Health

From Pain to Protection: The Science and Benefits of Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Inflammation is the body’s protective response to injury or infection. The affected area becomes swollen, warm, red, and painful. For example, during a toothache, sore throat, or when we bump our head against a door or stub our toe, what our body experiences is called an inflammatory response. These four main characteristics of inflammation described by Celsus almost 2,000 years ago, known as the pillars of inflammation, include redness, heat, swelling, and pain.

Understanding the Mechanism of Inflammation

Redness occurs because the capillaries (small blood vessels) in the affected tissue expand and bring more blood than usual. This increase in blood flow is also responsible for the feeling of heat. Swelling occurs because the tissues fill up with fluid that leaks out of the enlarged blood vessels. The sensation of pain is caused by chemicals that irritate the nerve endings in that area. But what is the purpose of inflammation? Why do we need to experience pain? The pain is necessary to alert us that something wrong is happening, and the area where the pain occurs needs extra care.

The Crucial Role of Immune Cells

The other three elements (heat, redness, and swelling) are equally important as they allow the immune system to function. The expansion of the capillaries and increased blood flow bring essential components of the immune system—monocytes and lymphocytes—responsible for the body’s defense. These immune cells are the fighters of the immune system; they protect us from agents causing inflammation, like the flu virus causing a sore throat or bacteria trying to enter the body through a skin wound. In summary, inflammation is a response of our body, generated by the immune system, against potentially harmful elements. Inflammation is therefore good and necessary for maintaining our health.

Risks of Excessive Inflammation

Although the role of the inflammatory response is to send the immune system’s fighters to the site of injury to protect us, sometimes this response is so strong that it causes damage. As previously explained, immune cells reach the inflamed area thanks to the increase in blood flow. The earliest cells to arrive are neutrophils, a type of white blood cell filled with defense factors such as antibacterial proteins or enzymes that can help break down infectious organisms. Neutrophils then release these factors into the inflamed area to neutralize the virus or bacteria. However, if too many of these factors are released from neutrophils simultaneously, they can cause tissue damage. In these cases, excessive inflammation can become dangerous. [Study]

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Managing Inflammation with Anti-inflammatory Agents

Anti-inflammatory components or medications can be used to help control the inflammatory response and prevent it from going overboard. We use anti-inflammatory components or medications not to stop the inflammation entirely but to help “balance” the benefits of inflammation against the potential associated harms it can cause the body. The following foods and components have been found in studies to have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. [Study]

Nutritional Components with Anti-inflammatory Properties

Ginger

Ginger root (Zingiber) has been used for years in cooking and as a medicinal herb. It is a home remedy for treating digestive disorders and nausea, such as morning sickness during pregnancy. Two components of ginger, gingerol and zingerone, might help reduce inflammation associated with several health conditions, including type 2 diabetes. Consuming ginger may also positively affect HbA1c (glycated hemoglobin levels, which indicate average blood sugar over three months). Additionally, according to a scientific review, ginger has well-documented anti-cancer potential, and its functional components, such as gingerols, shogaols, and paradols, are important elements that can prevent various types of cancer. This review strongly supports the properties of ginger, but more research is still needed.

Studies have shown that ginger extract can reduce the increased expression of inflammatory markers (NFκB and TNF-α) in rats with liver cancer. NF-KB activation is associated with a variety of inflammatory diseases such as cancer, atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction (heart attack), diabetes, allergy, asthma, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, psoriasis, septic shock, and AIDS.

Bromelain

Bromelain belongs to a group of protein-digesting enzymes derived from pineapple. Studies have shown that bromelain demonstrates fibrinolytic (anti-clotting), anti-edematous, and diverse anti-inflammatory activities. Bromelain is significantly absorbed by the body without losing its properties or producing significant side effects. Bromelain is attributed to numerous benefits such as treating angina pectoris (chest pain), bronchitis, sinusitis, surgical trauma, and thrombophlebitis (inflammation of veins), wound disinfection, and enhances absorption of medications, especially antibiotics. It also relieves osteoarthritis, diarrhea, and various cardiovascular disorders. According to another scientific review, bromelain also has some anti-cancer activities.

