Micronutrients and their role in inflammation
Anti-inflammatory effects to combat physiological responses
Inflammation is defined as the immune response of body tissues to injury or infection, and is an important component of innate immunity. During the inflammatory process, molecular and cellular signals lead to altered physiological responses and the familiar clinical symptoms of pain, swelling, heat, and redness. Acute inflammation is a harmless process that protects and heals the body after physical injury or infection. However, if inflammation persists for a prolonged period of time, the inflammation becomes chronic. Chronic inflammation can be the trigger for chronic diseases like diabetes type II, arthritis, cardiovascular and autoimmune disease.
Nutrition and Inflammation
Nutrients play a key role in both promoting and combating inflammatory processes. Pro-inflammatory nutrients include trans-fatty acids, saturated fatty acids and w-6 fatty acids. In addition, a high intake of carbohydrates is associated with inflammatory processes through varying mechanisms that result in the production of free radicals and pro-inflammatory cytokines. In contrast, anti-inflammatory nutrients include w-3 fatty acids, dietary phytochemicals like carotenoids, and micronutrients.
Micronutrients are important as enzyme cofactors in the metabolism of all cells. They play a key role in the immune system and therefore in anti-inflammatory processes. In table 1, the most important micronutrients and their anti-inflammatory effects are described.
Table 1: Micronutrients and their anti-inflammatory effects in the body
The w-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid suppress the production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids, and stimulate the synthesis of anti-inflammatory eicosanoids from arachidonic acid. They also reduce the pro-inflammatory cytokines TNF-alpha, IL-1β, IL-6, and IL-8.
Various dietary phytochemicals can affect inflammatory processes within the body. For instance, β-carotene shows anti-inflammatory activity by inhibiting pro-inflammatory gene expression. In addition, α-carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin are inversely associated with circulating levels of CRP. Many polyphenols such as flavonoids show anti-inflammatory effects. Studies suggest that polyphenols inhibit enzymes involved in prostaglandin and leukotriene synthesis, prevent free radical formation, decrease pro-inflammatory cytokine production, and block the activity of pro-inflammatory signalling systems.
Inflammation in old age
Inflammation plays an increasingly prominent role in health and wellbeing as people age. Levels of inflammatory markers rise with age even in healthy individuals, which is called inflamm-ageing. Persistent inflammatory signalling can lead to remodelling of tissue (chronic inflammation) and alteration of the function of tissues and organs, inducing long-term physical and mental impairment. For instance, pro-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-6 can affect the brain in ways that lead to changes in well-being, including mood, energy, sleep, social behaviour and cognitive function.
Both, age and dietary patterns are crucial factors for inflammation, but unlike age, dietary patterns can be changed to reduce inflammation. As micronutrient deficiencies are common in older people and micronutrients play an important role in anti-inflammatory processes, it is essential that older people get an adequate supply of the right micronutrients.
Chemokines are a family of small cytokines or signalling proteins secreted by cells that induce directional movement of leukocytes, as well as other cell types including endothelial and epithelial cells.
C-reactive protein (CRP) is a protein found in blood plasma, whose circulating concentrations rise in response to inflammation. It is an acute-phase protein of hepatic origin that increases following interleukin-6 secretion by macrophages and T cells.
Cytokines are an inhomogeneous group of regulatory proteins that serve to transmit signals between cells and control their proliferation and differentiation. They are produced by macrophages, B lymphocytes, T lymphocytes, natural killer cells (NKs) and fibroblasts, among others. They include interleukins like IL-6 or TNF-alpha.
Glutamate cysteine ligase is the first enzyme of the cellular glutathione (GSH) biosynthetic pathway.
Glutathione peroxidase is the general name of an enzyme family with peroxidase activity whose main biological role is to protect the organism from oxidative damage.
Glutathione reductase is an enzyme that catalyses the reduction of glutathione disulfide (GSSG) to the sulfhydryl form glutathione (GSH), which is a critical molecule in resisting oxidative stress.
Irwin MR, Olmstead R. Mitigating cellular inflammation in older adults: a randomized controlled trial of Tai Chi Chih. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2012;20(9):764-772.
Wu PY, Chen KM, Tsai WC. The Mediterranean Dietary Pattern and Inflammation in Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Adv Nutr. 2021;12(2):363-373.
(as of October 2021)
Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/inflammation
(as of October 2021)
Keflie TS, Biesalski HK. Micronutrients and bioactive substances: Their potential roles in combating COVID-19. Nutrition. 2021;84:111103.
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