Is Chronic Inflammation the New Cholesterol?

  • Article
  • 2 min read January 21, 2015

Clinicians are starting to look beyond the traditional risk factors for heart disease like blood cholesterol to markers of chronic inflammation — now believed to be a sign of the atherogenic process.

Researchers are investigating these markers in an attempt to establish links to foods or specific nutrients that either increase or decrease the chronic inflammatory state.

This may be a lot to digest, so here’s a breakdown of what is emerging.

What is chronic inflammation and how does it differ from an acute inflammatory response?

An acute inflammatory response is brought on by things like a sudden injury or an infection. The short-term response to injury allows for healing.

In contrast, non-symptomatic chronic inflammation results from a continuously out-of-balance immune system with higher amounts of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules (e.g., C-reactive protein, TNF-α, and IL-6) and lower levels of anti-inflammatory signaling molecules (e.g., adiponectin) circulating in the bloodstream. This imbalance may contribute to the development of various metabolic disorders (e.g., cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes). Therefore, the management of chronic inflammation is of the utmost importance.

What about dairy foods and chronic inflammation?

A growing body of research has demonstrated that adequate dairy food consumption as part of a nutrient-rich, balanced diet is associated with reduced chronic low-grade inflammation. This research was considered in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans as one possible mechanism underpinning the conclusion that “moderate evidence indicates that intake of milk and milk products is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and with lower blood pressure in adults.”

Though still an emerging area of research, several observational studies have shown that dietary patterns that include dairy foods (milk, cheese and yogurt) are associated with reduced non-symptomatic markers of chronic inflammation across the lifespan (Nettleton, 2006Queshi, 2009Esmaillzadeh, 2010;Zemel, 2008Panagiotakos, 2010).

To date, only a few clinical trials (the gold standard) have examined the effects of dairy foods on inflammatory responses. These studies have shown that dairy foods either improved markers of inflammation (Zemel, 2010Stancliffe, 2011) or had no effect on markers of chronic inflammation status in overweight/obese adults (Wennersberg, 2009van Meijl, 2010).

Most recently, a multicenter randomized crossover study conducted among Canadian adults with low-grade systemic inflammation found that short-term consumption of a combination of low- and high-fat dairy products as part of a healthy eating plan had no adverse effects on inflammation.

Though anti-inflammatory eating plans are gaining popular attention, combatting chronic inflammation involves more than individual nutrients or foods. It’s about having an overall healthful dietary pattern and lifestyle and maintaining a healthy weight, among other factors. The available research so far seems to indicate that dairy foods can be part of such a lifestyle.