Could eating yogurt reduce inflammation?

Can starting a meal with a single portion of yogurt help to reduce inflammation? According to a new study, the answer is "yes." Its authors believe that yogurt might protect us from the harmful byproducts of gut bacteria.

Inflammation is a hot topic at the moment. It plays a role in a varied range of conditions, including psoriasis and eczema.

It has also been implicated in some less obvious conditions, such as Alzheimer's and diabetes, and it may even play a part in some mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia.

Overall, inflammation is not a bad thing. In fact, it is the body's way of protecting itself; it is the first line of defense in the innate immune system.

However, if inflammation continues for longer than necessary, it becomes a problem — the body is, essentially, attacking itself.

Although there is a range of pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories available, they all have downsides, and being on any medication long-term is not ideal. So, the race is on to find safer, more natural alternatives.

Could dairy be the answer?

Over the years, there has been much debate surrounding dairy and its role in inflammation. Some believe that it is anti-inflammatory, while others say the reverse.

So, in the search for a definitive answer, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison put yogurt to the test. The study was headed up by Brad Bolling, an assistant professor of food science. Regarding the dairy debate, he says:

"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."

At this stage, before we dive into the details, it is worth noting that the research was funded by the National Dairy Council. They are a non-profit organization who are supported by the United States Department of Agriculture's national dairy checkoff program, the objective of which is to promote dairy products.

However, the research is presented in two papers that are published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Nutrition and the British Journal of Nutrition.

Gut bacteria and endotoxins

Yogurt is thought to reduce inflammation by improving the integrity of the intestinal lining. And, by bolstering this layer of tissue, endotoxins — produced by gut bacteria — cannot cross into the bloodstream and promote inflammation.

To examine the potential benefits of yogurt on inflammation, in the scientists' first experiment, they recruited 120 premenopausal women, half of whom were obese.

Half of the participants were asked to eat 12 ounces of low-fat yogurt each day for 9 weeks while the others ate a non-dairy pudding instead.

Throughout the experiment, at various points in time, the researchers took blood samples and assessed them for biomarkers of endotoxins and inflammation.

The results, which were published in December 2017, showed that some inflammatory markers — such as TNF-alpha — were significantly reduced in the yogurt eaters.

The second paper, published recently in the Journal of Nutrition, concentrates on a different part of the same study. At the start and end of the 9-week trial, the women were given a high-calorie meal challenge.

This challenge was designed to stress their metabolism by overloading them with a high-fat, high-carbohydrate breakfast. Half started the feast with a serving of yogurt, while the other half began with a non-dairy pudding.

Bolling explains the contents of the meal challenge, saying, "It was two sausage muffins and two hash browns, for a total of 900 calories. But everybody managed it. They'd been fasting," he continues, "and they were pretty hungry."

Tests over the following hours — as the meal was digested — showed that the yogurt eaters had significant reductions in certain endotoxin markers. The researchers also noted that in obese participants, post-meal glucose levels dropped more quickly in the yogurt group, which demonstrates improved glucose metabolism.

"Eating 8 ounces 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."

Ruisong Pei, postdoctoral researcher

The scientists' future work will focus on understanding which compounds within yogurt are having these beneficial effects.

As Bolling says, "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."

However, research into this topic is relatively new, so the results need to be replicated before we all switch to yogurt-based appetizers.