Systemic Inflammation

Inflammation is the first organized reaction to an injurious challenge to the body, whether it is a bacterial infection or oxidized low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. Researchers are discovering that inflammation is emerging as a root of many chronic diseases. Cardiovascular disease, the primary diet-related disease of our time, has an underlying connection to inflammation, as atherosclerosis is in part due to the accumulation of lipids and inflammatory factors within the vessel wall.

Inflammation is also a significant component of obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, periodontal disease, rheumatoid arthritis, neurological degenerative disorders, and inflammatory bowel disorders. Both epidemiological studies and intervention trials support a link between the role of diet and the reduction in the risk of many chronic diseases, and it appears that creating a proinflammatory milieu may be one way that unhealthy diets are linked with metabolic and cardiovascular disease.

The role that inflammation and oxidative stress may play in brain aging is of particular interest. Inflammatory markers, as well as cellular and molecular oxidative damage, increase during normal brain aging, which is accompanied by the decline in cognitive and motor performance in older populations, even in the absence of neurodegenerative diseases. Epidemiological studies have suggested that diets rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, such as those found in fruits and vegetables, may lower the risk of developing age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Inflammation normally protects against infection, but when it is ongoing for many years due to infection or hormonal stimulation, it can lead to excess oxidation and cancer, according to David Heber, MD, PhD, FACP, FACN, professor of medicine and public health and director at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. In rapidly expanding abdominal fat cells and many types of cancer cells, the inflammation system is turned on all the time, thus leading to the excess production of cytokines (peptide hormones secreted by inflammatory cells) and stromal/adipocytes cells that mediate the inflammatory response. Cytokines are signals that can promote atherosclerosis and tumor growth.

According to Andrew Weil, MD, the basic principles of anti-inflammatory eating include the following:


Eat a variety of foods.
Emphasize fresh foods that have better nutritional quality.
Avoid processed foods of all kinds.
Eat an abundance of fruits and vegetables.
Choose less refined carbohydrates with an emphasis on low glycemic index/glycemic load carbohydrates.
Focus on whole grains that are truly “whole”, rather than pulverized and reformulated (eg, flours and processed breakfast cereals).
Avoid high fructose corn syrup.
Decrease consumption of animal proteins, except fish.
Increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
Take advantage of whole soy foods.
Support organic agriculture to avoid exposure to multiple agents.
Drink tea instead of coffee.
If alcohol is consumed, enjoy red wine.
Consume small amounts of dark chocolate with a minimum of 70% cocoa.
Flavor foods with antioxidant spices such as ginger and turmeric.
Increase fiber intake through fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains.
Choose healthy fats by avoiding trans fats and saturated fats, limiting polyunsaturated fats to maintain a better omega-6/omega-3, and emphasizing extra virgin olive oil, nuts and avocados.
Drink more water.

Source: Today’s Dietitian, Sharon Palmer, RD; November, 2007

Other references:
Andrew Weil, MD
Esposito K, Giugliano D. Diet and inflammation: A link to metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. Eur Heart J. 2006;27(1):13-14.
Lau FC, Shukitt-Hale B, Joseph JA. Nutritional intervention in brain aging: Reducing the effects of inflammation and oxidative stress. Subcell Biochem. 2007;42: 299-318.
Jacobs, DR Jr, Andersen LF, Blomhoff R. Whole-grain consumption is associated with a reduced risk of noncardiovascular, noncancer death attributed to inflammatory diseases in the Iowa Women’s Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85(6): 1606-1614.