Both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant are words that we hear, when people talk about the benefits of foods but what do they actually mean, and what’s the difference between the two?
Our body reacts to tissue injury or an invasion of pathogens or toxins, through a specific inflammatory response, which increases our immune activity to reduce their impact on us.
We need inflammation to help our body to protect itself against pathogens or injury. When our body undergoes an inflammatory response, there are 4 signs which show inflammation is occurring:
The immune cells stay activated until either the tissue has been repaired, or the pathogen has been removed. When this has been achieved, anti-inflammatory signals are sent out to stop the inflammation so that the body can return to its normal state and reduce the inflammation that has occurred, with the 4 signs that demonstrate inflammation going away.
This is known as acute inflammation, where the defence inflammatory state is shortly resolved. If the inflammatory state is not resolved and the site remains inflamed, this inflammation will begin to damage the tissue surrounding the site and then eventually the whole body.
Our immune cells, even in states where there is no injury or invasion, circulate through our body in case there is damage. Chronic inflammation is caused when whatever has induced the inflammation has not been removed (Arulselvan et al., 2016).
So, we can see that we do need inflammation to help protect and repair any damaged tissue or to protect us from pathogens. However, being able to bring our body back to its normal state is also important, which is where we have the anti-inflammatory responses.
By consuming omega 3 fatty acids, we are able to produce an anti-inflammatory response which brings our body back to its normal state (Calder, 2006). Interestingly foods can have properties which are either pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory.
Pro-inflammatory foods include:
- Trans fats
- Highly processed foods
- Omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids which we can only obtain from our diet and are involved in the inflammatory process which helps to protect our body. However, it is important to maintain a balance with omega 3 fatty acids. You can read more about these essential fatty acids here.
The main type of anti-inflammatory food that we have comes from omega 3 fatty acids and this includes from:
- Oily fish
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds etc.
- Sacha inchi oil
These contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory and are what bring the body back to its normal state after inflammation.
Antioxidants help to protect cells from damage which is caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS) and therefore free radicals. Both of these are unstable molecules which cause damage to cell structures. Inflammation within the body can lead to an increase in ROS. These ROS damage the surrounding tissues. At low levels ROS is a signalling molecule for cells, however when in high quantities it can lead to the progression of inflammatory diseases.
Antioxidants helps to prevent damage to cells from ROS by neutralising them, preventing the oxidation of molecules. We have an antioxidant system within our body, but we can also get antioxidants from the foods we eat. If our antioxidant system is overwhelmed due to ROS and free radicals, it is known as oxidative stress (Rahal et al., 2014).
Oxidative stress has been linked to numerous conditions and diseases including: cancer; atherosclerosis; hypertension; diabetes; acute respiratory disease syndrome; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; and asthma, to name a few (Birben et al., 2012).
What are Sources of Antioxidants?
As previously said, our body has its own antioxidant system which works to help maintain an oxidative balance. However, we can also get antioxidants from foods we eat which can help to protect our body from damage.
Vitamin E: is a fat-soluble vitamin and is made up of a number of compounds called tocopherols. The most potent and bioavailable is called alpha-tocopherol. These act as antioxidants, by preventing the production of ROS when fat undergoes oxidation. Vitamin E also helps to maintain healthy skin and eyes and helps the immune system.
Sources of vitamin E include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil
Vitamin C: is also called ascorbic acid and is a water-soluble vitamin. It is involved in the maintenance of both healthy skin and connective tissue and it helps with the absorption of iron in the small intestines. It is also an antioxidant, that plays a role in the regeneration of other essential antioxidants, and also protecting again oxidative damage.
Sources of vitamin C include:
- citrus fruits
It is important to note that vitamin C is easily destroyed by light and heat, so it is best to store in a cool dark place and try and avoid cooking at high temperatures for long periods of time. You can also get all the vitamin C you need from a varied diet, due to it being a water-soluble vitamin (excess is not stored in the body). When consumed in excessive amounts as a supplement you will end up excreting the rest out as urine.
