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Fight Inflammation with a Paleo Diet

By Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS
March 26, 2015
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Most athletes are well aware of a fun little word called “inflammation”.1 Tough workouts are a common cause of inflammation. Acute inflammation (the only kind most people are aware of) is actually beneficial.2,3 But – and this is a big BUT – chronic inflammation is a killer. Literally.4,5,6 The difference here is important, and very misunderstood. One of the biggest health benefits of consuming a Paleo diet comes from its anti-inflammatory nature.7,8,9 By fixing the Standard American Diet (SAD) ratio of high omega-6 to low omega-3, nearly everyone sees improvements.10,11 But before we proceed further, let’s specify and define acute inflammation and chronic inflammation.

Imai, Yumi, Anca D. Dobrian, Margaret A. Morris, and Jerry L. Nadler.
Imai, Yumi, Anca D. Dobrian, Margaret A. Morris, and Jerry L. Nadler. "Islet Inflammation: A Unifying Target for Diabetes Treatment?" Science Direct. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, July 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
Heneka, Michael T., Markus P. Kummer, and Eicke Latz.
Heneka, Michael T., Markus P. Kummer, and Eicke Latz. "Innate Immune Activation in Neurodegenerative Disease." Immunology Reviews. Nature, 25 June 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Acute inflammation is what occurs when you get a bruise, cut, experience stress, or go through a hard workout.12 I used to practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and CrossFit on a near-daily basis, and I became very familiar with inflammation! However, this is the good kind of inflammation, remember. Without acute inflammation, you would never heal. Think about that for a minute. Chronic inflammation, by contrast, is problematic for two reasons. One, it is much less noticeable. You likely won’t have a bruise, cut, or any obvious symptoms. And two, it is the cause behind most serious diseases – whether it be cancer, heart disease or other conditions.13,14,15

With regard to diet, inflammation also plays a bigger role than most are aware of. Take acne, for example. This is an inflammatory condition. Some have even surmised that inflammation plays a role in acne at a subclinical level.16 This is one of the many reasons why dairy should be avoided when consuming a Paleo Diet. Perhaps surprisingly to some, coconut oil has been shown to have components which help protect against acne.17 The lauric acid found in coconut oil has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and would therefore also be beneficial after a tough workout.18 Win-win.

Vegetables are another key component of an anti-inflammatory diet, and unsurprisingly, a healthy Paleo diet is largely comprised of vegetables!19,20 So what should athletes be eating? Coconut oil, protein and vegetables! Of course you’ll also want some anti-inflammatory fats, like the omega-3 fatty acids found in wild-caught seafood.21 From strictly a scientific perspective, it is quite clear athletes should stick to a diet based upon these foods to provide you with the best results.

Dantzer, Robert et al. “From Inflammation to Sickness and Depression: When the Immune System Subjugates the Brain.” Nature reviews. Neuroscience 9.1 (2008): 46–56. PMC. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
Dantzer, Robert et al. “From Inflammation to Sickness and Depression: When the Immune System Subjugates the Brain.” Nature reviews. Neuroscience 9.1 (2008): 46–56. PMC. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Another aspect of inflammation which many are unaware of is that it can occur (and often does occur) in your brain!22 If the brain’s barrier is opened, your glial cells will likely be activated.23 These are the cells that deal with immunity. Once activated, an inflammatory response in your brain occurs.24 This is not good. To add to the fun, your brain now has trouble communicating with your gut, creating more issues, specifically serotonin biosynthesis problems.25 And, the delicate HPA (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal) axis will now likely be off-balance, as well.26

So, what is the best way to avoid inflammation, of all kinds (except beneficial, acute inflammation)? Quite simply: eat a Paleo diet. By avoiding gluten (a huge instigator of inflammation throughout the body and brain) you will be doing yourself a huge favor.27,28 And when we replace problematic proteins like gluten, with nutrient-dense foods rich in protein, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, we procure better health for ourselves.29 Your mom was right: eat your vegetables for better health and less inflammation.30 Stay the course with a Paleo Diet and optimal health sans inflammation is within reach.

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[1] Pinto A, Di raimondo D, Tuttolomondo A, Buttà C, Milio G, Licata G. Effects of physical exercise on inflammatory markers of atherosclerosis. Curr Pharm Des. 2012;18(28):4326-49.

[2] Pedersen BK. The anti-inflammatory effect of exercise: its role in diabetes and cardiovascular disease control. Essays Biochem. 2006;42:105-17.

[3] You T, Arsenis NC, Disanzo BL, Lamonte MJ. Effects of exercise training on chronic inflammation in obesity : current evidence and potential mechanisms. Sports Med. 2013;43(4):243-56.

