What is Inflammation?
Putting it in a very general way, inflammation is the immune system’s response to an irritant. These irritants can be a wide range of things, such as a chemical, plant pollen or a foreign microbe. When your body recognizes something foreign, your immune system activates and triggers the inflammatory process. When this process is intermittent and against actual invaders, it does a great job at protecting your health. However, sometimes inflammation persists, becoming chronic even when there is no foreign invader. This is when it becomes a problem.
When Your Body Turns Against You
Inflammation isn’t always good for your body. In many conditions the immune system fights against your own body’s cells by mistake. This causes harmful inflammation. There are many diseases that have been linked to chronic inflammation, including arthritis, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and depression.
The Inflammation Process
Many different immune cells can be involved in the inflammatory process. These cells release different substances known as inflammatory mediators, including hormones such as histamine and bradykinin. These substances cause your blood vessels to dilate, allowing more blood to reach the injured tissue. This is why areas of inflammation may appear hot or red.
This increase in blood flow allows the immune system to send more immune cells to the injured tissue to help the healing process. Inflammatory mediators have other functions as well. They help immune cells to pass through small blood vessels so that more immune cells can enter the injured tissue. These immune cells cause an increase in fluid uptake as well; this is why swelling often occurs.
Inflammation in the Gut
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a general term to describe disorders that involve chronic inflammation in the digestive tract. The types of IBD include:
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohn's disease
Both of these conditions involve severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss and fatigue.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is another common chronic disease involving the digestive tract. Currently, the cause isn’t known. However, there is some evidence that inflammation may play a pathogenic role in IBS. A few studies have shown mucosal inflammation at the microscopic and molecular levels in patients with IBS. There have also been overlaps seen between IBS and IBD in some patients.
Fighting Inflammation with Diet
One of the most powerful ways to reduce inflammation is through diet. There have been countless studies showing many components of foods that have anti-inflammatory effects. You may even be able to reduce your risk of developing certain diseases by choosing the right anti-inflammatory foods. However, there is also another side. Consistently choosing the wrong types of foods can increase inflammation in the body and increase your risk of chronic disease.
Inflammatory foods to limit or reduce:
- Red meat
- Refined carbohydrates
- Fried foods
- Sugary beverages
- Processed meats
It may not come as a surprise that inflammatory foods are also foods which are generally bad for us. Many of these foods are associated with increasing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. These diseases are both associated with increased inflammation in the body, and inflammation is one important underlying mechanism for developing them.
Anti-inflammatory foods to increase:
- Olive oil
- Fatty fish
- Green leafy vegetables
- Fermented foods
Fermented Foods Are Functional Foods
Increasingly, fermented foods are being recognized as beneficial for our health. They are also known as ‘functional foods’, meaning they have additional health benefits that go beyond their basic nutrition value. The bacteria in our gut (the microbiome) is constantly changing due to many factors, and in Western society, many of these factors can cause dysbiosis or an imbalance in our gut bacteria. Some of the factors which negatively affect our microbiome include stress, poor diet, the environment, illness, and some medications.
There are many symptoms you may experience when your microbiome is out of balance, including:
- Bloating, cramping
- Constipation and/or diarrhoea
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Food sensitivities
- Anxiety and/or depression
- Skin conditions
- Immunity issues
People suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) often suffer from many of these symptoms. Although these symptoms are a result of their IBD, this condition is thought to develop as a result of complex interactions between the microbiome, the immune system and the environment. Studies have shown that the microbiome is negatively altered in IBD patients compared to healthy subjects. It is suggested that targeting the gut bacteria may help to ease the symptoms of IBD, or reduce the risk of IBD and other inflammatory gut conditions from occurring in the first place.
How Kefir Can Help to Heal to Ease Gut Inflammation
It is becoming increasingly accepted that those with inflammatory gut conditions have an imbalance of their microbiome when compared to healthy controls. Traditional cultures have used fermented foods for centuries to improve and maintain their health. Now scientific research is starting to support their therapeutic benefits.
One of the most researched fermented foods for its health benefits is kefir. Kefir is enjoyed by many cultures worldwide. Kefir is made using “kefir grains”, which is a culture of beneficial bacteria and yeast. This culture is fermented with milk. Kefir is often tolerated by those who are lactose intolerant, because the fermentation process breaks down the majority of the lactose. However, kefir can be made with a variety of dairy free milks, or many choose to make water kefir using “water kefir grains”.
What makes kefir so beneficial for gut inflammation is the presence of a wide range of beneficial bacteria and yeast species. This can help to recolonize your gut and bring back balance to your microbiome; and a healthy range of gut bacteria has anti-inflammatory effects.
Milk kefir is also a good source of amino acids which can support gut health. Not only can kefir help to repopulate your gut, but there are also various studies showing that kefir can inhibit the growth of some pathogenic microorganisms such as E. coli and Salmonella. Other benefits of kefir include being a rich source of calcium, B vitamins, phosphorus, magnesium and vitamin K2.
You can learn more about kefir and how to make your own with this very simple recipe.