Written by: Morgan Muchez, Dietetic Intern
What does anti-inflammatory mean? First, we have to understand the inflammatory response.
Imagine inflammation as your body’s first line of defense against foreign invaders, called antigens. These foreign invaders can vary from trauma to microorganisms and sometimes even the body’s own tissue by mistake, which triggers an immune response. There are three main types of inflammation, acute, sub-acute, and chronic based on how long an individual’s signs and symptoms persist.1 Acute inflammation generally occurs for a couple of days, subacute may last from 2-6 weeks, while chronic may last for several months to years.1 The next thing you’re probably asking yourself is, what does this look like in the body? Well it’s quite complex, but I’ll try to give you a brief run down…
We begin with our foreign invader…maybe we fall and scrape our elbow (the trauma). The first step during inflammation is the relaxation of muscle surrounding blood vessels, which allows for more blood flow to the blood vessels of the damaged tissues.1,2 Because of the increased blood flow, the area becomes more red, called rubor, and will become warm, called calor, as the blood carries body heat from the body’s core to the cooler, outside, affected area.1 Next, the lining inside of the damaged tissue’s blood vessels become leaky, leading to fluid collection and swelling called edema, between the areas of the damaged tissues and other tissues or organs.1,2 Lastly, we have the entrance of the soldiers who arrive to save the day! The relaxation of blood vessels and fluid collection around the damaged tissue paves the way for our soldiers; white blood cells, to pass through other tissues to make its way to the damaged tissue to fight any infection and clean up the damaged tissue.1,2
Chronic Inflammation and Chronic Disease
Chronic inflammation is linked to chronic conditions and diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and even cancer. When our bodies are in this constant inflammatory state, it begins to exacerbate the disease. The most known example of this is cancer. Inflammation is found to be a part of each of the states of tumorigenesis, or the formation of a tumor and even metastases.3 During inflammation, our immune system produces reactive oxygen species (ROS) that are involved in the initial process of DNA damage related to cancer.3 We know that genetics and the health environment surrounding us (pollution, smoking, etc.) plays an important role in the possibility of developing any disease, including chronic inflammation. Research has shown that diet and exercise can play a significant role in it as well.
For the athlete or a healthy, active person, inflammation can be induced by exercise. Exercise breaks down our muscle, creating tiny tears in the tissues. Because of this, there is an interaction of white blood cells with muscle cells to create the same inflammatory response as stated above with general inflammation. In the case of exercise-induced inflammation, the swelling usually occurs along the muscles that were being used as compared to chronic inflammation (like rheumatoid arthritis) which usually is associated with generalized inflammation. It is true that anti-inflammatory foods can help to reduce inflammation in athletes as well.
Foods to Help Reduce Inflammation
What is known is that there are specific foods that are most likely to decrease the inflammatory response. Fruits and vegetables are high in what are called polyphenols, which are responsible for not only the color, taste, and flavor of these foods but also the radical-scavenging capacity.4 Foods high in vitamin E, vitamin C, and/or beta-carotene are high in antioxidants, which safely interact with ROS and terminate the reaction before they become damaging to the body (or cancer-forming).4 While every dietitian will say, “eat your fruits and vegetables,” not every fruit and vegetable can be treated equally. Each fruit and vegetable is made with different phytochemicals and in differing quantities, which affect their impact on inflammation. Below are some well-researched foods on inflammation that I encourage you to try and incorporate into your meals daily.
- Cherries. Cherries are one of the most researched fruit on anti-inflammatory affects. This fruit is high in vitamin C and beta-carotene which both have anti-oxidant properties. A phytochemical called anthocyanin is higher in sweet than tart cherries (hence the deeper color of sweet cherries), which may have an added anti-inflammatory benefits.4 With over 11 studies on cherries alone, all but one showed positive effects on reducing inflammation. Not only are cherries effective in reducing inflammation but are also found to help reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and aid recovery.5 The science behind this finding is that during anaerobic activities, like strenuous exercise when there is no oxygen available, our bodies create lactate. Lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) speeds up the reaction that produces lactate (which causes muscle soreness when it builds up). Therefore, when LDH is elevated, that means the body has excess lactate. As it turns out, consuming tart/sweet cherry products after a workout reduces LDH and muscle soreness!5 So, whether you have a chronic related condition or if you strenuously exercise, try having a 1-oz shot of tart cherry juice concentrate a day to help your symptoms of inflammation.
