By Dr Sarah R Dash
You likely know inflammation as the redness and swelling that appears after you cut your finger – it’s painful, but its job is to help us heal. Systemic (or chronic) inflammation is different. We can’t see this low-level autoimmune response, and it’s usually a prolonged reaction to a persistent problem, like chronic disease or environmental stressors (think pollution or smoking). Instead of a quick response to an obvious injury or illness, systemic inflammation is a slower, continuous burn, like a cindering fire. Chronic inflammation can damage and disrupt biological systems and tissues, and this increases risk of illness in both the body and brain. While we cannot control all factors that influence our health, there are several lifestyle behaviours over which we have a bit more say, such as our diets, that influence levels of inflammation.
There are many foods and nutrients that are particularly good at ‘tidying up’ the inflammation in our bodies – you’ve perhaps heard them advertised as antioxidants or ‘super foods’. While there’s no quick fix as promised on a punnet of blueberries, there are many foods that can and should be incorporated as part of a healthy overall diet. For example, fish, rich in omega 3s, and vegetables and whole grain cereals, packed with fibre, are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. When it comes to inflammation, it’s best to choose foods that come from a farm rather than a package.
On the other hand, unhealthy foods (ie fast foods or lollies) can increase inflammation, possibly through influencing the health of our gut. The gut is an important interface between what we eat and our other biological systems. A junk food diet can contribute to a weakening of the gut barrier lining that prevents food particles from leaking out into the bloodstream where they do not belong. Because these food particles are out of place in the bloodstream, off go the alarm bells of our inflammatory response. When poor quality foods are a part of our daily diet, the body maintains this low level of alarm, and we believe this to be a risk factor for mental health problems such as depression.
Chronic inflammation is linked to brain function and mood. In animals and humans, injection of ‘pro-inflammatory’ molecules gives rise to symptoms and behaviours like fatigue, withdrawal, and depression itself. Further, people with higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood have been shown to be more likely to develop depression in the future.
We are learning more each day about the connection between the gut, inflammation and brain health. What goes on in the gut, as well as the inflammatory response that might follow, can disrupt the processes in the brain that help regulate our mood. For the health of your belly, body and brain, aim to avoid heavily processed foods, and instead rely on a range of colourful, fibre rich foods in your daily diets.