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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.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

27 responses to “Inflammation, Diet, and “Vitamin S”

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    1. 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.

      1. 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 .

  1. […] Nutrition Facts Ana Cunha VestergaardMestre em Saúde Pública e escritora associada à European Medical Writers Association. Trabalha com pesquisa, escrita e tradução de textos relacionados à saúde. Vive atualmente em Malta (pequena ilha do Mediterrâneo, próxima ao sul da Itália) e está sempre de olho nas últimas novidades sobre alimentação e saúde. Contato: ana@deolhonoseuprato.comCompartilhe Tags: ácido salicílico, alimentação e saúde, aspirina, vitamina S […]

  2. 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  

    1.  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.

  3. 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?

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  4. HI
    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,

  5. Would you like to explain the Inuit Paradox? Why do these people who eat a diet of 70% saturated fats have ZERO heart disease. Low fat diets have been proven to have no decrease of heart disease when compared to the high fat diet group. John’s Hopkins study.

    1. Emanuel Stamathis: Actually, there is no Inuit Paradox. Even ancient Inuit mummies show signs of heart disease (and cancer). You can read about it for yourself. The following NutritionFacts video gives a great overview. And then you can click the Sources Cited button to read the studies if you want:
      The people who are telling you that the Inuit have no heart disease or that there is a paradox are lying to you. There is a website that does a great job of debunking that kind of information. You can dive into learning about the Inuit and the Masai. You can learn more about Taubes verses Keys, etc. You can get the straight scoop, all with references that actually support the claims (unlike what you will get at the sites you have been reading). If you are interested, here is the website:

      1. You evidently read what you want and ignore the medical science that disagrees with what you want to believe. Vegetarians have closed minds maybe it’s because they starve their brains with the important fats that the brain need. It’s made up of 2/3rds fats btw.

        1. Emanuel: Your reply makes no sense. I was referring you to the medical science. You wrote, “Why do these people who eat a diet of 70% saturated fats have ZERO heart disease.” I used actual facts to prove your statement false. It’s not about open or closed minds when the data is easily available.
          As a moderator for this site, I’ll also refer you to the posting rules for this site, which you can find in the FAQ page linked to at the bottom of this page. I will let it go this time, but if you post any more posts with ad hominem attacks, I will delete your posts without additional warning.

          1. Deletion of comments that question your statements shows Intolerance to facts that don’t fit your narrative. Hospital studies like John’s Hopkins who completely debunked high fat vs low fat diets and heart disease make plenty sense not yours unfortunates. You may want to research actual unbiased medical studies. Delete away if it helps you sleep at night.

            1. Emanuel: Do you know what ad hominen means?
              We do not delete comments simply because someone holds a different opinion. We delete comments if the comments break the posting rules. One of the rules is that you can’t do ad hominen attacks. If you stick to the science and stay respectful, you will not be deleted. Again, if you wish to keep posting here, you would do well to review the posting rules. Here is a link for you:
              As for facts that don’t fit narratives: Did you look at the scientific evidence about heart disease among the Inuit? That’s something you might want to consider as it does not fit your narrative.

        1. Very interesting discussion.
          The web page you link to is a very interesting read. It took me a while to understand its format as it appears to be an advertisement for a book and subscription of some type. This does not make it wrong, it just adds a caveat. When you read the entire page (pretty long), at the very end there is a 6 point summary. The second point is, ” We are not eating seals or their organ meats, so get your fruits and vegetables (as we need them for sources of vitamins that are not in our meats)”. There are only 2 other points (of the 6) that I think NutritionFacts might not agree with. The remaining 3 are, mostly, based on facts that, IMHO, vegans would agree with. There are a few recommendations in these three that we feel are not the best available according to the recent information. But it is possible that the Inuit’s (traditional) diet results in improvement of health over the SAD. This might challenge a religious view of veganism in some way, but does not change the current facts.

          I understand one thing about Emanuel’s point of view. It often feels that diet beliefs can be held as a religion. I am now a WFPB SOS total believer. But I got here after losing 62 lbs of life shortening fat and keeping it off with Paleo. It was a diet I could do and when my brother died at over 400 lbs of a weight related illness, it was a diet that I did do. I will never have anything bad to say about it except that I believe that I now have found a better way. At first, I could not go vegan after being raised on the SAD, and I still think the best tasting meal in the world has to include prime rib. I do not eat it as I have found that it is true that, “nothing taste as good as healthy feels.” And, after working in a slaughter house for a few weeks as a young man, I have always felt badly about our treatment of our meat producing animals. Any improvement from the SAD is to be welcomed. I do believe that when all currently known facts are considered, WFPB SOS life style yields the best overall results (for me and the 8 other people on this journey with me). I am ready to change if the data changes, but right now I am sure that the Inuits should be treated as the extreme exception that proves the rule. And new research shows that they may not be such an exception after all. Life expectancy and postmortems of recent and preserved Inuits show that the unexpected health of these people is much smaller a factor than originally thought. I thank everyone involved in this discussion for their input. I learn where to look for more information by the recommendations of such commenters as Emanuel.
          By the way, here in Dallas we call the WFPB SOS diet the “make it yourself diet” as you have to make nearly everything yourself. Low added oil foods are the hardest things to find even in Vegan restaurants.

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