- Grapes, wine, soy, and peanuts. These sound funny when they are all grouped together, but, surprisingly, they all share a phytochemical that helps with inflammation, called stilbenes.4 Try incorporating more soy into your diet by choosing soy milk for your latte or tofu for dinner. If you choose to drink wine, remember, one 6-oz glass is a responsible serving.
- Turmeric. This is a root of a flowering plant and is usually ground and used as a spice, similar to ginger. Turmeric is high in curcumin, a bright yellow phytochemical responsible for its anti-inflammatory affects. Curcumin has been found to protect against inflammation because it suppresses activation of DNA transcription.6 Turmeric is essentially flavorless, but adds significant yellow color to dishes. Buy turmeric powder or a whole turmeric root and grate it into your next recipe. It fits nicely into Indian dishes!6
- Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO). EVOO is praised everywhere for its high amount of healthy, or monounsaturated, fats as its prime health benefit. Which is great for heart health, but what we didn’t know is that EVOO contains minor highly bioactive polyphenols that have an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.7 Try substituting olive oil in sauces, dressings, and on bread rather than using butter and margarine, You’ll double-up on health benefits!
- Walnuts and pecans. Of all seeds and nuts, walnuts and pecans are found to have the highest amount of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which may reduce inflammation risk by reducing circulating cytokines and inflammatory modulators.8 Try topping your oatmeal or yogurt off with a handful of walnuts or chopped pecans.
- Fibrous foods. Foods like whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, whole fruits with skin, whole vegetables, oatmeal, and chia seeds are high in fiber. One study looked at total dietary fiber and the anti-inflammatory affects it had. Specifically, there was 63% lower C-reactive protein (CRP), a biomarker for inflammation, in those who had the highest amount of fiber in their diet.9 The amount of fiber in a day that we are supposed to have is 25 (women) to 38 (men) grams. Try aiming for that much, if not more!
While these foods might not cure your disease, it can impact the severity of inflammation and thus the progression of disease. Whether you have an inflammatory-mediated disease or if you are trying to be proactive, consider adding these power foods into your daily routine!
1. Pahwa R, Jialal I. Chronic Inflammation. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2018. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/. Accessed September 27, 2018.
2. SIU SOM Histology INTRO. http://www.siumed.edu/~dking2/intro/inflam.htm. Accessed September 27, 2018.
3. Hunter P. The inflammation theory of disease. EMBO Rep. 2012;13(11):968-970. doi:10.1038/embor.2012.142
4. Ozcan T, Akpinar-Bayizit A, Yilmaz-Ersan L, Delikanli B. Phenolics in Human Health. International Journal of Chemical Engineering and Applications. 2014;5(5):393-396. doi:10.7763/IJCEA.2014.V5.416
5. Kelley DS, Adkins Y, Laugero KD. A Review of the Health Benefits of Cherries. Nutrients. 2018;10(3). doi:10.3390/nu10030368
6. Soltani A, Salmaninejad A, Jalili-Nik M, et al. 5’-Adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase: A potential target for disease prevention by curcumin. J Cell Physiol. August 2018. doi:10.1002/jcp.27192
7. Rosillo MÁ, Alcaraz MJ, Sánchez-Hidalgo M, Fernández-Bolaños JG, Alarcón-de-la-Lastra C, Ferrándiz ML. Anti-inflammatory and joint protective effects of extra-virgin olive-oil polyphenol extract in experimental arthritis. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. 2014;25(12):1275-1281. doi:10.1016/j.jnutbio.2014.07.006
8. Bhardwaj R, Dod H, Sandhu MS, et al. Acute effects of diets rich in almonds and walnuts on endothelial function. Indian Heart Journal. 2018;70(4):497-501. doi:10.1016/j.ihj.2018.01.030
9. Ma Y, Griffith JA, Chasan-Taber L, et al. Association between dietary fiber and serum C-reactive protein-. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;83(4):760-766.