Yogurt may dampen chronic inflammation

Study doesn’t identify which compounds in yogurt are responsible for shift in biomarkers of inflammation.

May 15, 2018

4 Min Read
Yogurt may dampen chronic inflammation

As part of the innate immune system, inflammation can be good as part of the body's first line of defense against illness and injury. However, if the inflammatory response goes on for too long, it can lead to a condition called chronic inflammation, where the body essentially attacks itself, wreaking biological havoc on its organs and systems, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Chronic inflammation is a factor in inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis and asthma. It is also associated with obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases.

A recent study — described in two papers, including one published May 14 in the Journal of Nutrition — provides new evidence that yogurt may help dampen chronic inflammation, the university said.

The study explored the hypothesis that yogurt may help reduce inflammation by improving the integrity of the intestinal lining, thus preventing endotoxins — pro-inflammatory molecules produced by gut microbes — from crossing into the bloodstream.

“I wanted to look at the mechanism more closely and look specifically at yogurt,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of food science Brad Bolling, whose research focuses on the role of food in preventing chronic disease.

While anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin, naproxen, hydrocortisone and prednisone can help mitigate the effects of chronic inflammation, each comes with its own risks and side effects. There is a need for additional options, particularly safe, gentle, long-term treatments, Bolling said.

Researchers have been exploring dairy products as a potential dietary treatment for more than two decades, but findings have been mixed, which has set up a scientific debate about whether dairy products are pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory.

“There have been some mixed results over the years, but (a recent article) shows that things are pointing more toward anti-inflammatory, particularly for fermented dairy,” Bolling noted, citing a 2017 review paper that assessed 52 clinical trials.

Bolling’s study enrolled 120 pre-menopausal women, half obese and half not obese. Half of the participants were assigned to eat 12 oz. of low-fat yogurt every day for nine weeks; a control group ate non-dairy pudding for nine weeks.

This investigation, among the largest human intervention studies to look at yogurt’s impact on chronic inflammation, was funded by the National Dairy Council, a nonprofit organization supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national dairy checkoff program.

At various points during the study, Bolling and his team took fasting blood samples from participants and evaluated an assortment of biomarkers that scientists have used over the years to measure endotoxin exposure and inflammation.

As described in the British Journal of Nutrition this past December, the results showed that while some of the biomarkers remained steady over time, the yogurt eaters experienced significant improvements in certain key markers, such as TNF-a, an important inflammation-activating protein.

“The results indicate that ongoing consumption of yogurt may be having a general anti-inflammatory effect,” Bolling said.

The new Journal of Nutrition article focuses on a different aspect of the study. Participants were also involved in a high-calorie meal challenge at the beginning and end of their nine-week dietary intervention. The challenge, meant to stress an individual’s metabolism, started with either a serving of yogurt or non-dairy pudding, followed by a large high-fat, high-carbohydrate breakfast meal.

“It was two sausage muffins and two hash browns, for a total of 900 calories, but everybody managed it. They’d been fasting, and they were pretty hungry,” Bolling said.

For both challenges, blood work showed that the yogurt “appetizer” helped improve some key biomarkers of endotoxin exposure and inflammation as participants digested the meal over the ensuing hours. It also helped improve glucose metabolism in obese participants by speeding the reduction of post-meal blood glucose levels.

“Eating 8 oz. of low-fat yogurt before a meal is a feasible strategy to improve post-meal metabolism and, thus, may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases,” explained Ruisong Pei, a University of Wisconsin-Madison food science postdoctoral researcher involved in the studies.

The findings help expand the overall body of scientific knowledge about how foods affect inflammation.

Bolling’s study doesn’t identify which compounds in yogurt are responsible for the shift in biomarkers associated with the health-promoting effect — or how they act in the body. Solving that piece of the puzzle will require more research, he noted.

“The goal is to identify the components and then get human evidence to support their mechanism of action in the body. That’s the direction we are going,” Bolling said. “Ultimately, we would like to see these components optimized in foods, particularly for medical situations where it’s important to inhibit inflammation through the diet. We think this is a promising approach.”

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