With the numbers of COVID cases continuing to climb, we need to address (again) ways to reduce the inflammatory burden on our heart, lungs and immune system. Using nutrients and foods are the best way to do that. We have been under tremendous stress as a nation these past few weeks with the election. And quite frankly…it’s been exhausting! So if we drank too much alcohol, caffeine or ate more comfort foods like sugar and chocolate…you are not alone. But now we can put the election aside and get down to protecting ourselves, family and community by eating better and continuing COVID precautions.
Many phytochemicals naturally occurring in certain herbs and plant foods can down-regulate the inflammatory activation brought about by SARS-CoV-2. The intense immune reactions seen in COVID cases are in part mediated by Inflammasomes- multi-protein complexes found in immune cells, pulmonary cells and other epithelial cells. There are many types of inflammasomes, the NLRP3 subtype being the most prevalent and most well studied in the context of the lungs. Inflammasome activation leads to the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and can damage the lungs causing high levels of oxidative stress and reactive oxygen species (ROS). This process in normal circumstances clears out infectious pathogens, environmental or metabolic toxins and neutralizes the situation. The inflammatory cascade should then “turn off”. In severe cases like we’ve seen with COVID, this process does not turn off resulting in excessive cell death, tissue fibrosis and ultimately organ dysfunction.
Respiratory distress doesn’t always respond to oxygen therapy. This is because the alveoli and surrounding capillaries become damaged and dysfunctional leading to thrombus, or clot formation. So alveoli are unable to deliver oxygen to the blood. Low oxygen levels then lead to more inflammasome that starts this deadly cycle again. When it comes to plant compounds that have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties that reduce inflammasome activity, polyphenols tend to steal the show. Here are some of those compounds:
- Curcuminoids: These are lipid (fat) absorbing polyphenol isolates derived from Rhizoma curcuma longa (Turmeric). Small amounts are also found in the Ginger species (Zingiber). It is a scavenger of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) which is a highly pro-inflammatory environment in the cell. Turmeric-rich foods and supplements is enhanced with the addition of black pepper and healthy fats and oils.
- Resveratrol: A polyphenol present on the skins of red and purple grapes. It also scavenges ROS and reduces oxidative stress. This compound up-regulates the expression of Sirtuin I, which inactivates multiple inflammatory genes.
- Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG): A major polyphenol found in green tea. It reduces the expression of many inflammatory mediators and lowers free radicals. One cup (8 oz) of brewed green tea contains approximately 50-100mg of EGCG. Drink 1 to 3 cups per day.
- Sulforaphane glucosinolate (SFN): A natural compound in cruciferous vegetables. These foods reduce oxidative stress and ROS. Food sources include kale, broccoli, broccoli sprouts, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, mustard greens and radishes. Not to get too technical, but Sulforaphane is produced from a precursor called glucoraphanin, in the presence of a certain enzyme (myrosinase). It is best to steam, sauté or even massage cruciferous vegetables to stimulate and express their phytochemicals. Supplements include DIM (di-insole-methane) and I3C (indole-3-carbinol) in capsule or powder.
- Quercetin: A flavonoid commonly found in a variety of fruits and vegetables and herbs. It blocks inflammasome activity, inhibits damage from ROS and down-regulates cytokine expression. Examples are the red skins of apples and citrus fruits and purple onions. Supplements are available but not highly absorbable and best taken with healthy fats.
- Ginsenosides: The active component of Radix panax ginseng. It lowers inflammasome activation and cytokine expression.
- Modified Citrus Pectin (MCP): This is a low molecular weight dietary fiber derived from the inner peel of citrus fruit. It is best known as a Galectin-3 antagonist. Galectin -3 is found in immune and epithelial cells and promotes inflammasome activation. Antagonist means that it blocks or inactivates Galectin-3 and down regulates the activation of the NLRP3 inflammasome. MCP also inhibits fibrin minimizing the formation of clots. This is an enzyme-processed product that can be absorbed through the small intestine and enter the bloodstream. Whereas, unprocessed food pectin is a large lectin molecule that is not digested or absorbed through the intestinal wall. The highest quality MCP products have the smallest particle size to ensure intestinal absorption. (See blogs “What’s Needed for Healthy Aging” and “Modified Citrus Pectin- For Your Detox and Overall Health”).
Of course it’s best to consume these compounds through a plant-rich colorful diet with herbs and spices. Many natural compounds that influence inflammasome activity are found in these plant-derived foods. They also bind to many different receptors and influence several different pathways and genes all at once. A diet rich in phytochemicals has a powerful impact on long term health and inflammation control. It matters what we eat because our food is talking to our genes. Be well…
References: Chilkov, N. Nutrients & Phytochemicals to Ease Pulmonary Inflammation. Holistic Primary Care. Fall 2020, p. 4.
Howrylak JA, Nakahira K. Inflammasomes: Key mediators of lung immunity. Annu Rev Physiol. 2017; 79: 471-47-94. doi: 10.1146/annurev-physiol-021115-105229.