Diet: These fatty acids cause chronic inflammation in the intestine

Diet: These fatty acids cause chronic inflammation in the intestine

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Polyunsaturated fatty acids with negative effects in the intestine

More and more people suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases, with nutrition being given an essential role in modern industrial nations. According to a current study by researchers at the Medical University of Innsbruck, the polyunsaturated fatty acids in particular appear to promote inflammatory reactions in the intestine in the so-called western diet.

"The incidence of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) has increased significantly in recent years" and "in addition to genetic components, western nutrition has been assigned a central causal role," reports the Medical University of Innsbruck in a communication on the new study results. As part of the study, the researchers looked for possible causes for the negative effects of Western diets and thereby identified the polyunsaturated fatty acids as triggers of inflammatory reactions in the intestine.

Causes of the diseases unclear

Inflammatory bowel diseases are an increasingly common complaint, the causes of which have so far remained unclear. "Although there are approximately 300 identified genetic variants that influence the risk of developing IBD, genetics can only explain a small part of the diseases"; reports the Innsbruck research team.

Western diet with negative effects

A strong connection with the diet is also suspected and in particular the Western diet is named as a possible trigger. "Migration studies have shown that Western nutrition plays a central role in the development of inflammatory bowel diseases," reports the bowel disease expert, Herbert Tilg, from the Medical University of Innsbruck. For example, the low IBD rate of Japanese people who emigrated to the United States around 20 years ago had already adapted to the North American population after a few years.

What nutritional components cause inflammation?

The researchers have now examined in greater detail which individual components of the Western diet are considered to be the cause of chronic intestinal inflammation. However, the complex composition of the diet was a major challenge for the cause research. The research team therefore took a new approach in the search for inflammatory food components.

Special diets examined in the laboratory

“For our laboratory tests, we put together a diet that corresponds to the composition of a Western diet. Not only saturated fatty acids, but also polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are abundant in meat, various oils and eggs, were enriched in a diet and laboratory mice were fed for three months, ”reports Timon Adolph from the Medical University of Innsbruck.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids the trigger?

The research team was able to demonstrate “that polyunsaturated fatty acids in particular cause an inflammatory reaction in the intestine that resembles the image of Crohn's disease in humans.” The researchers justify this with the influence of polyunsaturated fatty acids on the enzyme GPX4 (glutathione peroxidase 4). The enzyme protects the intestinal epithelial cells from oxidative stress on membrane lipids and thus prevents the triggering of an inflammatory response, but its activity is inhibited by polyunsaturated fatty acids.

New perspective on "healthy" fatty acids

The proof that polyunsaturated fatty acids can cause inflammation of the intestine is particularly important since these fatty acids were previously considered to be rather healthy and were partly enriched in foods or even taken as food supplements. Although the results from the experiments on mice still have to be checked on humans, if they were confirmed, this would change the perspective on the polyunsaturated fatty acids significantly. (fp)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dipl. Geogr. Fabian Peters


  • Medical University of Innsbruck: Polyunsaturated fatty acids trigger Crohn's disease like intestinal inflammation (published April 14, 2020),
  • Lisa Mayr, Felix Grabherr, Timon E. Adolph, et. al: Dietary lipids fuel GPX4-restricted enteritis resembling Crohn’s disease; in: Nature Communications (published April 14, 2020),

Video: Inflammatory bowel disease: Mayo Clinic Radio (July 2022).


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