Food as medicine

Dr Alie de Boer – a food scientist at University College Venlo, a satellite campus of Maastricht University – recently published an article in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. Based on a comprehensive literature study, she revealed the importance of omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin E in managing chronic inflammatory lung diseases, such as COPD and autoimmune sarcoidosis. 'There is a prolonged and intense use of medication in this growing group of patients,' explains De Boer. 'As a result, patients are building up resistance and experiencing side effects. The use of food or supplements in combination with the proper medication would be a huge step forward. It really is very promising.'

Alie de Boer obtained her PhD in 2015 from the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the UM Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences. Her dissertation examined the different effects of food and medication. As part of her research, she maintained frequent contact with hospital pharmacies and found that patients who took medications for a prolonged period of time often built up resistance to them. As a result, the dose had to be raised, which produced unwanted side effects. De Boer was convinced that nutrition could play an important role and help to alleviate symptoms, like a medicine in its own right. To study this, she read more than 1,200 articles on the topic. More than 160 articles demonstrated a significant effect of specific nutrients.

Chronic inflammation
These articles focused on chronic inflammatory lung diseases, such as asthma, COPD and autoimmune sarcoidosis. Normally, the function of inflammation is to eliminate something that doesn't belong in the body; however, with chronic inflammation, this balance is off. The inflammation persists despite the function no longer being necessary, causing damage to healthy cells. For this reason, prolonged inflammation is treated with medication.

Certain nutrients, such as antioxidants derived from fruits and vegetables, are known to reduce inflammation; however, the importance of balance is becoming increasingly important. In the 160 articles studied, De Boer looked for nutrients that have a specific effect on chronic inflammation in the lungs. Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin E appeared to have a considerable effect on inflammatory lung diseases. In the literature, De Boer hoped to find studies that examined the effect of these nutrients and studies that demonstrated the effect on lung function. Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin E appeared to combat inflammation and improve lung function. These substances are known for their positive health effects, but the key word here is balance. Nevertheless, relevant patient groups are advised to consume more of these nutrients than the average daily recommendation.

'There's still so much to learn about food and disease,' says De Boer. 'Centuries ago, plants were used for healing and these days everyone knows that vitamin C prevents scurvy. It also makes sense that some people need more or less of a particular substance than others. My work currently focuses on different aspect of nutrition, but I hope someone will follow up on my results. They really are very promising.' Alie de Boer shares her extensive knowledge of nutrition with her students at University College Venlo.

Also read