Week 9 – Inflammation is a Complicated Subject

Earlier in the week I introduced the topic of inflammation and how internal inflammation shows up on our outward appearance, specifically our skin. We introduced the concept of systemic (meaning all throughout the body) inflammation and talked about specific foods that bring about inflammation on the skin.  Today I’d like to explain in a little more detail what’s going on in the body when we eat certain foods that lead to inflammation.

Everything we eat undergoes a long and complex biochemical chain of events, from the first breakdown by the salivary amylase in our saliva to the final output in our waste, the body has an amazing way of processing food!  Certain foods go through a biochemical process that ends up in an anti-inflammatory end product, while others end up pro-inflammatory. 

There are two main categories of fats that are important to highlight in this process – Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.  Sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish like mackerel and salmon, flax seeds, soybeans and walnuts.  Sources of Omega-6 fatty acids come from plant sources and include certain nuts, seeds and their oils, soybean oil (and therefore many packaged, processed foods) and bottled salad dressings.  Both of these types of fats are “essential” meaning the body cannot make them so we need to get them from our diets.  Many believe that the ideal ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats should be 2:1.  Currently it is estimated that the American diet is 20 to 1.  Some nutritionists believe that this could be the main underlying cause for chronic lifestyle disease in the US.

Most Omega-6 fats undergo a transformation that ends in the production of “pro-inflammatory” eicosanoids (i.e. prostaglandins, prostacylins, thormboxanes, leukotrienes, etc.)  Eicosanoids are also derived from the EPA in the omega-3 fats, but are anti-inflammatory.  A specific type of Omega-6 fat, called arachidonic acid can be worrisome.  It is found in meat, eggs and fat-containing dairy and also can be synthesized from linoleic acid by the body when supply is low.  High levels of arachidonic acid can lead to high inflammation. When eating eggs, choose the Omega-3 enriched variety, and if you eat dairy, choose low-fat products.  Beef should be a “sometimes” food unless you buy grass-fed beef which is lower in saturated fat and higher in Omega-3’s.  Remember, not only are you “what you eat”, but you are also “what the food you eat, eats”.  

Food affects the body’s inflammatory response in surprising and complex ways.  Some foods have a combination of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory effects.  Others have different effects depending on what you eat with them. The take away message here is to eat plenty of healthy, anti-inflammatory foods like fatty fish, walnuts and flax and exercise moderation when eating processed and packaged foods, beef and high fat dairy products.  This one simple change in your diet will do wonders for both your internal health and also the external appearance of your skin.