To Your Health / Apr/May 2012
Experts now believe there’s a common culprit behind our most deadly diseases - inflammation.
Chronic inflammation can lead to a host of diseases, such as acid reflux, acne, asthma, diabetes, periodontitis, high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, cancer and more.
Under normal circumstances, inflammation is part of the immune reaction that helps the body heal when injured. When you slice your finger cutting onions, blood vessels near the accident scene expand. That clears the way for the entrance of white blood cells, good guys who annihilate any bacteria that sneak in on the knife blade. They also mend ragged tissue by ordering in new cells to seal the cut. By the time the signs of inflammation kick in - heat, soreness, and swelling - the wound is well on its way to healing.
Still, like an inconsiderate houseguest, inflammation can overstay its welcome. Medical researchers discovered long ago that certain diseases, such as lupus, Graves’ disease, and fibromyalgia, emerge when the immune system flips on and refuses to turn off. And a new theory paints an even broader picture of how other killers gain a foothold when inflammation runs amok.
Until the early 1990s, experts believed that heart disease, specifically atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), resulted when sticky plaque glommed on to smooth artery walls, causing the arterial passageway to narrow. A heart attack was thought to be the end-case scenario, a blood clot finally plugging the last remaining opening in the dam. But, as it turns out, the process is more complex than that.
Experts now know that arteries aren’t smooth pipes lined with white globs of gluey fat. Instead they are dynamic, multilayered tissue structures. Arteries do absorb LDL (bad) cholesterol from the bloodstream. But instead of sticking to the artery wall, LDL seeps between the tissue layers and festers, like an angry plaque-filled blister. The body triggers an inflammatory response to contain the damage and the artery swells, constricting blood flow to the heart. Disaster finally strikes when the plaque bursts and debris barricades the artery.
As for diabetes, it’s often related to how much fat a person carries around on his or her frame. Fat cells ooze inflammation-boosting proteins called cytokines, so more fat equals more inflammation. Over time, too many circulating cytokines dampen the body’s ability to monitor insulin production. Eventually the body’s efforts falter, and the gate swings open for Type 2 diabetes. (It’s no coincidence that rates of the disease are nudging upward in unison with America’s belt size.)
Chronic inflammation in the body also causes cells to oxidize, which may trigger a cascade of cancerous mutations. In fact, Bruce Ames, a biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley and former board member of the
National Cancer Institute, thinks inflammation is responsible for up to 30 percent of all cancers. Scary stuff for sure, but fortunately, experts are also learning more about some simple ways to reduce inflammation. Exercise and stress relief are important, but the best defense, most researchers agree, is through diet.
Most foods either fuel the fires of inflammation or tamp them down. And fat is the crux of the issue. The goal is to eat a small amount of inflammatory fats (mainly omega-6s, as found in meat, eggs and dairy from grain-fed animals, safflower, sunflower, and corn oil) and a higher amount of anti-inflammatory fats (like omega-3s and omega-9s, which olive oil contains). But most people chow down on up to 30 times more inflammatory fats than anti-inflammatory. “The typical American diet is priming people for inflammation,” says Jack Challem, author of “The Inflammation Syndrome.” “It’s like sitting in a parked car with your foot on the gas. Eventually you’ll overheat.”
The good news is that dozens of foods, herbs, and spices are proven to rev up the body’s ability to stamp out inflammatory hot spots. For evidence, one needn’t look further than studies of rheumatoid arthritis. In one published last January in Rheumatology International, patients who followed an anti-inflammatory diet had a 14 percent decrease in joint tenderness and swelling compared to those who ate a typical Western diet. Omega-3 supplements goosed the results even further, bringing the final tally of those feeling an improvement up to 31 percent.
Get Friendly With Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic (EPA and DHA) are potent anti-inflammatories. Good sources are wild-caught fish and grass-fed meat. The body can make its own EPA and DHA from the omega-3 fat found in plant sources such as flaxseed, soybeans, and walnuts.
Embrace Your Inner Herbivore
For a simple way to make sure you’re eating enough plant-based foods, Melanie Polk, a registered dietitian at the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C., suggests using your dinner plate as a measuring tool. Ideally, two-thirds of the plate or more should be covered with fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and/or beans.
Cut Back On Refined Foods
Foods high in sugar are also a problem, especially when eaten between meals, since they cause a surge in blood sugar. To re-establish balance, the pancreas lets out a gush of insulin, which in turn switches on the genes involved in inflammation. This biochemical roller coaster is thought to contribute to the onset of Type 2 diabetes.
How To Find Out If You’re Inflamed
Take the test. Inflammation is measured by a marker called C-reactive protein or CRP. As inflammation creeps up, so do CRP levels in the blood. A blood test to measure levels of CRP is inexpensive ($25 to $30) and extremely reliable. Patients with autoimmune disease and cancer often have high CRP levels, but the test is making headlines for its ability to uncover heart disease in otherwise healthy-looking people. Those who have the most to gain from being tested are people at moderate risk (poor diet plus a lack of exercise) with otherwise healthy-looking cholesterol levels. If you already know you’re at high risk for heart disease, the test probably won’t tell you anything new.