Inflammation, Disease, and Science Behind an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

By Lauren Ball and Emily Burch | September 29th, 2023

Inflammation is a major player in health conditions, from auto-immune diseases to Alzheimer's. Could an anti-inflammatory diet help? Health and wellbeing researcher Lauren Ball and dietician Emily Burch dig into the science.

Wellness and nutrition experts Lauren Ball, and Emily Burch point out, there is a lot of health buzz around the term “inflammation” right now. “From new scientific discoveries to celebrities and social media influencers, it seems like everyone is talking about this important bodily process and its potential impact on our health,” the pair writes. There are even new terms being added to this conversation: Take “inflammaging,” a word referring to an age-related increase in the levels of pro-inflammatory markers in blood and tissue. While it’s not yet fully understood, that inflammation increase that comes with aging is a major risk factor for a number of diseases and health conditions prevalent among older adults. Can an anti-inflammatory diet help reduce short-term or chronic inflammation?

Ball, a professor of community health and wellbeing at The University of Queensland, and Burch, a dietitian, researcher and lecturer at Southern Cross University, dig into the link between inflammation and health (including brain health), and at the potential of anti-inflammation diets.


What is inflammation?

When our body becomes injured or encounters an infection, it activates defence mechanisms to protect itself. It does this by instructing our cells to fight off the invader. This fighting process causes inflammation, which often presents as swelling, redness and pain.

In the short-term, inflammation is a sign your body is healing, whether from a grazed knee or a cold. But if inflammation persists for a longer time, it’s called “chronic.”

Chronic inflammation can indicate a health problem like arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and in the brain, dementia — plus a number of other autoimmune disorders.

Signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation may be present from several months to years and include these nine things:

  1. persistent pain
  2. chronic fatigue or insomnia
  3. joint stiffness
  4. skin problems
  5. elevated blood markers (such as C-reactive protein)
  6. gastrointestinal issues (constipation, diarrhoea, acid reflux)
  7. depression, anxiety and mood disorders
  8. unintended weight gain or loss
  9. frequent colds or flu.

Inflammation and dementia, depression, and rheumatoid arthritis

Inflammation is strongly implicated in the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia, and evidence suggests anti-inflammatory diets might help to protect the brain.

A 2016 review showed an anti-inflammatory diet may be protective against cognitive impairment and dementia, but that further large randomised controlled trials are needed. A 2021 study followed 1,059 people for three years and observed their diet. They reported those with a greater pro-inflammatory diet had an increased risk of developing dementia.

Inflammation has also been linked with mental health, with people eating a pro-inflammatory diet reporting more symptoms of depression. Diet is the fundamental element of lifestyle approaches to managing anxiety and mental health.

More broadly, a 2021 review paper examined recent research related to anti-inflammatory diets and their effect on reducing inflammation associated with ageing. It found compounds commonly found in anti-inflammatory diets could help alleviate the inflammatory process derived from diseases and unhealthy diets.

There is mixed evidence for the role of anti-inflammatory diets in rheumatoid arthritis pain management. A recent 2021 systematic review (where researchers carefully group and examine the available evidence on a topic) found eating an anti-inflammatory diet likely leads to significantly lower pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis when compared with other diets.

However, the 12 studies included in the review had a high risk of bias – likely because people knew they were eating healthy foods – so the confidence in the evidence was low.

anti-inflammation diet
Brain health and nutrition experts advise you can’t really go wrong by including lots of vegetables in your diet.

Can diet help treat inflammation?

The relationship between food and inflammation is well recognized. Overall, some food components may activate the immune system by producing pro-inflammatory cytokines (small proteins important in cell signaling) or reducing the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines.

A pro-inflammatory diet may increase inflammation in the body over the long term. Such diets are usually low in fresh produce like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and high in commercially baked goods, fried foods, added sugars and red and processed meats.

In contrast, an anti-inflammatory diet is associated with less inflammation in the body. There is no single anti-inflammatory diet. Two well-recognised, evidence-backed examples are the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.

What’s in an anti-inflammation diet?

Anti-inflammatory diets typically include the following elements:

1. high in antioxidants. These compounds help the body fight free radicals or unstable atoms, that in high quantities are linked to illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. The best way to consume antioxidants is by eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Research shows frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables can be just as good as fresh

2. high in “healthy”, unsaturated fatty acids. Monounsaturated fats and omega-3-fatty acids are found in fish (sardines, mackerel, salmon and tuna), seeds, nuts, and plant-based oils (olive oil and flaxseed oil)

3. high in fibre and prebiotics. Carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and leafy greens are good sources of fibre. Prebiotics promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in our intestines and can come from onions, leeks, asparagus, garlic, bananas, lentils and legumes

4. low in processed foods. These contain refined carbohydrates (pastries, pies, sugar-sweetened beverages, deep-fried foods and processed meats).

What about turmeric?

A favorite on social media and vitamin shelves, turmeric is promoted as having anti-inflammatory benefits. These are linked to a specific compound called curcumin, which gives turmeric its distinctive yellow color.

Turmeric – and the curcumin it contains – is often touted as anti-inflammatory. Though experts warn against expecting turmeric supplements to yield any of the same benefits as naturally occuring turmeric straight from your diet.

Research suggests curcumin might act as an anti-inflammatory agent in the body, but high-quality clinical trials into the benefits of turmeric and curcumin in humans are lacking. Most of the existing studies have been conducted in lab settings using cells or in animals. So it’s unclear how much curcumin is needed to see anti-inflammatory benefits or how well we absorb it.

Overall, adding turmeric to your food may provide your body with some health benefits, but don’t rely on it to prevent or treat disease on its own.

Safe eating

Inflammation is a major factor in the link between diet and many health conditions. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet is considered safe, likely to support health and to prevent future chronic conditions. If you are looking for tailored dietary advice or an anti-inflammatory meal plan, it’s best to speak with an accredited, practicing dietitian.The Conversation

This article by Lauren Ball, a professor of community health and wellbeing at The University of Queensland, and Emily Burch, a dietitian, researcher and lecturer at Southern Cross University, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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4 thoughts on “Inflammation, Disease, and Science Behind an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

  1. Many vegetables and grains are inflammatory. Also to much sugar, especially in fructose that is in fruit, is also inflammatory. The most anti-inflammatory diet is a carnivore diet. There is no evidence saturated fat from animal products is inflammatory when carbohydrates are kept low. Your anti-inflammatory diet, although much better than the Standard American Diet is misleading and does not give the best advice.

    1. What meds or vitamins are good for inflammation when there has been pain in the body especially the ribcage for several years now.

  2. Thanks for sharing much needed information on Dementia and Alzheimers disease. I am not sure what happened but I could not hear the talk at the end. A good program. I am very interested and am preparing to give a talk on Dementia and Alzheimers to up to 50 men on October 11, 2023

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