Written by: Bonnie Feldman, DDS, MBA, Becca Malizia, BS, Ellen M. Martin
Food as medicine and food therapy have been steadily gaining great traction in the health discussion. People with complex diseases, such as autoimmune, are finding alternative therapy options and turning towards diet and nutrition to address symptoms and optimize health. There are many foods that have natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that are important to those who suffer from autoimmune diseases. Although there are many, based on our research, we have focussed on 8 in particular. Our 8 immune-boosting foods include turmeric, ginger, green leafy vegetables, berries, chia & flax seeds, walnuts & almonds, olive oil and salmon. But what makes these foods beneficial for immune health? What are the key components in these foods? What even is the difference between anti-inflammatory and antioxidant? What exactly are fibers, fats and polyphenols and why are they important? Let’s get started…
Anti-inflammatory versus Antioxidant
An anti-inflammatory is any substance that helps reduce inflammation. This can happen either by halting the chemical pathways that trigger inflammation, by reducing (down-regulating) the number of inflammatory molecules, or by increasing (up regulating) signaling molecules that reduce inflammation. You are probably most familiar with the NSAIDS (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs), drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin that reduce inflammation and swelling. There are also naturally occurring anti-inflammatory components found in many foods and spices.
Antioxidants are substances that reduce cellular damage by binding to reactive oxygen species, making them inactive. The downstream effects of antioxidants can reduce inflammation. Because of this, many antioxidants act as anti-inflammatories. There are plenty of foods and spices that contain antioxidants, and therefore may have anti-inflammatory properties as well (1).
Avoiding pro-inflammatory foods: In addition to the anti-inflammatory foods we talked about earlier, there are many pro-inflammatory foods. These include processed meats, sodas, salty snacks, packaged sweets, refined carbohydrates, etc, which are easy to grab when stress eating. If you suffer from an autoimmune disease, these types of food are likely to intensify any symptoms you’re already experiencing.
What is Dietary Fiber?
There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber can be digested, while insoluble cannot. Both are extremely important in digestion. Many fibers act as prebiotics, meaning even if we cannot digest them, our beneficial microbes can. Fiber that act as prebiotics are important in promoting the growth of beneficial microbes, which are necessary for maintaining a healthy microbiome and therefore overall health. Learn more about fiber, pre- and probiotics in an age of antibiotics here!
As the name implies, you get dietary fiber from your diet (or at least you are supposed to). Processed foods remove most of the fiber to increase shelf life, so most people don’t get enough fiber naturally from processed or fast foods. High-fiber foods include vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, and nuts. You can also take supplemental fiber, like bran or psyllium husks prebiotic pills or powder, mixed with foods or liquids to help ensure you are getting enough fiber intake. One of our favorite prebiotic supplements is from Hyperbiotics. Read more about their prebiotic powder here!
A Discussion on Fat
Fats: are they good, bad, or both? For some time now, excessive fat intake has been considered a bad thing, but more recently the conversation has been about which types of fat versus all fats in general. Fats are an essential macronutrient, meaning they are necessary for our body to function and we need to get them from our diet. They are an important source of energy, a key component in cell membranes and certain hormones.
There are three main types of fats, triglycerides, phospholipids, and sterols. Triglycerides are by far the most common and the only one of the three that are essential, meaning our body cannot create them. Phospholipids and sterols are important as well, but they are not essential because they can be created in our body.
Triglycerides are composed of one glycerol and three fatty acids. The glycerol molecule remains constant, but the fatty acids can change. The type of fatty acids that make up the triglycerides is how we determine whether a fat is good or bad.
Saturated versus unsaturated fatty acids: There are two broad types of fatty acids that you are probably familiar with, saturated and unsaturated. Fatty acids are made up of carbons and hydrogens. Saturated fatty acids are characterized by the maximum number of hydrogens per carbon, resulting in all single carbon-carbon bonds. The term saturated comes from the fact that the carbons are fully saturated with hydrogens. These saturated fats are chains that can stack easily and therefore are of solid composition at room temperature. Because of this, they are also harder to digest and are considered not as healthy in comparison.
Unsaturated fatty acids on the other hand are not fully saturated with hydrogens. They have at least one carbon-carbon double bond. Fatty acids with only one double bond are monounsaturated and ones with more than one double bond are polyunsaturated. The double bond is very important because it causes a kink or bend to form in the chain and therefore prevent the stacking of multiple fatty acids. This results in them being liquid at room temperature and therefore are easier to digest, which is better for your health.
Now what is trans fat? In nature, unsaturated fat has a chemical structure that is called “cis” and has the “bulky groups” on the same sides, which keeps them liquid at room temperature. In a lab, through a process called hydrogenation, we can artificially add hydrogens and therefore create a “trans” version of the unsaturated fatty acid that has the bulky groups on opposite sides. This “trans” conformation allows the fatty acids to stack easier, resulting in them being solid at room temperature. These products are used a lot in processed foods because they increase the stability of the products. Trans fat, although still considered an unsaturated fat, is not a natural fat and should be avoided.
Comparing Omega-3, Omega-6 and Omega-9 fatty acids: Remember triglycerides have one glycerol molecule and three fatty acids. Triglycerides can be made of both essential and non-essential fatty acids. The carbon at the very end of the fatty acid chain is called the omega carbon. How far away the double bond is from the (omega) carbon end determines how we name it. Our body can only make fatty acids with the double bond on the 9th carbon and on. Therefore our body can produce Omega-9 fatty acids and so on. But we are unable to synthesize Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, making them essential, we have to get them from our diet.
