Inflammation, Diet, and “Vitamin S”

Inflammation, Diet, and Vitamin S

Last month an update was published on the intriguing suggestion that low levels of salicylic acid—the active component in aspirin—naturally found in plant foods may in part explain the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Some scientists go as far as to suggest those who don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables may be suffering from “salicylic acid deficiency,” a condition with “important public health implications.” Others even propose reclassifying it as an essential micronutrient, “Vitamin S.”

Many chronic disease processes involve inflammation, including our top three killers—heart disease, cancer, and stroke—so doctors prescribe a daily aspirin to those for whom the benefits are thought to outweigh the risks. About 1 in 10 people on chronic low-dose aspirin develop stomach or intestinal ulcers, which in rare cases can perforate the gut and cause life-threatening bleeding. My video Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods suggests that the low levels of salicylic acid in fruits (particularly nectarines), vegetables (particularly asparagus), and herbs and spices (especially mint, cumin, thyme, and paprika) may provide the best of both worlds.

The way aspirin and salicylic acid work is by helping our body keep inflammation in check by reducing the assembly of the enzyme responsible for producing inflammatory compounds from something called arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that both we and other animals make. In my video-of-the-day yesterday, Chicken, Eggs, and Inflammation, I explain that arachidonic acid is like cholesterol, in that our bodies make all we need for optimal function. The problem is that so do the bodies of birds and mammals, and so when we consume those other animals the level of arachidonic acid in our blood may climb too high.

For example, inflammation in our brain caused by dietary arachidonic acid may explain why those eating plant-based diets appear less stressed and depressed (see my video Plant-Based Diet & Mood) and why eliminating chicken, fish, and eggs may improve symptoms of mood disturbance, depression, and anxiety within two weeks (see Thursday’s Improving Mood Through Diet). Arachidonic acid may also play a role in cancer, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune disorders (see Friday’s Inflammatory Remarks about Arachidonic Acid).

This morning’s video-of-the-day Chicken’s Fate is Sealed documents the meat industry’s attempts to lower the arachidonic acid level in chicken muscles through genetic manipulation and the egg industry’s attempts to lower arachidonic acid levels in hens by feeding hens blubber from baby harp seal pups clubbed to death in the Canadian seal hunt. But any arachidonic acid from chicken and eggs is in excess of what our body needs.

In summary, plant-based diets are anti-inflammatory diets because “Vitamin S” and other anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in plants may help prevent the body from overproducing inflammatory compounds, and also because plant-based diets minimize one’s intake of inflammatory precursors in the first place.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

Image credit: adactio / Flickr

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    Please feel free to leave any questions you may have below and be sure to check out all the videos on inflammation.

  • Karen LaVine

    Here’s an interesting little blurb about salsalate and fasting BGs in type 2 diabetes. It appears that the decrease in inflammation from salsalate improves beta cell function, but it didn’t decrease insulin resistance.

    • DrDons

      Thanks for the reference. Interesting. My recommended clinical approach to type two diabetes is a low fat whole food plant based diet. The fats in the diet not only interfere with insulin but also seems to adversely effect the genes that drive our mitochondria which burn the sugars. Type 2 diabetes is a sugar “processing” problem caused by fats in the diet. Fats in both animals and plants although by far the greatest amount of fats consumed is in animal products. Of course this is based on current science so you have to keep tuned to as the science is always changing.

      • lo lk

        dr. dons, do you feel that vegetarian based interfere with insulin and adversely effect the genes that drive our mitochondria which burn the sugars? or are you only referring to meat fish egg and dairy fats? lots of vegans consume large amounts of nuts and avocados ( i am one of them)

        to the tune of 50 percent of my daily calories. think this is enough to cause type two diabetes? thanks .

      • lo lk

        oops. it seems i left out the word “fats”. i meant to write “…do you feel that vegetarian based fats interfere….”

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  • Bella

    Be careful promoting such a diet, those with asthma and aspirin sensitivities need to avoid foods high in salicylic acid to prevent elevation in leukotriene levels  

  • WholeFoodChomper

    Would a prescribed daily baby aspirin and a plant-based diet be overkill then? 

    •  I believe in otherwise healthy individuals that taking aspirin would not be advisable due to the problems mentioned by Dr. Greger. If you are consuming a whole food plant based unprocessed diet I believe the risks would outweigh the benefits. For specific medical conditions it would make sense to take an aspirin so it is important to work with your physician(s). Good luck.

  • Deb

    I have wondered if the studies done regarding the various negative effect of animal products- chicken, eggs, dairy, beef – were done using animals raised naturally, if the end results might be different. I would venture that these studies were all done using commercially raised animals. Might some of the results be different if they tested, for example, beef that was organic and pasture raised? We know that these products are healthier versions than their commercially raised counterparts, but would it be enough of a difference to change the outcome of the studies, or to mitigate some of the health risks?

    • Lynn Borzillo

      @Deb, I think you asked a great question and was disappointed to see that no one addressed it.

    • Thea

      Deb and Lynn: “Toxins” is a knowledgeable and frequent commenter on NutritionFacts. I like his short, but clear answer to this common question. So, I’ll plagiarize the answer for you:

      “endotoxins, xenoestrogens, increases in
      igf-1 and arachidonic acid. All are inherent components of meat whether organic
      or conventional.

      I would add saturated fat and cholesterol to the list of problems.

      The bottom line is: There may be *marginal* health advantages to an animal product raised “naturally”, but in the end, the main problems are inherent with the product themselves regardless of how the animal was treated.

      I hope that helps.

    • Thea

      Ah, I also found an old posting from Dr. Forrester, another awesome poster on NutritionFacts. Dr. Forrester wrote in response to a similar question to add onto what Toxins wrote:

      “[humans] are designed as “hind gut fermenting herbivores” a lot of data to support the anatomy and physiology of this hypothesis. Beyond that meat from grass fed animals also contains saturated fat which is metabolized to cholesterol and dioxins… see
      which are in the air as a product of burning plastics. It is true that grass fed animal meat is healthier then animals via CAFO’s but that doesn’t make it healthy.” … “[Some people may have] a similar argument about fish which is even easier to address see video…

      Hope this helps too.

  • Deb

    Thanks for the answers… I had just not seen studies based on naturally raised animals..

  • john doe

    Please check this out
    before you decide to start taking aspirin.

  • Anda Cristea

    I had some analyses on omega 3 and omega 6 and Acid arahidonic is 500.
    What is the signification?

    Can you help me?

    Thank you,