemic. The glycemic index refers to the effect on blood sugar that a particular food will have. A food that has a low glycemic index (GI) will raise blood sugar much more slowly than a food with a high GI. Foods with a low GI are much more beneficial for controlling inflammation because low glycemic foods cause a much smaller response from the hormone insulin. Insulin is the hormone that’s required for most of the cells in our body to use and store sugar for energy. Insulin, which is secreted from the pancreas, actually stimulates an enzyme that converts omega-6s into the dreaded arachidonic acid. So a diet that is high glycemic will cause one’s body to over secrete insulin and further drive the inflammatory cascade.
The diagram above illustrates the difference between and high glycemic food and a low glycemic food on blood sugar levels. A high glycemic food may cause a two fold increase in blood sugar over a low glycemic food. This results in a large compensatory insulin spike. This excessive insulin then stimulates an enzyme, called delta-5-desaturase, which converts virtually all of the omega-6 fatty acid in the meal into the pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid. While the concept might seem complex, biochemically it is very simple. Foods that have the most effect on insulin are carbohydrates such as breads, pastas, cakes, candies, cookies and crackers to name a few. These are the foods that will shift metabolism to favor inflammation.
So the question remains. What does one eat? In general, focusing on a low carbohydrate diet that is higher in healthy fats and proteins will work well for controlling chronic inflammation. One should also be sure to eat carbohydrates that are low glycemic. An internet search of the “glycemic index” will yield many resources for finding out the GI of just about any food one could think of. Anything with a rating of 70 or higher is considered high glycemic. From 70 down to 55 is considered moderately glycemic and anything under 55 is considered low glycemic. Focus on the foods that are under 55.
The fats one must consume are important as well. Remember, it is the balance of omega-6 versus omega-3 fatty acids that is critical for controlling inflammation. The best way to change this ratio is to lower the omega-6 foods in your diet. Do this by eliminating all vegetable oils from your diet, except olive oil. Use olive oil or coconut oil to cook with. Avoid grain-fed meats if possible. Try to buy either grass-fed, or at the very least, free range meat. Anything made from grain will have omega-6s in it, and this will also likely have a higher glycemic index. Increasing foods that contain omega-3s is also important. Wild fish is a great source. Do not consume shark or swordfish as they are very high in mercury. Tuna one to two times per week is safe. Sardines, anchovies, salmon and shrimp are also very safe. Remember to always buy wild fish, not farm raised. Farm raised fish are usually fed grain, which will increase their omega-6 content. Walnuts and flaxseed are also very high in omega-3s. Of course, there is always a fish oil supplement that can be taken as well. Four to six grams per day of fish oil is an adequate amount to fight chronic inflammation. Generally speaking, it is most cost effective to take it in the liquid form rather than in a capsule.
Foods to Eat – Eat Frequently
- Wild cold water fish
- Tuna, Salmon, Sardines, Anchovies, Mackerel, Blue Fish, Herring
- Navy Beans
- Almond Butter
- Green Tea
- Winter Squash
- Grass fed animal meats
- Free-range eggs
- Olive Oil
Foods to Avoid – Eat Sparingly
- Anything processed
- Vegetable oils
- Fried Foods
- Peanut Butter
- Potato Chips
- Snack Foods
- Farm raised fish
- Grain-fed animal products
The list above is by no means all-inclusive. There are many other favorable foods as well as many more foods to avoid. A good rule of thumb to follow is if it contains flour and/or sugar or any other sweetener it should be avoided. Avoid anything synthetic as well. Focus your diet on natural, healthy foods from the earth and you will most likely be safe.
Chronic inflammation is something that Western society has unfortunately brought upon itself. Changes in our dietary habits over the last century have changed the disease profile in this country for the worse. Fortunately for us, we have identified the major offender and it is chronic inflammation. Diseases such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer’s can all be prevented by simply changing our diets. We must focus on anti-inflammatory foods and shift away from the easy, quick and processed foods that we have all become so accustomed to. If this occurs, then we can all live long, healthy and happy lives.