[4] Osiecki H. The role of chronic inflammation in cardiovascular disease and its regulation by nutrients. Altern Med Rev. 2004;9(1):32-53.

[5] Peev V, Nayer A, Contreras G. Dyslipidemia, malnutrition, inflammation, cardiovascular disease and mortality in chronic kidney disease. Curr Opin Lipidol. 2014;25(1):54-60.

[6] Kelly E, Owen CA, Pinto-plata V, Celli BR. The role of systemic inflammatory biomarkers to predict mortality in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Expert Rev Respir Med. 2013;7(1):57-64.

[7] De punder K, Pruimboom L. The dietary intake of wheat and other cereal grains and their role in inflammation. Nutrients. 2013;5(3):771-87.

[8] Soares FL, De oliveira matoso R, Teixeira LG, et al. Gluten-free diet reduces adiposity, inflammation and insulin resistance associated with the induction of PPAR-alpha and PPAR-gamma expression. J Nutr Biochem. 2013;24(6):1105-11.

[9] Nowlin SY, Hammer MJ, D'eramo melkus G. Diet, inflammation, and glycemic control in type 2 diabetes: an integrative review of the literature. J Nutr Metab. 2012;2012:542698.

[10] Kowalski LM, Bujko J. [Evaluation of biological and clinical potential of paleolithic diet]. Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig. 2012;63(1):9-15.

[11] Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Lindeberg S, Hallberg AC. Subjective satiety and other experiences of a Paleolithic diet compared to a diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes. Nutr J. 2013;12:105.

[12] Ryan GB, Majno G. Acute inflammation. A review. Am J Pathol. 1977;86(1):183-276.

[13] Holmes C, Cunningham C, Zotova E, et al. Systemic inflammation and disease progression in Alzheimer disease. Neurology. 2009;73(10):768-74.

[14] Mcmillan DC, Elahi MM, Sattar N, Angerson WJ, Johnstone J, Mcardle CS. Measurement of the systemic inflammatory response predicts cancer-specific and non-cancer survival in patients with cancer. Nutr Cancer. 2001;41(1-2):64-9.

[15] Gomes de lima KV, Maio R. Nutritional status, systemic inflammation and prognosis of patients with gastrointestinal cancer. Nutr Hosp. 2012;27(3):707-14.

[16] Tanghetti EA. The role of inflammation in the pathology of acne. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2013;6(9):27-35.

[17] Huang WC, Tsai TH, Chuang LT, Li YY, Zouboulis CC, Tsai PJ. Anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of capric acid against Propionibacterium acnes: a comparative study with lauric acid. J Dermatol Sci. 2014;73(3):232-40.

[18] Huang WC, Tsai TH, Chuang LT, Li YY, Zouboulis CC, Tsai PJ. Anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of capric acid against Propionibacterium acnes: a comparative study with lauric acid. J Dermatol Sci. 2014;73(3):232-40.

[19] Watzl B. Anti-inflammatory effects of plant-based foods and of their constituents. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2008;78(6):293-8.

[20] Galland L. Diet and inflammation. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010;25(6):634-40.

[21] Wall R, Ross RP, Fitzgerald GF, Stanton C. Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Nutr Rev. 2010;68(5):280-9.

[22] Dantzer R, O'connor JC, Freund GG, Johnson RW, Kelley KW. From inflammation to sickness and depression: when the immune system subjugates the brain. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008;9(1):46-56.

[23] Prat A, Biernacki K, Wosik K, Antel JP. Glial cell influence on the human blood-brain barrier. Glia. 2001;36(2):145-55.

[24] Skaper SD, Facci L, Giusti P. Mast cells, glia and neuroinflammation: partners in crime?. Immunology. 2014;141(3):314-27.

[25] Spiller R. Serotonin, inflammation, and IBS: fitting the jigsaw together?. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2007;45 Suppl 2:S115-9.

[26] Morand EF, Leech M. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis regulation of inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis. Immunol Cell Biol. 2001;79(4):395-9.

[27] Hansen CH, Krych L, Buschard K, et al. A maternal gluten-free diet reduces inflammation and diabetes incidence in the offspring of NOD mice. Diabetes. 2014;63(8):2821-32.

[28] Antvorskov JC, Fundova P, Buschard K, Funda DP. Dietary gluten alters the balance of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines in T cells of BALB/c mice. Immunology. 2013;138(1):23-33.

[29] Halliwell B. Antioxidants in human health and disease. Annu Rev Nutr. 1996;16:33-50.

[30] Holt EM, Steffen LM, Moran A, et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption and its relation to markers of inflammation and oxidative stress in adolescents. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(3):414-21.

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