Anti-Inflammatory Diets

Aug 03, 2017

When your body detects an invading germ, the immune system responds by sending white blood cells and antibodies to kill the bacteria or virus. When the battle is over, the attack is called off, the white cell count returns to normal, and the body returns to a surveillance mode. This process is called “the inflammatory response”.

A blood test for one of the many proteins involved in this battle. C-reactive protein can be used to measure and track the inflammatory response.

When C-reactive protein is measured in large groups of people, we find that study participants have persistently elevated levels suggesting a low level, chronic inflammation. As chronic inflammation can injure even normal tissues, many researchers have speculated that this inflammation is one of the factors involved in the development of some chronic diseases. And indeed, when monitored over time, groups with elevated C-reactive protein levels do have higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

If chronic inflammation can have that kind of effect on our health, is there anything you can do to minimize your risks? It turns out that what we eat will make a difference, and a diet low in animal products and high in fruits and vegetables will lower the blood markers of inflammation.

What is the reason for this chronic inflammation on a diet that is low in fruits and vegetables? Unlike most of the cells in our body, which are nourished via the blood supply to various organs, the colon lining cells get most of their nourishment from small molecules (fatty acids specifically) produced by bacteria of the microbiome as they digest plant fiber. Healthy colon lining cells act like an internal “skin” to keep the waste products of the colon from leaking into our system, so if we starve the microbiome bacteria of adequate plant fiber, the colon lining suffers.

A high animal product (red meat) diet also increases the production of bacterial byproducts called endotoxins. These molecules are of no value to our body’s metabolism and in fact can be toxic. So when they are found outside the colon, our body tags them as “harmful invaders” and an inflammatory response is triggered as protection.

Eat too little plant fiber and the colon becomes leaky; add in red meat and the level of potential colon toxins increases. This combination results in repeated challenges to our immune system and thus chronic inflammation. Supporting this scenario, when patients with a chronically elevated C-reactive protein level are placed on a plant based diet (fruits and vegetables), levels will drop by 30 percent within two weeks.

Besides the positive impact of plant fiber on the colon lining cells (via the microbiome), many plants provide an additional anti-inflammatory benefit. Plants are high in antioxidants called polyphenols, and when the type of white blood cell that is involved in an inflammatory response is exposed to polyphenols in a test tube, the release of inflammatory molecules diminishes. Thus, these plant antioxidants provide additional protection as they work directly on the white blood cells to tamp down any tendency toward a chronic inflammatory response.

The benefits of a vegetarian diet are well known. Studies have repeatedly shown that the closer a diet is to a full vegetarian diet, the healthier and longer lived the individual. The benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet don’t require an “all or nothing” approach. Any additional fruits and vegetables will increase the fiber that keeps your colon healthy and any decrease in amount of animal products will decrease the endotoxin load.

If you are interested in moving towards an anti-inflammatory diet, the easiest first step to serve one meatless meal a week, cut down the portion sizes of meat on other days, and add the foods that have been demonstrated to lower C-reactive protein levels - fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans, coffee and fish - as substitutes so you feel you have had a full meal.

An even easier first step, just add just one new thing. Start with adopting my old favorite, a tablespoon or two of flax meal with applesauce every morning to help nourish and rev up those good microbiome bacteria.

Dr. Rafoth welcomes feedback to A Doctor’s Rx. He would also be happy to respond to specific concerns about specific health issues in future column posts. Send your comments to

Comments (1)
Posted by: Barbara McCarron | Aug 09, 2017 17:53

Thank you for writing this articles. Having had issues with my GI system partly as a result of losing my thyroid and being on replacement therapy (that's when my problems began), it is very helpful to be able to read information that I have not come across before that describes how we can enhance our gut health by eating the right combination of foods.  I save the articles, share them with family, and plan on using the information to improve my gut health.

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