Researchers are still discovering just how important of a role inflammation plays in our health. A recent study, for example, shows that inflammation is a crucial and dangerous step in the development of obesity. While we often think of inflammation as a painful part of arthritis, it is also a newly recognized factor in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even cancer. Below you’ll find what you can do to help keep your chronic inflammation in check.
A Fiery Problem
Inflammation is the process in which the body’s white blood cells protect us from injury, infection, and irritation. Think of white blood cells as policemen, constantly patrolling and searching for anything harmful, dangerous, or unknown. When they detect something, say a virus or an injury, they immediately rush to the site of the attack to help start the healing. This protective process causes pain and swelling when you bump your head, redness and itching when you get a bug bite, and sneezing and aching when you suffer from the flu. However, like a thoughtless houseguest, inflammation can overstay its welcome.
“Chronic inflammation can increase our risk of disease because our immune system has to continually deal with the inflammation”, says Nancy Appleton, Ph.D, author of Stopping Inflammation (Square One, 2004). If our immune system is preoccupied with removing inflammation, it may not be able to help us with our body’s other problems.
In fact, scientists have long known that certain autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and lupus, emerge when inflammation runs amok. Now researchers say that chronic inflammation may also be at the root of many other chronic diseases.
The severity of inflammation can be measured by testing for C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood, a protein produced by the liver during inflammation. Studies indicate that people with high levels of CRP seem to have a greater risk of heart disease and stroke due to damage to their blood vessels. And people with elevated blood sugar and CRP levels may be at an even higher risk.
Chronic inflammation also has a cancer connection. “Inflammation can damage genes, leading to increased cell turnover (which provides more opportunities for a change in DNA), and may increase development of blood vessels that make it easier for cancer cells to grow and spread”, says Karen Collins, registered dietitian and nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Studies, Collins relates, “have especially linked colon cancer, as well as cancers of the stomach, esophagus, liver, breast, and prostate with markers of inflammation. However, if the current understanding of the reason inflammation increases cancer risk holds up, it would be reasonable to expect systemic inflammation to increase overall risk of virtually all cancers.”
As for diabetes and inflammation, it’s really ‘the chicken or the egg’ type of situation. Researchers are still trying to verify whether diabetes increases inflammation, or whether inflammation leads to diabetes. Though the diabetes-inflammation correlation is not yet fully understood, one thing certainly is, chronic inflammation is really bad for you. The question is: what can you do about this fiery situation?
A Soothing Solution
You can help keep chronic inflammation at bay by making some basic lifestyle changes. And as an added bonus these anti-inflammation adjustments will not only help reduce your risk of disease, but also help you develop better habits.
- The first change to make? Lose the fat. If you could stand to shed some extra padding from your waistline and backside, now’s the time to get serious about slimming down. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best ways to stave off chronic inflammation. According to Collins, “when people are overweight, fat cells enlarge and produce proteins that stimulate inflammation. And the accumulation of fat in the liver, which occurs when we gain body fat, can also stimulate the secretion of inflammatory substances.” Basically, extra fat fuels an inflammation response in people. So too much of you, can lead to too much inflammation.
But shedding extra pounds is only part of the inflammation battle. The following are also important parts of your soothing solution:
- Eat like a Mediterranean. A diet loaded with antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits, and fiber-rich whole grains and beans seems to reduce and even prevent inflammation. Study after study has linked Mediterranean-style diets with lower levels of CRP (hint: lower CRP means lower inflammation). Integrated physician Elson Haas, the founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin has seen similar results with a plant-based diet. “When I have someone follow a diet that is very high in fruits and veggies, their inflammation goes way down rather quickly. This type of diet will also help reduce symptoms and disease, and especially the chronic problems that most westerners face.”
- Boost your Omega 3’s. A Mediterranean diet also tends to be higher than the typical American diet in omega-3 fats. Found in higher-fat fish like salmon, as well as canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseeds, a healthy balance of omega-3’s with other fats reduces the production of hormone-like substances that stimulate inflammation.
- Get off your Duff. Studies also show that those who exercise regularly tend to have lower levels of inflammation. Exercising is also an excellent way to help maintain a healthy weight, another important inflammation-reducing strategy.
- Avoid Smoking. Chances are you don’t sport a pack-a day-habit if you’re reading this article, but just in case you do, find a way to kick the habit for good. Not smoking, along with healthy mouth care, plays a large role in decreasing inflammation.
Making these inflammation-savvy lifestyle changes will not only help you combat inflammation, but also help you live a longer, healthier life.
What about Supplements?
Supplements like glucosamine, sulfur, and chondroitin are available for inflammation, but keep in mind they only alleviate inflammation symptoms. Supplements don’t address the underlying causes of the inflammation, as making the aforementioned lifestyle changes would. Supplementing your diet with a good multivitamin, however, ensures you get the right level of nutrients you need everyday. And if you’re not a fish fan, you should take a fish-oil pill that supplies 500 to 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA combined.
By H.K. Jones, R.D.
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