Inflammation is a process that periodically occurs in the body, usually connected to some sort of infection that needs to be fought. This makes short-term inflammation, by and large, a good thing, which is typically over with once the job is done. Chronic inflammation, however, is another story.
In 2004, Italian researchers published a review that stated: “Obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes are associated with a pro-inflammatory state, which in turn is associated with increased cardiovascular risk.” This pro-inflammatory state is more popularly referred to as “chronic inflammation”—and it has since been linked to a range of conditions promoting heart disease, osteoporosis, cognitive decline (up to and including dementia), Type 2 diabetes and arthritis.
Researchers believe that chronic inflammation is a modern condition, brought about—like many other ailments—by unhealthy diets combined with physical inactivity, sending the usually-temporary inflammation process into an endless loop.
Several biomarkers connected to inflammation have been identified, clearing the path toward the detection of, and clinical research into, chronic inflammation. Obesity, for example, has been shown to increase inflammatory markers, indicating higher risk for heart disease and other conditions. Indeed, being overweight is not just a cosmetic issue; rather it promotes serious biochemical changes that can lead to other, more serious health issues.
A Potential Solution?
Meanwhile, scientists in the Netherlands recently formulated a test supplement designed to counteract chronic inflammation by initiating metabolic changes in overweight people. The test supplement—consisting of fish oil, green tea extract, resveratrol, vitamins C and E and a lycopene-rich tomato extract—produced changes in genes associated with inflammation, counteracting some of the effects of obesity.
The underlying mechanism is called nutrigenomics, or the effect certain nutrients can have on an individual’s gene expression. Inflammation is a cascading process that involves pro-inflammatory mRNA and cytokines/chemokines, and the expression of their underlying genes can be affected by certain nutrients. Thus, consuming anti-inflammatory nutrients can, in fact, reduce the severity of the inflammatory cascade.
Another interesting aspect of chronic inflammation and the fact that it may be at the center of several serious health conditions is this: What if heart disease, Alzheimer’s, colon cancer and many other conditions are merely symptoms of inflammation? Wouldn’t it be nice, by “curing” the chronic inflammation, to cure all those diseases along with it? One cure for multiple illnesses!
A theory like this might even be intriguing enough to make the healthcare profession, which is traditionally skeptical of healthy foods, take notice of the ever-growing number of ingredients targeting inflammation. In fact, the consumption of antioxidants as anti-inflammatory ingredients is already being considered a potential strategy for the reversal of disease progression for many conditions where inflammatory markers play a starring role.
Not surprisingly, most anti-inflammatory nutrients have antioxidant properties—because free radicals are linked to inflammatory states—and are fairly well known as such to the consumer. Among them are herbal extracts, such as ginger, turmeric, boswellia and green tea, as well as Pycnogenol, astaxanthin, resveratrol, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins C and D, folic acid, CoQ10, chromium and L-carnitine. And coincidentally, all of these ingredients could use new stories. In addition, the so-called superfruits (specifically açai and pomegranate) are also being discussed as having potential anti-inflammatory power, with studies already published.
Some questions to consider: How easily can consumers understand inflammation, as well as the connection between inflammation and, say, Alzheimer’s? Will they believe that an anti-inflammatory nutrient (e.g., a lycopene-rich tomato extract) can help?
At first glance, the connection between chronic inflammation and several serious health conditions is a better selling argument than merely being an antioxidant, which, to the consumer, amounts to nothing more than “good for you” at this time. However, time will tell if this bears out. According to industry insiders, it all depends on how the next generation of dietary supplements or functional/medical foods is marketed.
All of this is good news for the functional/medical food and dietary supplement industries, which continue to struggle in Europe in the wake of the new Health Claim Directive. Now all that remains is a successful health claim application using an anti-inflammatory ingredient and a study with inflammatory markers to send a signal.