Phytochemicals: occur naturally in plants, including fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, beans, seeds and nuts. There are thousands of different phytochemicals that have been identified, and some of these have antioxidant properties, protecting our cells from oxidative damage. Carotenoids act as an antioxidant, and also gives food such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, tomatoes, mangoes, peppers, oranges, and cantaloupes their yellow, orange and red colour. One carotenoid which you may have heard of is Beta-carotene which can be converted into vitamin A, or as an antioxidant. Polyphenols include red fruits like grapes, onions, coffees, spices, wine, curcumin, and lignins which is found in flax seeds. Flavonoids are found in chickpeas, soybeans, and almost all fruits and vegetables including parsley, blueberries, pomegranates, citrus fruits, kale, Brussel sprouts, leeks, tea, cacao and broccoli. The last phytochemical I want to mention here is allyl sulphides, found in onions, leeks and garlic which have antioxidant properties - so enjoy your garlicky food!
Selenium: is a mineral found within foods. It has been shown to help make sure the immune system is functioning properly, as well as working with an antioxidant enzyme which helps to prevent damage to cells and tissue.
- Brazil nuts
It has been found that when selenium and vitamin E work together they are more effective. It has also been found to help with vitamin C’s antioxidant activity, making it an important mineral to look at in regard to its benefits, as both an antioxidant and as a supporter.
Other minerals that we need to include within our diet which help to assist antioxidant activity are copper, manganese, zinc and iron, which all are needed for antioxidant enzymes. Sources for each include:
- Green vegetables
- Dairy foods
- Fortified foods
- Dark green leafy vegetables
Antioxidants help to prevent inflammatory responses from happening when they are not required. Which means that antioxidants have anti-inflammatory properties due to the role they play in the body. However, they are not involved in the inflammatory response itself – like omega-3 fatty acids, which play a role in the resolution of inflammation. The less inflammatory stress the body is under as well, means a reduction in ROS and therefore oxidation of cells and tissue damage, which can lead to the prevention of further health implications associated with inflammatory stress.
There’s no need to run over to the nearest health food shop and stock up on supplements, however. Amazingly, as you’ve seen from above, you can get all of these antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients from the food around us. This is where the concept of eating the rainbow comes from. By eating a variety of foods you’ll get to enjoy all of these benefits, as well as an extra nutritious impact which these foods hold, not just the antioxidants and inflammatory responses.
This is where supplementation is missing out on the picture as a whole. It has also been suggested that with antioxidant supplements they do not act in the same way as when consumed in the food form. This is probably due to the interaction of compounds within the food itself, as well (National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health). There are over 4000 phytochemicals and each food contains multiple phytochemicals, as well as vitamins, and minerals which help our body to function at an optimal level. To get the best out of your food, try new fruits and vegetables that you haven’t tried before. If accessibility is an issue, frozen fruits and vegetables are still nutritious sources of vitamins and minerals and phytochemicals. You should also try and ensure you get your omega 3 fatty acids whether it be from oily fish or from plant-based sources, including sacha inchi oil, flax seeds, hemp seeds or walnuts.
Nutrition and its impact on our immune system isn’t just one simple defined pathway. There are multiple ways that they impact each other so keeping up with variation is important.
Maintaining a healthy balanced lifestyle is key, as is incorporating other factors which can impact and help reduce inflammation including exercise, sleep, maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress, reducing drinking, and reducing or stopping smoking.
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Daisy, MSc PGDip ANutr, is a Registered Associate Nutritionist with a Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition, both of which are Association for Nutrition (AFN) accredited. She, also, has a BSc degree in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience; and has completed an AFN accredited Diet Specialist Nutrition course.
Daisy has worked for an NHS funded project, the Diabetes Prevention Programme; and shadowed a nutritionist in Harley Street.
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