Chronic inflammation and nutrition: what you need to know

By Amber Charles-Alexis, MSPH, RDN

September 13, 2021


We often think about inflammation when discussing wounds or joint pain. However, our environment - including diet and lifestyle - can trigger or suppress inflammation in our bodies. This blog explains what inflammation is, and the role of nutrition in its management.


Inflammation | Disease | The role of nutrition | Tips | Takeaway

Picture: Canva


What is inflammation

Inflammation is the body's normal response to injury or illness - it is the reason your skin becomes red or swollen when you get a cut.


Your immune system identifies and removes foreign pathogens or damaged cells to start the healing process, after which your body returns to a normal, non-inflamed state.


However, constant stimulation by your environment can lead to low-grade or chronic inflammation - inflammation that lasts for several months or years.


Triggers of chronic inflammation include (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6):

  • Infection - bacteria, virus, fungi, parasites (e.g. tuberculosis)

  • Autoimmune disorders - the body's immune system identifies healthy cells are 'foreigners' and attacks them (e.g. lupus)

  • Oxidative stress - excess production of free radicals, advanced glycation end products (AGEs) and other molecules that damage the cells

  • Hormonal imbalances - elevated androgens and insulin (e.g. insulin resistance) in younger adults, or inadequate testosterone and estrogen in older adults

  • Excess adipose tissue - there are higher levels of inflammatory markers in persons with excessive body fat

  • Older age - markers of inflammation increase with age, likely due to increased visceral fat (the fat around your organs) or increased oxidative stress

  • Stress, poor sleep and inadequate exercise - sleep disorders, physical and emotional stress, and under- or over-exercise are strongly associated with chronic inflammation


The link between inflammation and disease

Chronic inflammation is believed to be the underlying cause of non-communicable diseases such as (1, 2, 7, 8):

Inflammatory diseases are ranked as the greatest threats to human health and quality of life (1).


The role of nutrition

Your diet can either promote and sustain chronic inflammation, or provide an abundance of nutrients with anti-inflammatory properties and health benefits.


Foods that are pro-inflammatory or are shown to trigger inflammation include packaged and processed foods high in (1):

Nutrient dense foods with anti-inflammatory properties include (1):

  • Fruits and vegetables: naturally high in antioxidants, polyphenols, carotenoids and other anti-inflammatory compounds, such as red sorrel and passion fruit

  • Healthy fats: nuts, seeds, fatty fish and fish oils with healthy omega-3 fatty acids

  • Herbs and spices: turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, garlic

  • Green and black teas

  • Cocoa and dark chocolate: rich in antioxidant flavanols


What you can do

Consume foods rich in antioxidants frequently, and reduce how often and how much pro-inflammatory foods you consume.


Support an anti-inflammatory approach to nutrition with a lifestyle that includes regular exercise, quality sleep (aim for 7 to 9 hours each night), and stress management.


Become intentional about reducing chronic inflammation and your risk for developing inflammatory diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.


If you already have these conditions, reducing inflammation in your body can support good management and reduce negative symptoms associated with the conditions.


Seek professional help to identify your unique needs and develop a personalized health plan.



Takeaway

Chronic inflammation is associated with the development of several diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.


Your diet and lifestyle can either promote or reduce inflammation in your body.


Increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, heathy fats, green and black tea and some herbs and spices with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that fight inflammation and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.


Get enough sleep, exercise regularly and manage your emotional health to support an anti-inflammatory approach to nutrition and health.


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The information provided in this blog is for education and entertainment purposes only. Please consult with your medical team and registered dietitian to address your unique needs.


References:

  1. Chronic Inflammation - StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov)

  2. Dietary factors and low-grade inflammation in relation to overweight and obesity - PubMed (nih.gov)

  3. Sleep Disturbance, Sleep Duration, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies and Experimental Sleep Deprivation - PubMed (nih.gov)

  4. Links Between Stress, Sleep, and Inflammation: Are there Sex Differences? - PubMed (nih.gov)

  5. Psychological Stress, Inflammation, and Coronary Heart Disease - PubMed (nih.gov)

  6. Exercise reduces depression and inflammation but intensity matters - PubMed (nih.gov)

  7. Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease and Insulin Resistance: New Insights and Potential New Treatments (nih.gov)

  8. Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet, Dietary Patterns and Body Composition in Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) - PubMed (nih.gov)

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