Diana Price - Dietitian Nutritionist
Inflammation and Gut Health: Is There a Connection?
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
You’ve probably heard about “inflammation,” but have you ever thought about how inflammation affects your gut health? There are trillions of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their genes, that live inside your gut. Together all these microbes make up your gut microbiome.
The friendly microbes help you digest foods, make vitamins, and protect you from the not-so-friendly microbes. There are more microbes inside your gut than all of your human cells. That’s right, you are more than half microbe, so let’s see how inflammation impacts this invisible army called your gut microbiome.
In this article, I will define acute vs. chronic inflammation. We will then look at how gut inflammation can manifest. Finally, I will highlight strategies that reduce chronic inflammation and ultimately improve your gut health.
Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation
Inflammation is your body’s way of protecting and healing itself. There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
Acute inflammation is short-lived. You may recall having a cut, sprain, or sore throat. The area feels painful and hot and looks red and swollen. These are classic signs of acute inflammation. Inflammation is a natural and essential process that your body uses to defend itself from infections and heal injured cells and tissues. This is a good thing!
Sometimes it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. When inflammation hangs around for weeks, months, or even years, it becomes a problem. Chronic inflammation is a slow-burning fire. This type of inflammation can exist throughout your whole body at low levels, which means that the symptoms aren’t localized to one specific area like a cut, sprain, or sore throat. Instead, symptoms can appear gradually and can last much longer. This is the “bad” kind of inflammation and it’s linked to a variety of diseases, including autoimmune and digestive disorders.
What is Gut Inflammation?
Gut inflammation and the loss of microbial diversity are often a result of our daily habits and environment. One of the worst offenders is eating a S.A.D. or standard American diet that is low in fiber and high in sugar and chemical additives (1). A low-quality diet also hurts your gut microbiome. Other risk factors include a sedentary lifestyle, lack of sleep, excess stress, and excess alcohol.
Gut inflammation can manifest in a variety of ways. Below I have highlighted some of the more common signs of gut inflammation. Some of these conditions target the digestive tract directly, while others may not even seem connected to digestive health.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
IBD is an umbrella term used to describe chronic inflammation of the digestive tract (2). The two most common forms of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. IBD causes destructive inflammation and can cause permanent damage to the intestines. Based on the nature of the disease, IBD is often associated with nutrient deficiencies. Analysis of fecal samples from IBD patients compared to healthy subjects showed reduced bacterial diversity and altered bacterial species abundance (3). While there is no agreed-upon diet for treating IBD, a nutrient-dense diet that is anti-inflammatory is a good starting point.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a common gut condition that is responsible for chronic, relapsing symptoms such as abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea. Symptoms can be triggered by stress or foods (4). Recent studies have found a link between reduced microbial diversity, chronic inflammation in the mucosal lining of the gut, and the development of IBS (5). A low FODMAP diet can be used to reduce IBS symptoms. A low FODMAP diet is an elimination diet and is not intended to be a "forever" diet. FODMAPs are a group of fermentable carbohydrates. These fermentable carbs are eliminated for 2-6 weeks and then strategically reintroduced to customize your own sustainable diet.
Food sensitivities are an adverse food reaction that involves the immune system. Reactions occur when circulating white blood cells react to foods or chemicals and release proinflammatory mediators into the bloodstream. These reactions are often delayed and dose-dependent making them tricky to identify. Food sensitivities may also be a sign of leaky gut. When food is fully digested it is broken down into amino acids, simple sugars, emulsified fats, vitamins, and minerals. These tiny components are then allowed to cross the intestinal barrier, which separates your digestive system from your bloodstream. When the gut becomes leaky, undigested food particles, bacteria, and toxins can enter the bloodstream. These larger, unwelcome particles cause your immune system to initiate an inflammatory response. Recent research has linked the development of food sensitivities to microbial dysbiosis (6). Obvious digestive symptoms may or may not be present.
Autoimmune diseases involve an abnormal immune response where the immune system attacks healthy cells, tissue, and organs. Autoimmune diseases are a group of more than 100 chronic conditions. Recent studies suggest that gut dysbiosis may be linked to the onset of some autoimmune conditions (7). These studies point to a compromised intestinal barrier as the underlying cause. Obvious digestive symptoms may or may not be present.
Nutrition and Lifestyle Strategies for Reducing Gut Inflammation
Did you know that a healthy diet along with positive lifestyle behaviors - getting enough sleep, being physically active, managing stress, not smoking, and limiting alcohol - are linked to lower levels of inflammation and may reduce the damaging effect inflammation has on the body?
Let’s take a deep dive into these simple ways to support a healthy microbiome and reduce your risk of gut inflammation.
Enjoy an anti-inflammatory diet (8, 9)
Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains (brown rice, oats, bran), nuts (almonds), seeds, fish, poultry, legumes (beans, lentils), and healthy oils (olive oil)
Pay particular attention to foods high in antioxidant polyphenols, including colorful plants such as berries, cherries, plums, red grapes, avocados, onions, carrots, beets, turmeric, green tea, and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale
Omega-3 fats can help to reduce pain and clear up inflammation and are found in salmon, trout, mackerel, soy, walnuts, and flax
High fiber foods (whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes) encourage friendly gut microbes to help reduce inflammation
Limit inflammatory foods such as red and processed meats (lunch meats, hot dogs, hamburgers), fried foods (fries), unhealthy fats (shortening, lard), sugary foods and drinks (sodas, candy, sports drinks), refined carbohydrates (white bread, cookies, pie), and ultra-processed foods (microwaveable dinners, dehydrated soups)
Get enough restful sleep (12, 13)
Disrupted sleep has recently been linked to increased inflammation and atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque in the vessels that’s linked with heart disease), so aim for 7-9 hours of restful sleep every night to help the body heal and repair
Tips for better sleep: try to maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule every day, get exposure to natural daylight earlier in the day, avoid caffeine later in the day, cut out screens an hour before bedtime, and create a relaxing nighttime routine
Be physically active (10, 11)
Regular exercise reduces inflammation over the long-term, so try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (brisk walking) per week; about 20-30 minutes per day
To this add two or more strength training sessions (using weights or resistance bands) each week
Manage your stress (15, 16)
Engage in relaxing stress-reducing activities such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or tai chi
Quit smoking and limit alcohol (14, 15)
Quitting smoking can help reduce inflammation and several other health concerns by reducing exposure to toxins that are directly linked to inflammation
Limit your alcohol intake to no more than one or two drinks per day
Gut inflammation can manifest in a variety of ways. Some of these conditions target the digestive tract, while other conditions may not even seem connected to digestive health. The first approach to preventing gut inflammation is through food and lifestyle changes. Start by focusing on adding colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fish to your diet. Then layer in lifestyle upgrades like restful sleep, physical activity, and stress management.
For inspiration, try recipes from my Anti-inflammatory Meal Plan. This meal plan is 75% plant-based and promotes healthy digestion and reduces inflammation.
To learn more about optimizing your digestive health, book a free discovery call with a gut health nutritionist.