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Inflammation is a Gut Reaction

by Sarah Ferreira

Inflammation acts as both a friend and foe. Although inflammatory processes are essential to a functioning immune system, a chronic, low-grade and unresolved inflammatory state is a pathological feature of a wide range of chronic conditions.

Important considerations for keeping inflammation in check include maintenance of gastrointestinal health, recognition and management of adverse food reactions and adequate status of nutrients, fatty acids and phytochemicals to promote a strong immune system and provide support for resolution of inflammation.

Overlapping mechanisms are involved in the activation and regulation of inflammation; for instance, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have been attributed to genetic factors, the host immune system, infectious processes and environmental factors such as the microbiota.

Many inflammatory diseases are associated with significant shifts in the resident microbiota from a healthy to a diseased state and to disruptions in intestinal health. As roughly 70 percent of immune system function lies within gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), profound changes in the microbiota are believed to contribute to the dramatic and rapid increase in chronic inflammatory and autoimmune disorders, including obesity, joint disease, depression, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and metabolic disease.

Lifestyle factors, including the use of antibiotics and the standard American diet, characterized as rich in fats and sugars while low in fiber, have been implicated in the disruption of bacterial species that make up the human microbiota, causing increased intestinal inflammation and increased intestinal permeability.

A healthy gastrointestinal tract is lined with epithelial cells, mucus, immunoglobulin A (IgA), one of the most common antibodies in the body, antimicrobial peptides and immune cells, which comprise a protective barrier and mucosal surface. In order to provide protection against potential invaders such as microorganisms and toxins, this protective barrier needs to remain closely linked while remaining permeable enough to allow absorption of essential fluids and nutrients.

When this barrier is impaired, the structure can become overly permeable and allow for increased levels of antigenic substances to cross the intestinal barrier. Chronic inflammation, allergies, and inflammatory bowel diseases are also related to altered intestinal permeability.

The status of specific nutrients impacts how efficiently the mucosal firewall can function to keep intestinal inflammation at bay. Active vitamin A, which is found in liver, fish oils, eggs and milk, contribute to the regulatory specialization of mucosal dendritic cells, while vitamin A deficiency increases likelihood for respiratory and intestinal infections.

Vitamin D, found in cod liver oil, swordfish, salmon, tuna fish, sardines, liver, egg, and fortified foods, is an important modulator of the immune system and has been shown to protect mucosal barrier homeostasis.

Appropriate zinc levels are essential for regulating inflammatory processes. Food sources of zinc include oysters, beef, crab, lobster, pork chop, beans, cashews and pumpkin seeds. A recent study found that among patients with multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Type 1 diabetes, 70 percent demonstrated a zinc deficiency in disease compared to the control group.

Zinc deficiency states can be caused by inadequate intake, a diet high in lignin and phytates which chelate zinc and prevent its proper absorption, or gastrointestinal diseases that cause poor absorption. While classic food allergies are associated with an IgE response, other mechanisms of food intolerance include release of a wide variety of inflammatory mediators.

Sarah Ferreira, MS, MPH, CDN, CNSC, CLT is a registered dietitian and integrative and functional nutrition certified practitioner and owner of Nourished Brain Solutions, in Troy. For a Nourished Strategy Session, call 518-308-8740 or visit NourishedBrainsolutions.com/connect.