Due to the obesity epidemic, Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids have gotten a lot of attention in relation to weight gain. Because of this, Omega-3 fatty acids have a good connotation and Omega-6 have a bad one. The takeaway on this point is not to eliminate all Omega-6 completely from the diet, but to get closer to a 1:1 ratio of consuming Omega-3 to Omega-6. Obesity has been linked to the increase of this ratio in typical diets to almost 20:1 in favor of Omega 6. While these are both still healthy fats, be mindful of your ratio of consumption (2).
In summary, as long as we don’t over consume fats, certain fats are not only beneficial but also essential to our bodies. These essential fats are those rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids because we cannot produce them in our bodies they must be obtained from our diet. While essential fats are imperative, saturated and trans fats should be avoided as much as possible, as these are considered unhealthy fats.
Fats Important In Immune Health
A Breakdown of Important Fats
Omega-3 FA – polyunsaturated fatty acids that have immune benefits by acting as anti-inflammatories (3). They are found in fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel, as well as many nuts, seeds and oils like walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, olive oil and avocado oil. Some vegetables have them as well, such as brussel sprouts and basil.
Omega-6 FA– polyunsaturated fatty acids that help lower cholesterol and support healthy skin. They are found in many foods such as meats, seafood and vegetables. Meats: beef, lamb, ham, turkey, veal, chicken, liver. Seafood: shrimp, clams, scallops, tuna, Mackerel. Vegetables: spinach, sweet potatoes, kale, collards, string beans, broccoli.
Omega-9 FA – Oleic acid is the most common form of Omega-9 fatty acids. This is a monounsaturated fatty acid that has important anti-inflammatory functions. Unlike Omega-6 and Omega-3, they are not essential, and can be made in the body. They can be obtained easily from the diet as well, found in many oils, nuts, dairy and meats.
What Are Polyphenols?
Polyphenols are a subgroup of a large and broad category of plant chemicals called phytochemicals. There are many types of phytochemicals such as phytoesters, terpenes, and polyphenols. We are going to zoom into polyphenols. Within the group of polyphenols there are also multiple subgroups, but let’s focus on the Flavonoids and Lignans (sometimes referred to as non-flavonoids).
Polyphenols Important In Immune Health
A Breakdown of Important Polyphenols
Curcumin – is a yellow-pigmented chemical that acts as a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It may even hold anti-tumoral properties as well and is the main active substance in turmeric (4).
Beta-carotene – is an orange-pigmented chemical that our body can convert into vitamin A. This is important because vitamin A is a key nutrient in many body functions in addition to having an important role in immune health (5). It can be found naturally in many fruits and vegetables such as cantaloupe, apricots, sweet potatoes, carrots, squash and green leafy vegetables.
Anthocyanins – are blue, red or violet flavonoid pigments that interact with other phytochemicals and can have complex reactions that are believed to be important in human health (6). It is found in many fruits, particularly berries such as pomegranates, blueberries and cherries. It is also found in some vegetables including eggplant, red cabbage and radishes.
Lignans – are a type of polyphenol found in plant-based foods such as legumes, vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts. They are organic chemicals that are made up of more than 500 micronutrients, act as phytoestrogens and can help mediate immune function and decrease inflammation by acting as a strong antioxidant (7). There has also been some research describing it as having anti-tumoral and anti-diabetic properties (8). While lignans are most abundant in flax seeds, they are also found in lower amounts in whole grains, other seeds, legumes, apricots, berries and peaches.
These fibers, fats and polyphenols are important for everyone, and may be of particular importance to those with autoimmune diseases due to their strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. With this breakdown we hope to ease your journey through navigating the information surrounding these dietary components.
What are some of your favorites? Any recipes to share? Please comment below!
- Palanisamy Arulselvan et al. “Role of Antioxidants and Natural Products in Inflammation.” Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Vol. 2016. 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5075620/
- Simopoulos, Artemis. “An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity.” Nutrients. Vol. 8(3). 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4808858/
- Wall, Rebecca et al. “Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.” Nutrition Reviews. Vol.68(5). 2010. https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article-abstract/68/5/280/1829259
- Aggarwal, Bharat, Harikumar, Kuzhuvelil. “Potential therapeutic effects of curcumin, the anti-inflammatory agent, against neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, pulmonary, metabolic, autoimmune and neoplastic diseases.” The International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology.” Vol 41(1). 2009. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1357272508002550
- Burton, GW, Ingold, KU. “Beta-Carotene: an unusual type of lipid antioxidant.” Science. Vol 224(4649). 1984. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/224/4649/569?casa_token=OaC21QwRwSMAAAAA:UBaUhbttnnJFACAZXnDKlgJ7BPt4u87cPH1CegxZudXmOrhmMNkG3aLm9Wl3jdO99uqSSCBcCttQVA
- Stintzing, Florian et al. “Color and Antioxidant Properties of Cyanidin-Based Anthocyanin Pigments.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.” Vol 50(21). 2002. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf0204811
- Eklund, Patrik et al. “Chemical studies on antioxidant mechanisms and free radical scavenging properties of lignans.” Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry. Vol 2005(18). 2005. https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2005/ob/b506739a/unauth#!divAbstract
- Takasaki, Midori et al. “Anti-tumor-promoting activity of lignans from the aerial part of Saussurea medusa.” Cancer Letters. Vol 158(1). 2000. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304383500004997