Inflammation Skin Conditions and Plant Based Diet

Inflammation is a complex process in which cells and chemicals in our bodies fight infections and other threats. It can be activated acutely or long-term. If a threat is detected by the immune system, chemicals like histamine are released that cause blood vessels to dilate, permitting white blood cells to arrive to clean up the area. While inflammation can protect our health when it's an acute response like an insect bite or infection, chronic inflammation is a different story. 

Chronic inflammation is a pathological condition underlying a number of serious illnesses including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and chronic inflammatory disorders. In addition, people who are overweight also often express markers of inflammation in their blood, even without any specific illnesses present.

Inflammatory skin diseases are the most common problem in dermatology. They come in many forms, from occasional rashes accompanied by skin itching and redness, to chronic conditions including;

  • dermatitis (eczema)
  • rosacea
  • seborrheic dermatitis
  • psoriasis

When it comes to skin conditions, you want to do everything you can to avoid increased levels of chronic inflammation. By far the most commonly used prescription drugs for treating skin inflammation are corticosteroids, but these are not without potentially harmful side effects such as thinning of the skin, not to mention more serious issues such as TSW (topical steroid withdrawal) which can actually exacerbate the original skin problem in the long run.

Diet and Inflammation

The science behind anti-inflammatory diets is simple: by eating fewer foods with inflammatory properties and more foods with anti-inflammatory properties you can reduce chronic inflammation throughout your body.

Data from research suggests that dietary patterns strongly impact inflammatory processes. A diet high in vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds for example - namely 'plant based' - is considered anti-inflammatory. The following studies show a correlation between plant based eating and a reduction in inflammation. 

  • The most recent study, published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine in 2015, saw 600 participants follow a vegan diet for three weeks. This significantly reduced C-reactive protein, a key marker for acute and chronic inflammation.
  • In another study published in Arthritis Research and Care in 2008, 30 patients with active RA who followed a gluten-free vegan diet for three months experienced reduced inflammation.
  • A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2010 revealed that 53 participants who followed a vegan diet for three and a half months and experienced significant improvement in tender and swollen joints, pain, duration of morning stiffness and grip strength than the people in a control group who consumed an ordinary diet.
  • In another study published in Arthritis Research and Care in 2008, 30 patients with active RA who followed a gluten-free vegan diet for three months experienced reduced inflammation.

There is convincing evidence that plant foods can modulate immunological and inflammatory processes. By means of anti-inflammatory activities, a plant-based diet may contribute to lower the risk of inflammatory skin diseases and indeed more life threatening illnesses such as cancer. A high intake of vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds provides a wide spectrum of bioactive compounds at health-promoting concentrations.

Best anti-inflammatory foods

According to Dr Hu - professor of nutrition and epidemiology in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, to reduce levels of inflammation our best bet is to consider a plant based diet, high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and healthy oils.

In addition to lowering inflammation, a more natural, less processed diet can have noticeable effects on your physical and emotional health. "A healthy diet is beneficial not only for reducing the risk of chronic diseases, but also for improving mood and overall quality of life," Dr. Hu says.

  • avocados
  • green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale and collards
  • cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage
  • freshly pressed green juices
  • olive oil, coconut oil 
  • nuts such as almonds, cashews and walnuts
  • seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower and flaxseeds
  • fruits such as blueberries, raspberries and cherries

Worst inflammatory foods

  • Fizzy soda drinks
  • Sweets
  • Fried foods
  • Processed meats
  • Sugar
  • Dairy
  • Refined carbohydrates (white bread / pasta)
  • Alcohol

Do I have to stop eating meat? 

There is no question that meat, especially red meat, invokes an inflammatory response in the body. According to a new Harvard study involving 46,500 participants, eating high amounts of red meat daily might be a risk factor for gut inflammation. For each daily serving, the risk went up by 18%. Red meat contains several pro-inflammatory compounds including;

  • saturated fat
  • cross-reactive protein, or CRP, which is a common marker for chronic, low-grade inflammation
  • arachidonic acid - an omega-6 fatty acid that the body uses for making hormones
  • heme iron - it has been proposed that the high amounts of heme iron found in red meat might be problematic. Heme iron increases oxidative stress in the body, which in turn promotes inflammation
  • advanced glycation end products (AGEs) may have pro-inflammatory activity (particularly cooked meat)

It isn't just red meat posing a potential problem, chicken and eggs are in fact two of the top sources of arachidonic acid in our diet - arachidonic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid involved in our body’s inflammatory response.

