Fat and Inflammation

March 23, 2022

There is a lot of talk in the nutrition world about inflammation and anti-inflammatory diets, and it can be very confusing. Inflammation is a medical term. Acute inflammation is useful as it recruits our immune system to fight infection and repair damaged tissues. Chronic inflammation is what happens when the immune system doesn’t turn off and it is dysfunctional and causes diseases. Some foods, if eaten often, can cause chronic inflammation and therefore chronic disease. Other foods are anti-inflammatory and can mitigate chronic inflammation. Some foods are inflammatory for some people, ie those with allergies or intolerances. In this article I am going to cover inflammatory and anti-inflammatory fats.

Dietary fats can be pro- or anti-inflammatory. It is complex and I'm going to try and simplify it. There are several different types of fatty acids that make up our dietary fats:

  • Saturated fats are found in animal foods, coconut oil and palm oil. We can synthesize saturated fats in our bodies, thus we do not need to consume them. High dietary saturated fat intake can cause inflammation by stimulating production of inflammatory cytokines IL-6, TNF alpha, NF-Kb in multiple cell types. I’ll get to what cytokines are in a few.
  • Saturated fats and trans fats can increase LDL cholesterol, which when oxidized stimulates TNF alpha, IL-6 and CRP in endothelium (the single cell layer that lines the inside of your blood vessels). Trans fats are unsaturated fats that are altered so that the single hydrogen atoms in a double bond are on opposite sides which produces a solid fat used in commercially available baked goods. They can replace cis fatty acids of the same chain length in our cell membranes causing them to be dysfunctional.
  • Unsaturated fats can be divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. PUFAs can be further divided into Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Monounsaturated fats are neutral to anti-inflammatory. In contrast to saturated fats they decrease IL-6, TNF-alpha, CRP and NF-KB in macrophages and other cell types. They are less susceptible to oxidation than PUFAs. Olive oil is high in Oleic Acid, a monounsaturated fat that has been shown to lower blood pressure. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are important precursors to our prostaglandins. The essential Omega 6 fatty acid Linoleic Acid becomes Arachidonic Acid which is a precursor to both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. This balance is dependent on our ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 consumption, which ideally should be 2:1. Omega 3 fatty acids are Alpha Linolenic Acid, DHA and EPA. ALA is found in many nuts and seeds. DHA and EPA are most abundant in fish. They are precursors to anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are susceptible to oxidation which can cause free radical damage, thus turning these potent anti-inflammatory nutrients to inflammation promoters. Adequate antioxidant intake is important, ie Vitamin E and selenium to prevent these important fatty acids from being harmful. Nuts are synergistically naturally high in PUFAs and antioxidants. 2 Brazil nuts have all the selenium you need for one day.

There are different anti-inflammatory diets, and they all have similar recommendations when it comes to fatty acid consumption: <10% calories from saturated fat, about 10% of calories from PUFAs with a 2:1 ratio of Omega 6:Omega 3 (vs 10:1 in the typical Western Diet) and about 20% from MUFAs.

Our cells use different small chemicals to communicate with each other. Two of them are cytokines and prostaglandins.

Cytokines are small proteins that are released by immune cells (white blood cells) in response to infection or insult. They stimulate your immune system by recruiting other immune cells and by stimulating prostaglandins to be released by the cells that are infected or injured. Because these proteins are small they can be released quickly and in large amounts and this is what makes our immune system efficient. Some foods can stimulate cytokine release and if prolonged or constant will cause chronic inflammation. IL-6 is one such cytokine that is elevated in people with autoimmune disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity and some cancers. TNF alpha is another cytokine that is responsible for our quick and robust immune system but that can be stimulated by diet and cause chronic disease like Alzheimer’s, depression, and IBD.

Prostaglandins are chemical messengers made from fatty acids that are produced by all cell types in every organ in response to local injury and infection. Their release is stimulated by cytokines and a local insult. There are ones that turn on immune response and cause swelling, pain and redness in those tissues. There are others that turn off the immune response.

Chronic inflammation happens when you have prolonged or uninterrupted cytokine release and insufficient anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. This can occur when one eats too many inflammatory foods (trans fats, nitrates, sugars) and not enough omega-3 fats and antioxidants.

In my next article I will discuss carbohydrates and inflammation.