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:
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.