Is your diet responsible for your gut inflammation?
Inflammation is a normal part of the body’s natural defence process – it’s why surface level injuries turn red and swollen as the body tries to heal. But inflammation can occur inside the body too, including along the gut lining.
As our interest in digestive health grows, more and more people are learning how gut inflammation can have an impact on our overall health. In particular, we’re worried about whether what we put in our mouths might be damaging our stomach lining.
“Inflammation of the gut is when the lining of the gut becomes swollen and painful,” says Dr Nirusa Kumaran, medical director and founder of Elemental Health Clinic. “This can be subclinical, meaning there is no medical diagnosis for why it is happening, but it could also be because of more serious medical conditions called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which include Crohn’s and colitis.”
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IBD impacts around 300,000 people in the UK, and it is crucial to get properly referred and treated for the conditions. Dr Kumaran says that symptoms include “bloody diarrhoea, significant abdominal pain, urgency to defecate and weight loss”.
But many more people complain about irritated stomachs outside of these diagnoses. “Symptoms of general inflammation include non-specific abdominal pain and frequent bloating, belching and loose stools,” she adds.
Can food cause gut inflammation?
IBD is caused by both genetics and problems with the immune system which mean the body remains in a state of inflammation. But subclinical gut inflammation can be down to some lifestyle factors, including nutrition.
“Many different foods can trigger gut inflammation, but typically pro-inflammatory foods are refined sugar and ultra-processed meats. The main way these foods trigger inflammation is through dysbiosis, which is an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in the gut microbiome,” says Dr Kumaran.
A robust review of the literature on intestinal inflammation, published in 2020 in the journal Gut, found that processed foods and animal-derived foods were consistently associated with higher abundances of so-called ‘bad’ bacterias such as Firmicutes and Ruminococcus. Meanwhile, plant foods and fish were associated with short-chain fatty acid-producing microbes and an abundance of ‘good bacteria’.
Researchers concluded that vegetables, legumes, grains, fish and nuts are good anti-inflammatory foods, along with coffee consumption, polyphenol intake and even red wine. Meanwhile, diets high in animal protein, saturated fats, salts and sugars tend to be harmful for the good bacteria (and simultaneously lower in fibre, a crucial nutrient for gut health).
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Before you throw out all of your chocolate bars, researchers pointed out that the impact of these foods occurs with long-term dietary patterns. It is what you eat consistently that counts for the most part, so occasional meals or snacks that contain sugar or salt aren’t going to be detrimental to your health.
And Dr Kumaran says that it’s not just what you eat that can have an impact on gut inflammation. “It can also be triggered by factors including stress, environmental toxins, parasite infections, conditions such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or small intestinal fungal overgrowth, smoking, excess alcohol consumption and being sedentary,” Dr Kumaran adds.
How to reduce gut inflammation with nutrition
The main way to help your body reduce inflammation lies in the conclusions reached by the Gut journal research – focus on an abundance of plants. But if you’re after more specific goals to work towards, Dr Kumaran recommends:
1. Aiming for 30-40 different plant foods a week. Within that, try to aim for colourful fruits and vegetables as these will contain a variety of antioxidants and polyphenols required to help the gut.
2. Try to have at least one fermented food a day, as these contain pre- and probiotics. Foods include kimchi, kombucha, kefir and tempeh.
3. Eat whole grains where possible.
4. Limit red meat intake to once or twice a week.
5. Have plenty of healthy fats and omega-3 containing foods which are anti-inflammatory, such as flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and oily fish.
And remember, if you have any serious symptoms or are worried you might be suffering from IBD, then visit your doctor.
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