Food's Impact on Arthritis, Allergies, and Immunity

The link between food and immune responses, including arthritis or allergies, is as complex as the immune system itself.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D.

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According to Doug Bibus, a researcher at the Univ. of Minnesota's Hormel Institute and scientific advisor to the Coromega Co. (, Carlsbad, Calif., an important determinant of immune response is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. We consume a great deal of omega-6-rich vegetable oils that were scarce in the human diet only a few generations ago. The result is a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 that can be as high as 25/1. Bibus describes this as "adding wood to the fire of inflammation," viewing a ratio of 5/1 to be a more healthy balance.

Arthritis, Asthma and Fish Oil

The main omega-3 fatty acids in fish are EPA and DHA. In clinical studies, rheumatoid arthritis sufferers reported some relief from morning stiffness following supplementation of their diets with fish oil. Also, in a recent prospective study of over 330 children, increased incidence of asthma was linked with a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in their diets.

In yet another study, a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 at birth was associated with the children developing eczema at 18 to 30 months of age, and the onset of wheezing at 30 to 42 months of age. The suggestion was that - at least in some children - more omega-3 fatty acids in the diet may provide some protection against symptoms of asthma and associated conditions.

There is still much to be learned, but good reason exists to suggest that shifting the balance of fatty acids to a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 ratio by eating more omega-3 rich foods such as greens, fish, flax and walnuts or omega-3-enriched products may lessen an overreactive immune response.

Algae also are an important source of omega-3s, but algae, seaweed and other ocean plants do not take up much space on the American plate. Earthrise Nutritionals (, Irvine, Calif., the world's leading producer of spirulina and spirulina-based products, is on a mission to fill the algae nutrition gap by farming spirulina for use in meal replacements, beverages and healthy snack formulations.

In addition to omega-3, spirulina is rich in antioxidants and vitamins E, C, B-complex, beta-carotene and carotenoids, and in the trace minerals zinc, copper and iron. All of these micronutrients are necessary for immune system health.

Spirulina has been shown to help reduce levels of cytokines which indicate increased probability of cytokine-mediated hypersensitivity, which is one of the main factors responsible for allergic reactions.

Another type of nutraceutical compound showing promise for combating symptoms of arthritis is the antioxidant polyphenolic group. The primary polyphenol in green tea, epigallocatechin gallate (EGGC), is a potent anti-inflammatory. Taiyo International Inc. (, Minneapolis, has been supplying green tea to beverage manufacturers for decades. The company pioneered research into naturally occurring functional food and beverage ingredients that aid the body's ability to protect and manage health.

Wellness Foods: Yogurt made with inulin from Orafti
Inulin is a prebiotic that can be incorporated into a wide range of food products, such as baked goods, confections, dairy products and beverages.

In the last 15 years asthma in the United States jumped 50 percent among preschool-aged children, and 74 percent among school-aged children. While there's no indisputable evidence that this increase is related to diet, it can be no coincidence that it closely matches the epidemic of obesity and type II diabetes, diseases that are unquestionably linked to the modern low-nutrient/high calorie diet.

One theory behind the increased prevalence of asthma among developed nations is people reduced intake of antioxidants, leaving the lungs more susceptible to oxidative damage.

Gut Feeling

Another fundamental link between diet and immunity is the integrity of the intestinal lining, which protects us from ingested pathogenic bacteria. An important part of innate immunity is the stimulation of friendly bacteria - probiotics - that reside in the intestines.

Probiotic bacteria thrive on carbohydrates that escape digestion. Dietary prebiotic compounds (for example, inulin and oligofructose, which are made up of chains of fructose that cannot be digested, or resistant starch, the portion of starch that escapes starch-digesting enzymes) may thus be beneficial.

Friendly lactic acid-producing bacteria convert these compounds into short-chain fatty acids and use them for energy. Recent studies in animals suggest that inulin and oligofructose may also stimulate the proliferation of natural killer cells and the production of immunoglobulin A, the gut-associated antibody that guards against invading bacteria in response to the invader.

Orafti Active Food Ingredients (, Malvern, Pa., producers of inulin and oligofructose, point to studies linking consumption of those polysaccharides to lower incidence of fever, fewer doctor visits and fewer sick days from daycare for infants and children as evidence for the benefit of prebiotics. According to the company, the benefit for formulators is that inulin and oligofructose can be incorporated into a wide range of food products, such as baked goods, confections, dairy products and beverages.

"Synbiotic" is the term for the combination of probiotics and prebiotics that feed them, a combination that may be even more effective than adding one or the other. On the horizon are new probiotic strains selected specifically as synbiotic combinations with resistant starch.

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