Table with gluten-containing bread products that may cause inflammation

Foods and inflammation: how do foods cause inflammation?

Written on November 29, 2022 by Amy Harris, MS, RN, CNM. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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We all wonder whether what we put in our mouths might be connected to various signs and symptoms, be it headaches, bloating, or gastrointestinal distress. Food is medicine, so what if the foods you eat (or didn’t eat) could help you feel better? Many of us look to the food on our plates for answers in our quest for better health. While science and medicine are still working out the exact relationships between food, inflammation, and disease, we know all three are interrelated. Understanding which foods cause inflammation might help you live a longer, healthier life.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is your body's natural reaction to something potentially harmful, like an injury or infection. When your body detects a possible threat, it sends inflammatory cells, and a related substance called cytokines as “first responders.” Inflammation is part of your body’s natural defense and healing system.

How do foods cause inflammation?

Healthcare providers and scientists are still figuring out the exact relationship between our diet and inflammation. Certain foods trigger inflammation in certain people under certain circumstances. In particular, if someone has a food allergy, say to gluten, as in people with celiac disease, their immune system recognizes the gluten protein as foreign. As a result, their immune system releases antibodies and cytokines, which attack and damage that person’s small intestine.

The inflammatory reaction is much less severe in people with gluten intolerance or sensitivity. It does not involve an allergic reaction. The most common food intolerances or sensitivities are lactose, gluten, caffeine, FODMAPs, salicylates, histamines, amines, and fructose.

Other foods contribute to our overall inflammatory state without inducing an autoimmune, allergic, or food sensitivity reaction. Looking at markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF- α), researchers have found that dietary factors (such as consumption of refined carbohydrates or red meat) can influence inflammation and disease risk [1].

What is the relationship between food sensitivity and inflammation?

Just like the relationship between diet and inflammation is still under investigation, so is the role that food sensitivities play in overall inflammation. People experiencing symptoms such as bloating, belly pain, migraines, headaches, indigestion, or gastrointestinal distress, frequently wonder whether they have a sensitivity to particular foods.

Food sensitivities are different from food allergies, but both involve inflammation. Unlike some food allergies, food sensitivities (also called food intolerances) are not life-threatening and do not directly involve the immune system [2]. Food sensitivities cause people to have bloating, fullness, belly pain, gas, or diarrhea when they eat too much of the food they are intolerant of. Their body can’t properly digest the food, leading air and gas to build up in the stomach and intestines.

Other people feel like they get headaches, fatigue, “brain fog,” or belly pain from various foods (such as gluten) or additives and preservatives (amines and sulfites). Some of the same foods related to inflammation can also cause food sensitivity symptoms, such as lactose and gluten.

Is inflammation bad or good for you?

Some inflammation is good for you—inflammation is like your body’s early warning system, protecting you from infection and injury. On the other hand, too much inflammation (like overreacting to something unharmful such as dust) and chronic inflammation are both bad for you. Chronic inflammation is the long-term, low-grade state of your body’s immune system being “on alert”—a so-called pro-inflammatory state.

The cytokines and antibodies released by your alerted immune system can damage your cells, tissues, and organs over the long term. Low-grade chronic inflammation may damage blood vessels, arteries, nerves, and the intestines. Chronic inflammation is linked to the development of some of the most common and deadly diseases limiting human lifespan today: cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes mellitus, chronic kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders [3].

Foods that may cause inflammation in people without food allergies

Healthcare providers and scientists continue to investigate whether several types of food may contribute to inflammation in our bodies. Here are some of the leading contenders under study:

  1. Gluten
  2. Alcohol
  3. Artificial trans fats
  4. Red meat, organ meat, and processed meats
  5. Refined carbohydrates (white flour, white rice, sugars, candy, and desserts)

Research has focused on these foods’ contribution to inflammation-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. People with “pro-inflammatory diets” who consume more alcohol, artificial trans fats, red meat, and refined carbohydrates have unhealthy cholesterol levels and a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease [1].

Consuming more than the recommended one to two alcoholic beverages daily can cause increased inflammation in your intestine. Researchers hypothesize that this intestinal inflammation may be at the root of the many disorders associated with chronic alcohol consumption, such as chronic liver disease, neurological disease, GI cancers, and inflammatory bowel syndrome [4].

How do you know if the foods you eat are causing inflammation?

You may not. The signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation are subtle and can be caused by other things besides the food you eat. So whether you are experiencing symptoms of food intolerance (bloating, gas, headaches) or want to follow a healthier diet to reduce your risk of inflammation-related diseases, taking a closer look at your diet can be one place to start.

How can Everlywell help you?

Unfortunately, you may need to focus on long-term lifestyle changes rather than quick fixes when it comes to food and inflammation. To improve your health, it’s necessary to focus on your overall dietary habits and living an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, including physical activity and decreasing stress, not just cutting out certain foods that may cause inflammation [5].

Healthy eating may be more effective than cutting out specific foods or eating foods to reduce inflammation. For example, the Mediterranean diet, with more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains, has shown anti-inflammatory effects compared with typical North American and Northern European diets in research studies [6].

Nevertheless, taking the Everlywell at-home Food Sensitivity Test is a convenient way to learn additional information about how your body reacts to foods. This test measures your IgG antibody reactivity levels to 96 common foods. The test is easy to use—it requires just a simple finger prick to collect a small blood sample, and you can view your results online. While it does not identify food allergies, you can use the information provided by your test results to choose foods that might help you to feel better. For example, many satisfied Everlywell customers use their Food Sensitivity Test results to prioritize which foods they cut out for 30 days as part of a two-part elimination diet.

You can also try the Inflammation Test to check in on your levels of hs-CRP, a key inflammatory marker.

At Everlywell, we are committed to helping you get back in the driver’s seat in your quest to feel better and live healthier lives. We want to help you find the answers to your health-related questions, one convenient, affordable test at a time.

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  1. Li J, Lee DH, Hu J, et al. Dietary Inflammatory Potential and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease Among Men and Women in the U.S. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020;76(19):2181-2193. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2020.09.535. URL
  2. Food intolerances. Cleveland Clinic. Published August 11, 2021. Accessed November 29, 2022. URL
  3. Furman D, Campisi J, Verdin E, et al. Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life span. Nat Med. 2019;25(12):1822-1832. doi:10.1038/s41591-019-0675-0. URL
  4. Bishenshari, F, Magno, E, Swanson, G, Desai V, et al. Alcohol and Gut-derived Inflammation. Alcohol Research Current Reviews. 2017;38(2): URL
  5. What foods cause or reduce inflammation? University of Chicago Medicine. Published September 4, 2020. Accessed November 29, 2022. URL
  6. Galland L. Diet and inflammation. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010;25(6):634-640. doi:10.1177/0884533610385703. URL
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