There are three different ways food can create inflammation in the body. The first is eating foods that are inflammatory, such as fried foods, highly processed and packaged foods, foods that contain rancid oils and fats, and highly processed meat products. The second way is by consistently eating too many sugars and carbohydrates for your body. High blood sugar can create a cascade of inflammatory events. The third way food can trigger inflammation in the body is by consuming foods your immune system has been primed to react to, which is called a food sensitivity. A food or food group that may be healthy and anti-inflammatory for one person could be the source of a lot of damaging inflammatory chemicals for another person. Therefore, when it comes to a whole foods diet, there just isn’t one right way to eat.
Today I am going to focus on how food sensitivities create a cascade of inflammation in the body and what you can do about it.
Like I explained in detail in my digestion article, food needs to be broken down into its smallest components in order to be absorbed and utilized. When larger food antigens cross the intestinal epithelial layer, the immune system can recognize these as foreign invaders. This may not always be the case, but in the presence of decreased barrier function (leaky gut) and dysbiosis (bacterial overgrowth), it often is. Compromised intestinal barrier function can happen after consuming highly inflammatory foods (like rancid oils, deep fried foods, highly processed foods, etc.), as well as from communication with the nervous system (the gut-brain axis) and immune system.
Immune cells that reside along the intestinal barrier can get triggered from food or bacterial components (LPS) and release inflammatory immune chemicals called cytokines. Certain cytokines, such as TNF-a, are known to disrupt the tight junction proteins (the proteins that keep the cells of the intestinal lining together).
The immune reaction to a virus or bacteria is the same response the body uses when reacting to a food. This is called a food hypersensitivity.
Immune cells wait on the other side of the intestinal epithelium to sample contents of the intestines and determine if what is crossing over is safe or unsafe. If the immune system determines a food to be unsafe, an inflammatory immune cascade is set into motion. This is called a TH1 immune response. Remember, this is a very important process to remove harmful bacteria and viruses from the body and create immune memory to them.
When the immune system responds to food in this way, more inflammatory cytokines are released, which can damage the intestinal lining even more, and travel throughout the body creating brain fog, depression, chronic fatigue, joint pain, skin issues, and can exacerbate autoimmune conditions. TNF-a, for example, is a key player in the damage to tissues in two autoimmune conditions—rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. Additionally, B cells will make IgG antibodies to the food antigens. These antibodies can then bind to receptors attached to macrophages (immune cells of the innate immune system). This then releases a secondary cascade of inflammatory chemicals called reactive oxygen species, or ROS (also known as free radicals).
This is a good thing when you are fighting a viral or bacterial infection! But not so great when the source of this reaction is food. ROS are highly unstable molecules that steal electrons (say from cell membranes, perhaps) and stimulate the immune system even more, causing more inflammatory cytokines to be released, which then makes you feel brain fog, crabby, fatigued, depressed or anxious, and achy all over your body.
What if you are eating foods your immune system is reacting to everyday? Then you'll have chronic inflammation.
How can you stop this inflammatory process?
In order to calm down inflammation, it's important to not only focus on eliminating foods that your body has launched a chronic immune attack against, but also to remove all inflammatory foods and greatly increase the amount of antioxidants and phytochemicals coming from your diet. Antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E donate electrons to make these ROS molecules stable. Quenching free radicals begins to stop part of this inflammatory cascade.
Plant chemicals, like curcumin from turmeric, sulforaphane from raw cruciferous veggies, and resveratrol from grape skins, activate something called the Nrf-2 pathway. This pathway calms the inflammatory cascade happening in your body, and happens at the genetic level from the foods you eat! Broccoli sprouts, turmeric, green tea (especially matcha), and many more foods you may be consuming everyday help to lower the levels of these inflammatory cytokines and stop this cycle. Removing foods like trans fats, highly processed foods, rancid oils, and processed meats, that, by their nature, produce intestinal inflammation is critical in healing a leaky gut.
After you have added in antioxidants and a lot of plant chemicals from food (daily), as well as removed all highly processed inflammatory foods, you may want to focus on foods and supplements that increase your T regulatory response. This is the immune response that sees food and doesn't negatively react. Adequate vitamin D and vitamin A are essential to this process; so is stress reduction, deep sleep, and exercise!
Try an Elimination Diet!
The next step is to begin some type of elimination diet to try to find one or more foods that your immune system is reacting to. This is absolutely essential. You won't be able to heal your gut and stop the inflammation without removing the source of it all. Remember, food reactions cause the immune system to produce a lot of TNF-a, an inflammatory cytokine that damages tight junction proteins, causing more exposure to food and bacteria on the other side of the intestinal wall.
If you have not yet tried an elimination diet, I suggest you start with a Basic Elimination Diet. This simplified version only removes six food groups and will offer you the greatest chances of success (click on the "diet information" tab to learn how to do this diet). If you are ready to dive right in, then try the Full Elimination Diet. This is our unique version of an elimination diet. You can order the book, which walks you through the whole process or join our online program (I share plenty of cooking videos that show you how to cook and prepare many elimination diet staple recipes).
Feeling bad everyday is difficult, and impedes our ability to perform normal functions, like caring for our children or holding a job. There is a way out of it, but it does take some major dietary changes. Over time, the inflammation will calm down and you will feel better; I've seen it all the time. Food is powerful medicine!
If you'd like more support you can become a Nourishing Meals® member and combine diets to create a personalized elimination diet. Members have access to over 1400 healing recipes and pre-made Elimination Diet meal plans to help you get started right away, as well as a weekly live Zoom support session with me (only logged in members have access to this link). Our membership site also offers an option for adding foods back in to the search query for the reintroduction process, streamlining this last phase of the elimination diet for the best success!
Re-cap to reducing inflammation:
- Remove inflammatory foods. You know what these are! They are often the most addictive foods.
- Flood your body with anti-inflammatory foods daily! These are all brightly colored plant foods, your antioxidant vitamins, and healthy fats like purified fish oil and olive oil. If you are in an inflammation flare, try greatly reducing your food intake down to the absolute minimum you need for just a few days and drink fresh pressed vegetable juices (made at home). I usually recommend a blend of cabbage (or napa cabbage if you need low-FODMAP), cucumber, a TON of fresh ginger, and some citrus, like a peeled lemon, lime, or orange. No fruits other than a small amount of citrus. The juice should be primarily non-starchy green vegetables and as much fresh ginger as you tolerate. Drink this as often as possible and include small amounts of freshly cooked high quality animal protein for at least two meals.
- Remove food triggers! Do an elimination diet. This isn't something you can jump into tomorrow. It requires some careful planning and removing of all gluten from your kitchen! We recommend taking a week to begin planning and preparing for the diet. Create meal plans so you can stay organized and on track. Our membership site here allows you to create meal plans, schedule recipes to a planning calendar, and create customized shopping lists....all with hundreds of delicious, healing recipes! An elimination diet requires thoughtful planning, organization, and support. You got this!