Turmeric, tart cherry juice, apple cider vinegar, fish oil, glucosamine, probiotics and cinnamon. Also known as anti-inflammatory superfoods. Do these foods and supplements live up to the hype? Maybe. But first, let’s all understand inflammation.
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to a “foreign” invader, such as a bacterial or viral infection, or physical injury. You recognize this acute inflammation as a fever or redness and swelling on a sprained ankle. We can also experience chronic inflammation where the symptoms are less obvious. Triggers for this include poor diet, stress, lack of sleep, and physical inactivity. There is evidence that this type of inflammation is associated with increased disease risk, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease (1).
So, by taking these supplements or including these foods in our diet, can we avoid chronic diseases like cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease? That may be a stretch. Consumer Lab is a an independent testing company that evaluates supplements based on quality (remember: supplements are not regulated) and efficacy (2). Certain supplements may be effective at reducing symptoms of inflammation. For example, turmeric/curcumin may be helpful for those with rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Tart cherries are thought to contain compounds that are similar to those found in aspirin and ibuprofin, so theoretically may reduce inflammation. There is even some evidence that the flavanols found in dark chocolate are associated with improved blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood flow, and exercise. That’s what we like to hear!
Unfortunately, the research on these studies is often mixed, and lacking. It is very difficult to even find out what an appropriate dosage would be. Another consideration is the fact that supplements may be contaminated with things you don’t want, like heavy metals. Some may interact with prescription medications as well, a major one being blood thinners. That being said, always check with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter supplement. So what can you do to reduce inflammation? As always, a good-old, well-balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables is a good place to start.
Colorful fruits and veggies. Fruits and veggies are nutrient-dense foods that not only contain identified vitamins and minerals, but also a group of compounds called phytochemicals. These compounds include substances such as beta-carotene, anthocyanins, and polyphenols. These help block the effects of free radicals and oxidative damage, which helps protect our DNA and cells. The more color in your diet, the more variety of phytochemicals you are getting.
Probiotic-rich foods. Our gut and immune system are strongly linked. Eating a wide variety of probiotic-rich foods, including yogurt, kefir, saurkraut, kimchi, and kombucha gives your gut a variety of health-promoting bugs. Unfortunately, the research for probiotic supplements is mixed. Most over-the-counter probiotics do not actually contain what they claim to. Since these compounds are live, it is difficult for manufacturers to keep them viable from production all the way to human consumption. As most often the case, food > supplements.
High-fiber beans, legumes, lentils, and whole grains. Fiber is important for bowel health and helps control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. In regard to inflammation, these types of foods provide the fuel for our gut bacteria. Studies show that diet influences the type of bacteria that thrive in our gut (3). Bacteria that eat high-fiber fiber foods are associated with reduced inflammation, lower weight, and reduced risk of chronic disease. Those that are sustained with nutrient-poor foods are associated with increased inflammation, higher body weight, and increased chronic disease.
Herbs and spices. About that turmeric, how about you try cooking with it? And try some others, like cayenne, basil, and oregano. Just like fruits and veggies, your herbs and spices contain vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
Fatty fish, including, salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines. These fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which can help lower triglycerides, blood pressure, and inflammation. They are also a source of lean protein, meaning they provide less saturated fat. Saturated fat is thought to increase the bad (“LDL”) cholesterol in your blood.
Nuts and seeds. Unlike saturated fat, nuts and seeds provide mono-unsaturated fats. These are the helpful kinds that can lower LDL cholesterol, increase good (“HDL”) cholesterol, and lower blood pressure.
So does that mean those superfood supplements are no good? Not necessarily. Maybe, when a part of a healthy diet (did you eat a vegetable in the last 2 days?), balanced with effective coping methods for stress, and taken following a good night’s sleep, they may provide some additional benefit. But as always, it is important to look at the big picture. Although research is always evolving, I am doubtful that we will find any clinically significant benefit for these supplements. Meaning, no supplement can reverse the risks associated with a poor diet, lack of sleep, physical inactivity, and a high-stress lifestyle. But, it is still fun to research!