We’ve all heard it: “Don’t eat that, it’s inflammatory.” “My weight is up but it’s just inflammation.” “Follow an anti-inflammatory diet.” But what IS inflammation anyway?
Inflammation is a normal part of the immune response to infection, illness, allergens, toxins, injury, exercise, stress, microbes, and other threats to the host (aka YOU!). Inflammation is involved in the development of multiple diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, cancer, obesity, and even aging. The primary features of inflammation are pain, heat, redness, and swelling.
You can think of inflammation as the first line of defense for your immune system. Inflammation initiates the killing of pathogens, the repair of damaged tissues, and helps to restore normal functions of the body. While inflammation occurs by many different mechanisms and in many different manifestations, it all gets very complex and science-y! Therefore, we will just focus on inflammation as it pertains to the gut and the diet.
Gut Health and Inflammation:
Your gut has multiple layers that help protect it from infections, germs, allergens and toxins. The more you are exposed to such insults, the harder it is for your gut to remain healthy! Those layers of the gut lining in your gastrointestinal tract become permeable, or “leaky”, which contributes to a dysfunctional immune system and results in inflammation.
A helpful analogy for this can be to think of a really cold day, where you have to wear multiple layers to keep warm. The more layers you wear, the harder it will be for the cold to sleep in. If you unzip layers, or if some of the layers have holes or are less insulated, the cold will be able to permeate into the layers. This is similar to how inflammation causes intestinal permeability, and your diet plays a significant role in modulating that inflammation.
If you think of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, their diets were rich in whole, unprocessed, anti-inflammatory foods. The diet has evolved over time – the Standard American Diet (rightfully abbreviated to be called the SAD) is full of refined, processed and fried foods, which have subsequently increased the prevalence of chronic and degenerative diseases.
The most inflammatory foods include excessive sugar, vegetable oils (such as sunflower, corn, and safflower), trans fatty acids, milk, commercially produced and processed meats, red meat, fried foods, artificial food additives, and refined grains. Eating an inflammatory diet results in intestinal permeability, contributes to the development of inflammatory diseases and dysfunctional immune responses, and can make you more susceptible to illness, infections, and allergies. Continuous exposure to a poor diet contributes to weight gain and allows inflammatory cells to infiltrate in the adipose (fat tissue), which promotes the development of chronic inflammation. As such, overweight and obesity are known to be chronic inflammatory conditions; weight loss is anti-inflammatory.
Now that you know what dietary components contribute to inflammation, what reduces it?
Some of the best food choices that help to eliminate inflammation and contribute to optimal gut health and function include nuts, avocado, spinach, ginger, turmeric, olive oil, onions, garlic, and fruits and vegetables.
By transitioning to an anti-inflammatory diet, you may notice a wide array of health improvements, such as improved mood and energy, clearer skin, improved digestion, less joint pain, weight loss, improvements in blood sugar, blood pressure and lipid levels, and overall quality of life!