In fact a single meal consisting of a variety of animal products such as meat, dairy, or eggs triggers an inflammatory reaction inside the body within hours of consumption. So what exactly is causing this inflammation? 

At first, scientists thought it might solely be the animal protein, which is thought to be the culprit in certain types of arthritis. However, similar inflammatory reactions were triggered by whipped cream, which is mostly just animal fat. After investigating things further, researchers discovered that after a meal of animal products the bloodstream becomes soiled with bacterial toxins known as 'endotoxins'. 

Endotoxins come from bacteria. Where are there lots of bacteria? In our gut. Research suggests the saturated animal fat can cause our gut lining to become leaky, allowing our own bacteria to slip into our blood stream. You might have heard 'leaky gut' cited as the underlying cause of numerous health conditions including psoriasis.

A recent scientific review article stated "one of the most consistent epidemiological associations between diet and human disease risk is the impact of red meat consumption (beef, pork and lamb, particularly in processed forms). While the risk estimates vary, associations are reported with cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and possibly other inflammatory processes including skin conditions."

Antibiotic considerations

Because cattle, chicken, and pigs did not evolve on a grain-fed diet, many producers have to load up their animals with antibiotics. These drugs not only keep the animals from getting diseases in cramped feed pens or getting sick from their unnatural diet, but they also help them (and unfortunately us) gain weight more quickly. Not only are we eating meats that are higher in inflammatory saturated fats, have greater levels of inflammatory omega-6s from their corn and soy diet, but our body thinks it’s in a constant state of attack due to ingesting leftover levels of antibiotics and hormones.

Fish

Fish is often cited as anti-inflammatory and a healthy animal protein source. So, where does fish sit on the inflammatory marker scale? 

Fish, such as salmon, tuna, and trout, are filled with omega-3 fatty acids. Marine omega-3 fatty acids contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), these are known to decrease inflammation in the body.

Researchers at the University of Navarra in Spain recruited 96 obese adults to follow a reduced calorie diet consisting of either 30% or 15% protein for 8 weeks. Body composition measurements and blood samples were taken at the start and end of the study; vegetable, meat, and fish protein intakes were recorded throughout. After 8 weeks, both groups lost nearly the same amount of weight and fat, but participants who got more of their protein from meat had higher levels of inflammation compared to participants who consumed mostly fish or plant-based sources of protein.

Mercury considerations

If you would like to continue consuming animal protein, it seems as though fish might be a preferred source, that said, we also need to take into consideration our polluted oceans and the high levels of mercury which too can trigger an inflammatory response. 

Mercury and other toxic metals cause the release of inflammatory cytokines, which are factors in chronic inflammatory conditions, including asthma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac and Crohn's disease. Eating the wrong kinds of fish too often can raise the level of mercury in our body. 

Large fish have more mercury for the simple fact that big fish usually live longer. They have more time to build up higher levels of mercury. The fish most likely have high concentrations of mercury (and therefore ones to avoid) are;

  • King mackerel
  • Marlin
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Tilefish (from the Gulf of Mexico)
  • Tuna (Bigeye, Ahi)
  • Bluefish and grouper

Fish with reportedly lower levels of mercury are;

  • Haddock
  • Hake
  • Salmon
  • Herring
  • Sardines

Transition to an anti inflammatory diet

If your diet is currently very meat heavy, the transition to a plant powered one can feel rather daunting. If cutting meat out completely seems impossible, a gradual transition towards including more vegetables in your meals can be an easier alternative. You may also wish to include fish with low levels of mercury as an anti-inflammatory source of omega-3 fatty acids. No matter what you choose to eat, the key is to fill as much of your plate as possible with the most proven inflammation-fighters and anti-agers around.

Here are the foods you're aiming to consume most of;

  • avocados
  • green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale and collards
  • cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage
  • freshly pressed green juices
  • olive oil, coconut oil 
  • nuts such as almonds, cashews and walnuts
  • seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower and flaxseeds
  • fruits such as blueberries, raspberries and cherries

And the ones to avoid

  • Fizzy soda drinks
  • Sweets
  • Fried foods
  • Processed meats
  • Sugar
  • Dairy
  • Refined carbohydrates (white bread / pasta)
  • Alcohol

 

Would you consider your current diet anti-inflammatory? Would you find it difficult to change the foods you eat? Questions and comments welcome below. 

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