While inflammation is a normal part of healing or recovering from an illness, chronic inflammation is associated with an increased risk of a host of health issues, including heart disease, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.
While certain medications may help treat chronic inflammation, researchers are investigating whether diet can play a role in decreasing inflammation in general, although diet was not tested as a replacement treatment for medication.
“‘You are what you eat’ is starting to take on more meaning as prominent microbiome researchers are clarifying how food affects your gut microbiota, which affects the rest of your body,” said Dr. Elena A. Ivanina, MPH, director of neurogastroenterology and motility at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
“This small study by Drs. Justin and Erica Sonnenburg help elucidate how fermented food and fiber alter the microbiome and suggest that fermented food like kimchi increases microbial diversity,” she said.
Who is susceptible to inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural response from the body’s immune system.
When the body is put under stress from things like infections and injuries, the immune system releases antibodies and proteins along with increased blood flow to help heal the body.
In the short term, inflammation can help heal the body, but over time, if the inflammatory response continues, the immune system can target healthy tissues, which can end up causing damage.
“The immune system can cause collateral damage,” said Ken Cadwell, PhD, Recanati Family Professor of Microbiology at Skirball Institute in the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.
“When the immune system is causing too much damage or doesn’t calm down, you can get chronic inflammatory diseases,” he said.
What the study found
The clinical trial assigned 36 healthy adults a 10-week diet that included either fermented or high fiber foods.
In the fermented food group, four types of immune cells showed less activation.
The levels of 19 inflammatory proteins measured in blood samples went down as well. The results show that a simple change in diet can have a noticeable effect on the gut microbiome and the immune system.
According to the study, fermented foods decreased the activation of immune cells that are involved in chronic inflammation.
“This supports the well-known relationship between the microbiome and immune system that has been implicated in conditions such as celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease, as well as non-GI conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and cancer,” Ivanina said.
According to the study, people who ate yogurt, kefir, fermented cottage cheese, kimchi, vegetable brine drinks, and kombucha tea had an increase in overall microbial diversity. Larger servings of these foods showed stronger effects.
But researchers were surprised to find that the fiber-rich group did not have a similar decrease in 19 inflammatory proteins. The diversity of their gut microbes also remained stable.
“It is surprising that they did not find fiber to have a significant effect on the microbiome, but we should await larger studies to understand if that is indeed the case,” Ivanina said.
The bottom line
It’s important to note there’s no cure-all for treating inflammation, and that inflammation is a normal part of the healing process for short periods of time.
“As we learn more about this three-way connection between the food-microbiota immune system, we may be able to use this knowledge to treat broad types of inflammatory disease,” Cadwell said.