Clearly, the most forward looking medical research is now showing that there are two key underpinnings to the development of chronic disease as we age – how the body handles sugar and chronic inflammation. If you can make your body alter these seemingly simple processes then your chances of suffering from practically every disease of aging are significantly reduced, even in the face of strong genetic ties to a particular malady. The development of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, auto-immune diseases (MS, Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, etc.), many cancers and the continuation of life-changing issues like migraine headaches, sleep disturbances, allergies and hormonal imbalances, to name a few, are all actually the body doing exactly what it is supposed to do based on the influences of our diet and lifestyles and how we handle stress. In other words, our bodies develop diseases ultimately in an attempt to save our lives. Inflammation is a perfect example of this process in action. The inflammatory response is our body’s way of preserving life under certain conditions and/or when specific events occur. The simplest example I can use to explain the process is when you turn your ankle. Imagine you are walking along and you step off of the curb awkwardly and twist your ankle. Here is a look at what occurs biochemically inside your body when this happens… 1) Tissue damage occurs – in this case the ligaments and tendons surrounding the ankle joint are stretched and maybe even tear, 2) This causes the release of chemicals (cytokines and chemoattractants) that signal the activation of the immune system, 3) Immune cells are transported into the local area where they look for foreign invaders and attract other cells. One of the ways that this happens is for blood vessels to become “leaky” allowing for immune cells to get from the blood vessel to the space around damaged tissue, 4) These other cells may increase blood flow to the area (swelling) and break down damaged tissue to be removed and rebuild new tissue. From the outside, the results of this process are the 4 hallmarks of the inflammatory response… redness, swelling, pain and heat. Once the damage is repaired then the inflammatory response is halted and function returns to normal. As a side note, in the above example, taking an anti-inflammatory drug (like aspirin or Motrin) in this instance actually interferes with the body’s attempt to repair damage… and the result can be weaker tissue that is now more susceptible to further injury and damage. The “injury” that causes this inflammatory response can be physical, as I just described, or it can be chemical or biological instead. Some sort of invader from the outside world, like a virus or bacteria or yeast, results in the very same cascade of events inside the body. Or, some irritating chemical, like pollen or mercury, for example, causes the same biochemical process. Unfortunately, the outside “indicators” that this is happening are not as readily recognized… more on this later. In an ideal world, the “trigger” of inflammation happens, the process runs it’s course, and then the body returns to normal function. But what happens when the trigger never goes away? Or what if the body’s inflammatory response is out of balance because of genetics and factors from the outside world? What happens is the potential development of every chronic disease that we are trying to avoid as we age. One major cause of an excessive inflammatory response is the imbalance of fats in our diet. Basically, fats can be broken down into 2 categories – Pro-inflammatory (ones that lead to inflammation) known as Omega-6 fats, and Anti-inflammatory (ones that fight inflammation) known as Omega-3 fats. Both are important, because as described, inflammation is life preserving. But when out of balance, chronic inflammation leads to unhealthy aging. Up until around 100 years ago our diets provided a ratio of pro- to anti-inflammatory fats somewhere between 1:1 to 2:1. Today, in the Standard American Diet (SAD), that ratio is more like 20:1. The reason for this is that pro-inflammatory fats come from vegetable oils like corn, sunflower and safflower, which make up the majority of fats that we consume. Furthermore, the way that we feed our livestock (namely corn instead of grass) has resulted in alterations in the balance of fats in the animals that we eat. So eating commercially produced beef and chicken (not grass-fed) causes a further imbalance of the fats. So the combination of these various factors has created a “perfect storm,” leading to the proliferation of chronic disease and a health care crisis that isn’t likely to go away any time soon. In fact, my personal belief is that the business of medicine thrives on this fact. The vast majority of prescription medicines on the market today are designed to treat symptoms, not causes. And this simple fact feeds the machine that keeps the public dependent upon their doctors and enslaved to visits and tests and pills; which only lead to more expensive tests, more frequent visits and more pills to take. If you care to get off of that particular merry-go-round, then there are a few simple steps to take… first, evaluate if underlying inflammation is an issue with you in the first place, and then understand the underlying causes and change your habits. How do you know if your body is geared towards inappropriate inflammation? First, ask yourself a simple question… how is your health? If you are suffering from any sort of chronic health condition, chances are that inflammation is to some degree responsible. And please don’t be among the millions that think that they are healthy while taking a prescription medicine. I have had patients describe themselves as perfectly healthy while taking any number of drugs. If you are taking something for a chronic disease, then a problem exists… period. The second way to evaluate underlying, unhealthy inflammation is by measuring a chemical in your blood called C-Reactive Protein. This protein is manufactured in the liver in response to inflammation and is a clear indicator of what is going on underneath the surface. High sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hsCRP) is one of the most important blood tests that we should look at when evaluating health. And detection of this may allow for adjustments to be made BEFORE diseases develop. What kind of alterations can be made in order to head this problem off? Well, some of these may seem obvious… but here is a list of things that have been clearly shown to lead to or exacerbate inflammation in the body, and how to change them…
- Change your diet… get more of the anti-inflammatory (omega-3) fats in your diet and less of the vegetable fats. This means fish that live in colder waters. Also… studies have shown that high glycemic index diets lead to inflammation – so decreasing the amounts of processed and refined carbohydrates will be helpful.
- Explore hidden food sensitivities… often times we are consuming foods that our body finds offensive without even realizing it. Having sensitivity to a component of a food, like gluten or casein or eggs or soy, will lead to inflammation that may not exhibit like a typical “allergy.” In my experience, food sensitivity testing is not reliable and the best way to discover issues is by systematically eliminating foods from the diet for a period of time and seeing what changes occur, including blood levels of CRP.
- Fix your gut… often times our gut is not working properly in it’s role of “gatekeeper” and denying absorption of certain chemicals or proteins into our bodies. These are the triggers that are causing inflammation. This can happen for various reasons – lack of good bacteria and stress being the biggest offenders.
- Get rid of excess fat… adipose tissue, especially visceral fat (around the organs), creates inflammation-inducing chemicals.
- Get moving… obviously, exercise helps the body use sugar more efficiently (lowering the glycemic effect of certain foods) and helps reduce body fat, especially around the middle. Additionally, active muscle use also causes the release of anti-inflammatory chemicals into the body.
- Reduce stress… the link between stress and development of chronic disease is known and accepted. But the underlying reasons are just now becoming clear – adrenal fatigue, and cortisol abnormalities, lead to inflammation.
- Attend to sleep… it is tremendously stressful to the body to not get quality sleep… and that results in the underlying inflammation that leads to everything we are trying to avoid as we age.
- Smoking? It pains me to have to even mention this because I believe that there is not a person in this country that smokes who doesn’t realize it is bad for them. Does understanding the biochemical reasons convince anyone not to smoke?