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Turmeric

Turmeric is another medicinal herb known for its benefits for many years, attracting interest not only in the culinary world but also from the scientific community. According to a scientific review, the primary source of turmeric’s health benefits is a polyphenol called curcumin. This component helps in inflammatory and oxidative conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia (high levels of fats in the blood). Curcumin may also help with inflammation caused by exercise and muscle soreness, thus improving recovery and performance in physically active individuals.

Additionally, a relatively low dose may provide health benefits even for individuals without a specific health issue. Most of turmeric’s benefits can be attributed to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Ingesting curcumin alone does not lead to the associated health benefits due to its poor bioavailability, which seems to be primarily due to poor absorption or rapid metabolism. However, some components can increase curcumin’s bioavailability, such as piperine, the main active component of black pepper, which, when combined with curcumin, enhances its bioavailability by 2000%.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have a variety of anti-inflammatory effects and benefits for the immune system that may help in cases of atherosclerosis and its clinical manifestations such as myocardial infarction, sudden death, and stroke. According to a scientific review, the most potent omega-3 fatty acids in this regard are the polyunsaturated long-chain acids derived from marine oils, namely eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Their benefits manifest in effects on triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL), platelet function, endothelial and vascular function, blood pressure, markers of oxidative stress, cytokines (pro and anti-inflammatory), and immune system function. Additionally, human studies have shown clinically significant anti-inflammatory effects in cases of rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disorders.

Resveratrol

Resveratrol is an antioxidant found in grapes, blueberries, and other purple fruits. It is also present in red wine, dark chocolate, and peanuts. Studies have shown various health benefits of resveratrol, such as disease prevention properties for cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Research has indicated that resveratrol has several roles against harmful inflammatory cytokines in our body. Moreover, the research found that the anti-inflammatory properties of resveratrol have been studied in both animals and humans and were found effective in reducing the production of inflammatory cells and the accumulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines.

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Vitamin D

Vitamin D regulates calcium and phosphorus absorption in the intestines, bones, and kidneys and the mineralization of vitamin D in bones. It has also been proven that there is a link between low vitamin D levels and an increased risk of cancer. Inflammation is commonly associated with carcinogenesis, the process by which normal cells turn into cancerous cells. Vitamin D plays a role in controlling inflammation by regulating the production of inflammatory cytokines and immune cells, which are crucial for the development of many immune-related diseases. Studies have shown that vitamin D affects inflammatory processes involved in cancer development. Many studies have shown that vitamin D has the potential to inhibit tumor development by interfering with the inflammatory system.

Green Tea

Green tea has been proven to have beneficial effects against a variety of diseases such as cancer, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases. Experiments conducted on cells, animals, and humans have shown that green tea and its main component, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), have anti-inflammatory effects. Green tea and EGCG suppress the expression of inflammatory cytokines and enzymes related to inflammation.

Garlic

Garlic is a spice plant rich in polyphenols and organo-sulfur, consumed since ancient times. Garlic has exhibited excellent effects in promoting health and preventing many common diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disorders, hypertension, and diabetes, through its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and blood lipid-lowering properties.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C, like vitamin D, is an essential vitamin that plays a huge role in immunity and inflammation. It is a potent antioxidant, so it can reduce inflammation by neutralizing free radicals that cause oxidative damage to the body’s cells. It also helps to optimize the immune system in ways that can help regulate inflammation since inflammation is an immune response. High doses are generally given to hospitalized patients with severe respiratory illnesses, like flu, pneumonia, and even COVID-19, to help reduce inflammation.

In conclusion, inflammation is a fundamental protective mechanism of the body, but when it becomes excessive, it can lead to harm. Utilizing nutritional components with anti-inflammatory properties, such as ginger, turmeric, omega-3 fatty acids, and others, may help balance the benefits of inflammation against potential damage. By understanding and managing inflammation appropriately, we can maintain health and prevent various diseases.