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Food/Nutrition Columnist Author: Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN - Food and Nutrition Columnist - Last Updated: Sep 7, 2017 - 10:06:33 PM

Inflammation And Disease – The Connection?

By Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN - Food and Nutrition Columnist -
Jul 12, 2014 - 9:33:58 AM

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( - All of us have experienced a splinter where the skin around the wound becomes red, hot, swollen and painful. As the wound heals and the damaged tissue is repaired, the inflammation subsides. This is acute inflammation which is normal and does not last long. Chronic inflammation, lasting weeks, months or even years, may be caused by exposure to environmental toxins, an infection, poor nutrition, stress or aging. Chronic inflammation can damage body cells and lead to serious, often life-threatening disease.

The pathway from chronic inflammation to disease is very complex. It starts with our immune system. When you are injured or exposed to an infection, your innate immunity defense system becomes the body's first line of defense. This immune defense is usually limited in both time and potency. If the innate immune defense system fails, your adaptive immune system kicks in. Unlike the innate system, the adaptive immune system produces memory cells that can both recognize and react again when faced with a repetitive invader.

In most instances the two immune systems work together to control infections and heal injuries but sometimes the mechanism of the two systems becomes overwhelmed and prolonged, chronic inflammation can set in. Chronic inflammation can damage body cells and set the stage for serious disease. It is believed that chronic inflammation can cause kidney disease, irritable bowel disease, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Though the factors that trigger various diseases may be different, the connection between chronic inflammation and disease follows the same process. Cytokines are small protein particles that act as a signaling system for inflammation. Specific cytokines promote inflammation to create healing and others turn off inflammation when the problem is repaired. An imbalance in the activity between pro-inflammatory cytokines and anti-inflammatory cytokines leads to chronic inflammation and can start the disease process.

Weighing too much can promote chronic inflammation. Belly fat stimulates pro-inflammatory cytokines leading to chronic low-grade inflammation. This situation can increase the risk for type 2 diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes have higher levels of pro-inflammatory and lower levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines. A distorted inflammatory response may also be responsible to plaque development in heart disease and tumor growth in cancer.

Food can play a role by both promoting inflammation and combating inflammation.

Anti-inflammatory foods:

  • A diet rich in fruits and vegetables may be one of the best defenses against chronic inflammation. They are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and polyphenols that have anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Whole grain foods may help decrease inflammation that is connected with the risk for diabetes and heart disease.
  • Weight loss is also key. Some research ( has shown that reducing calories to promote weight loss can reduce inflammation.
  • Foods rich in omega-3 fats - fish, nuts, olives, canola oil - suppress pro-inflammatory compounds and stimulate anti-inflammatory compounds normalizing the immune signaling system.
  • Prebiotics, a type of fiber, and probiotics, found in yogurt and kefir, decrease pro-inflammatory activity reducing inflammation.

Pro-inflammatory foods:

  • Carbohydrate foods that are low in fiber and high in sugar.
  • Foods containing trans fats - eat as little as possible. Avoid deep fried foods and read nutrition labels carefully.
  • Foods high in saturated fats - meat, butter, cream, cheese, and whole milk.

If you are someone who is at risk for diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, and heart disease or if cancer runs in the family, eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods may be another way to decrease your risk and improve your health.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with sales of more than 8.5 million books.

Look for:

The Diabetes Counter, 5th Ed., 2014

The Fat and Cholesterol Counter, 2014

The Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2013

The Calorie Counter, 6th Ed., 2013

The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012

The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011

The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010

The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008

Your Complete Food Counter App:

For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to:


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