Shed Pounds to Stop Inflammation
It's no secret that packing extra pounds can set you up for a number of health problems, from arthritis and sleep apnea to diabetes and heart disease. But new research shows that excess body fat may even spur the growth of tumors, raising your risk for several types of cancer. That increased cancer risk appears closely linked to chronic inflammation, a destructive process that occurs when the immune system turns against your tissues and cells. But while chronic inflammation acts as a 'silent killer', it's possible to protect against disease by taking on lifestyle changes that fight inflammation, trim away pounds, and boost your overall health.
Under normal circumstances, your immune system triggers an inflammatory response only when your body suffers injury or infection. By releasing pro-inflammatory substances, the immune system helps shield you from bacteria or viruses. But in people with chronic inflammation, those pro-inflammatory substances are constantly releasedâ€”even when there are no invaders to fight off. Although scientists have yet to confirm exactly how chronic inflammation contributes to disease, studies suggest that inflammation may be an underlying factor in cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, and allergies.
Emerging research reveals that being overweight and obesity itself may play a key role in the link between inflammation and disease. For instance, a January 2010 study found that obesity acts as a bona fide tumor promoter and may increase the risk of liver cancer. In tests on mice, the study's authors discovered that obesity caused a spike in two pro-inflammatory substances that, in turn, furthered the growth of tumors in the liver. In a more recent study, researchers found that levels of a pro-inflammatory substance called monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 were significantly elevated in extremely obese people with pancreatic cancer. What's more, several previously published studies have linked high levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation often elevated in overweight people) with increased risk of colorectal cancer and ovarian cancer (in addition to heart disease and diabetes).
"A great deal of the dietary and lifestyle habits that lead to being overweight also contribute to chronic inflammation in the body," notes Michelle Schoffro Cook, DNM, holistic nutritionist and author of The Life Force Diet. By the same token, taking steps to achieve and maintain a healthy weight may help tame chronic inflammation, according to Randy Horwitz, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the University of Arizona's Program in Integrative Medicine. "Many pro-inflammatory chemicals are secreted by our fat cells," he explains. "So by losing weight, it may be possible to reverse this pro-inflammatory chemical release."
For help in cooling chronic inflammation while shedding pounds, try making these changes to your daily health routine:
1. Follow an anti-inflammatory diet. To guard against inflammation, stick to an eating plan modeled after the Mediterranean diet. Focus on vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables (averaging nine servings a day); opt for whole grains like oats, quinoa, and barley instead of the refined variety (including those found in white bread and white rice); choose nuts, seeds, and olive oil over unhealthy fats found in butter and commercially baked goods; and snub red meat for fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (known to combat inflammation). In a 2008 research review, investigators concluded that Mediterranean diets help ease inflammation and may help prevent both obesity and inflammation-related conditions (such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome).
Adhering to a Mediterranean-inspired diet can also help you keep your focus on whole foods. "In general, you should avoid the three P's processed, packaged, and prepared foods. which tend to be loaded with food additives, trans fats, and other chemicals shown to cause inflammation," says Cook. "Most people eat about 124 pounds of food additives annually, which is a huge volume of chemicals that really have no place in our bodies," she adds. "Just cutting those out reduces inflammation dramatically for many people." Cooking with anti-inflammatory herbs like ginger and turmeric may further fight off inflammation, according to Cook.
2. Get moving. A crucial component of any weight-loss or weight-maintenance program, regular exercise has been found to reduce inflammation in several studies. In a 2002 study of 13,748 adults, for instance, researchers found that physically active participants were less likely to have elevated levels of C-reactive protein. Aim for a half-hour of moderate-intensity exercise (such as walking, swimming, or cycling) five days a week, paired with twice weekly strength-training sessions (including eight to ten exercises per session). If you're looking to lose weight, you may need to bump up your cardio workouts to 60 or even 90 minutes.
3. Try yoga. Sticking to a regular yoga practice may help ward off chronic inflammation, according to a 2010 study of 50 women (average age: 41). Compared with yoga novices, study participants who had practiced yoga one or two times weekly for at least two years had lower levels of a pro-inflammatory substance called interleukin-6.
4. Keep your stress in check. A number of studies show that high stress levels may contribute to chronic inflammation, as well as raise your risk of weight gain. While it's impossible to cut stress out of your life altogether, you can tame your tension by adopting a daily stress management routine. Find a practice that clears your head and gives you joy, such as going for a walk while listening to relaxing music, or taking a bath infused with soothing essential oils, and devote at least 20 minutes to that activity each day. For help in gaining calm in the midst of a stressful situation, take a minute for some slow, deep breathing.
5. Sleep more soundly. Skimping on sleep, even for just one night, can trigger inflammation, a 2008 study suggests. In tests on healthy adults, scientists found that sleep disturbance led to a spike in the participants' levels of nuclear factor (NF)-ÎºB (known to play a key role in the inflammatory response). To make sure you're getting your eight hours of sleep each night, stick to a regular bedtime and take at least a half-hour to wind down with a calming activity (such as reading or doing a few gentle yoga moves) before you hit the sack.