Is There a Link Between Food and Inflammation?
Inflammation is the new buzzword. Previously thought to be simply a short-term reaction to injury or trauma, inflammation is now recognised as a major player in chronic disease.
You might not know you’re suffering from inflammation, so in this article you’ll learn more about this process and how it’s connected with the food you eat.
What is Inflammation?
When your body is injured or under threat, it has clever mechanisms to heal itself. Following any damage, chemical messenger substances are released into your bloodstream by your immune system.
These inflammatory chemicals cause redness, swelling and increased blood flow to the affected area, kickstarting the healing process. Once the damage has been repaired, the inflammatory chemicals should subside, meaning the redness and swelling reduce and things return to normal. This is a really useful response to help you overcome injuries from the outside world.
What isn’t so helpful is when inflammation doesn’t subside over time. This is known as chronic inflammation. It might not produce any visible symptoms – you won’t swell up, feel hot or go red. The warning signs of this type of inflammation are subtler and easily overlooked. It’s like an invisible fire burning inside you, smouldering away causing damage to your cells and tissues.
Because chronic inflammation doesn’t create immediately recognisable symptoms, you might not suspect it’s affecting you. You might feel moody, with poor concentration, fatigue and pain. You may have suffered from annoying symptoms for years without ever being able to pinpoint what’s wrong and all the while inflammation has been waging war on your body.
Ongoing inflammation running wild has been linked to cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, auto-immune diseases and even cancer.
Controlling inflammation holds the key to preventing chronic diseases.
Foods and Inflammation
So, why is chronic inflammation so rife nowadays? It’s a good question, and it’s likely to be a combination of stress, environmental toxins and food.
Nutritional practitioners have long known some foods like sugar and processed foods with chemical additives and processed fats provoke inflammation. Others, such as plant-based foods containing concentrated sources of nutrients, and healthy fats from oily fish, nuts and seeds, are great at controlling inflammation.
The effect of other foods like meat, dairy and grains can be a bit more complicated because it depends on whether the food is organic or inorganic, grass-fed or grain-fed, if it’s had its natural fibre removed and finally on the person who is eating it.
Studies have shown the body’s reaction to different foods, known as the post-prandial response, is widely different between individuals.
It’s all in the Microbiome
These differences in the effect of foods are thought to be down to variations in the microbiome, the bugs in your gut. The amount and types of microbes living in your digestive system are as individual as your fingerprint.
A healthy population of bacteria with a wide variety of different species is linked with less chronic inflammation, with other, unhealthy types of bacteria connected with increased inflammation.
All foods contain a wide array of different substances, and after you eat these foods changes occur in the blood levels of glucose, insulin, and types of fats known as triglycerides. It’s usual for these to vary over the short term, and your body has developed protective mechanisms to deal with this. But if they repeatedly peak high and drop low, or remain high when they should have declined, this can strain these mechanisms and trigger inflammation. For example, spikes in blood glucose boost levels of pro-inflammatory sugar and protein compounds linked to Type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance, while inflammation caused by certain fats is connected with cardiovascular disease risk.
So if foods triggering negative post-prandial responses are constantly eaten, inflammation will become ongoing.
It seems healthy gut bacteria can protect against some negative reactions to food. Certain types of unhealthy bacteria are closely connected with unhealthy post-prandial responses, particularly the types of fats in the blood.
This presents a great opportunity because it means if you can restore a healthy microbiome, you can control inflammation by improving your body’s post-prandial responses.
The idea everyone is different is at the heart of functional medicine philosophy. Because you are unique, your body will react differently to mine to an identical plate of food. So there can never be a one-size fits-all approach to healthy eating, and your optimal diet will not be the same as mine.
Testing your microbiome can reveal whether healthy or unhealthy types are in charge, and looking at the messenger chemicals in your body can show whether chronic inflammation is an issue for you.
Armed with this knowledge, and knowing that different gut bacteria like to eat different foods, you’ll be provided with a completely personalised dietary and nutritional plan to follow, along with healthy lifestyle habits designed to restore your microbiome. Once the inflammation abates your body can get on with the business of healing.