Inflammation has a bad reputation, but it can be a good thing, too. When the body is injured or invaded by pathogens, inflammation represents one of the first lines of defense. The pain, swelling and redness result from the body focusing its energy to heal itself.
But inflammation certainly has a dark side. Acute inflammation results when you injure yourself and subsides when that injury is healed. Undesirable prolonged inflammation, or chronic inflammation, reflects a malfunction in this important immune mechanism and can lead to some of our most life-threatening conditions, including cancer, autoimmune disorders, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
So it’s important to recognize the yin and yang of this vital function: Inflammation both protects health and may threaten it. Ultimately, we need to find the ideal balance. And with temperatures warming up, it’s critical to address this issue; chronic inflammation tends to worsen with the heat. Reducing inflammation can also help us reduce seasonal allergies and boost detoxification.
There are a number of risk factors for chronic inflammation. These include: long-term infection, poor diet, toxins, heavy metals, smoking, stress, exhaustion and obesity. These factors put the body on high alert, even when an alert is unnecessary. Consequently, the constant flow of inflammatory cell signals produce a cumulative effect that can significantly damage health over time. For example, it can scramble DNA, interfere with cellular communications, impair immunity and create an environment that allows tumors to grow.
To eliminate chronic inflammation, we must reduce these underlying factors and support the body’s natural anti-inflammatory mechanisms. We need to tell the body to stand down.
Extra pounds are bad for health, but how that fat is deposited on the body can be just as important as the actual BMI (body mass index). A number of studies have shown that visceral fat, the stuff in our midsection, profoundly impacts inflammation. To make matters worse, the hormone cortisol, which increases stress, joins forces with visceral fat to produce inflammatory immune cells called cytokines.
However, being thin is not necessarily any better. Eating pro-inflammatory foods can also throw your system off balance even if you are physical fit. That’s why we should all stay away from processed foods and control our intake of sugar and trans fats. In particular, processed, fried and grilled foods are high in advanced glycation end products (glycotoxins), which promote oxidation and inflammation.
One study, conducted by researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, outlined how dietary changes can have a profound impact on inflammation and health. Two groups were assigned separate diets. One ate a normal Western diet, high in glycotoxins. The other was asked to poach, stew or steam their meals, processes that produce fewer glycotoxins. After four months, the latter group showed dramatic reductions in inflammatory markers and had other indications of improved cardiovascular and metabolic health. In addition, a protein that helps clear these toxic compounds increased, restoring the body’s normal protective mechanisms.
Fight With Food
These results are no surprise. Making good food choices can be a one-two punch against inflammation. First, as the Mount Sinai study indicates, we need to reduce the amount of processed and overcooked foods we eat. But we should also be mindful of what we’re eating: lean protein, foods with omega-3 fatty acids such as chia and walnuts, sprouted whole grains, fruits and vegetables — particularly the green leafy variety. These foods tend to be very high in antioxidants, which will help counteract the effects of both glycotoxins and inflammatory cytokines.
Eat more phytonutrients, which tend to be high in antioxidants and include other health-promoting compounds. Richly colored fruits, like tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, are excellent sources. I also recommend cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, cabbage and cauliflower. Once eaten, these vegetables metabolize into a phytonutrient known as DIM (3, 3’- diindolylmethane), which has been found to control inflammation, modulate estrogen metabolism and even combat cancer.
There is also evidence that probiotics may reduce chronic inflammation. Too many unhealthy microbes in the gut can force the body to respond to the potential danger, again leading to inflammation. Probiotic foods, such as yogurt, pickles, sauerkraut, miso and kimchi, help maintain the balance of friendly flora in our digestive tract and are shown to help reduce inflammation.
Inflammation is interesting because it’s a link in a chain of causes and effects. At the end of the chain is disease. But the chain starts with our hyper busy lifestyles. Because we are so overextended, we neglect the routines that could otherwise maintain our health: preparing healthy meals (rather than grabbing whatever we can find), getting a good night’s sleep, exercising and finding a few quiet moments to simply do nothing.
Given this frenetic approach, it’s no wonder we’re stressed. Even worse, chronic stress floods our bodies with cortisol, the stress hormone associated with the fight or flight reflex, which we’ve already noted has a direct link to inflammation.
So we all need to slow down and find time for self-care. But it’s also important to turn off (or at least turn down) the switch on stress. Adopt practices that promote calm: yoga, Tai Chi, long walks, swimming. Each of us needs to find the practice that works best. It isn’t easy. We have become so attuned to our fast pace, it can be difficult to wind down. In fact, it may be something we have to relearn.
These practices, and many others, have a dual purpose. First, they help quiet the mind and reduce the fear response. But they’re also excellent exercises that can help us reduce weight and mitigate other factors associated with inflammation.
Another way to reduce stress is by incorporating short meditation sessions into the day. This can be as elaborate as lying down on a couch and listening to a preferred meditation tape or as simple as gently gazing at an object for five or 10 minutes and working to focus on the breath. Calming the mind helps reduce cortisol levels and restore its natural calm.
And don’t forget to rest. Sleep is the body’s natural path to rejuvenation. Even if we eat well, exercise and do all the other things we know are good for our health, lack of sleep can undo all of it. Nothing good ever comes from having a sleep deficit.
Detoxifiers And Antioxidants
In addition to cytokines, there are a number of other proteins that can cause inflammation, which is not necessarily a bad thing if the inflammatory response is measured. But it’s up to us to keep these processes under control. One of these inflammatory proteins, called galectin-3, has been associated with cancer and heart disease, as well as chronic inflammation.
A supplement that can help control galectin-3 levels is modified citrus pectin (MCP). With its small molecular size, MCP can travel throughout the body and bind to galectin-3 molecules. A number of clinical studies have shown that it reduces the ill effects of this pro-inflammatory compound. By reducing galectin-3 levels, and the inflammation it causes, MCP has been found to fight cancer, heart disease and a number of other conditions.
Inflammation is also profoundly oxidative. There are a wide variety of antioxidant supplements that can help: alpha lipoic acid, glutathione, acetyl l-carnitine, vitamin C and botanicals like curcumin, quercetin and honokiol. These supplements effectively neutralize free radicals and the damage they can cause.
As an integrative physician, my primary goal is to treat the root causes of any condition while boosting overall health, rather than responding only to the disease or simply alleviating the symptoms. Because inflammation is the underlying cause for so many health issues, addressing it takes on a special urgency. Still, it’s difficult for you to completely overhaul you lifestyle overnight. Find little refinements that undercut inflammation: Eat more vegetables, increase your activity levels, reduce processed foods and practice brief meditations. Over time, gradually add new healthy practices and augment existing ones. By doing this, you help the body put out its inflammatory fires and improve overall vitality.