Chronic inflammation: How to put out the fire
Just like wildfires devastating the American West, inflammation can spread through your body and wreak havoc. But in many areas, wildfires aren't always a completely destructive element; they're part of the natural cycle of life, helping clear out pests while fertilizing the ground so that fresh life can bloom. And sometimes in the body, well, inflammation is much the same.
Acute inflammation (a sudden marshaling of the immune response in reaction to a specific assault) is an essential part of your body's ever-vigilant fight against invading toxins, microbes and injuries. Without it, you would become ill from every passing infection or wound.
However, when inflammation is whipped into overdrive because of inactivity, excess weight, a diet loaded with foods such as added sugars and processed grains, and the great flame-thrower stress, then you've got chronic inflammation. And that ups the likelihood you'll develop a chronic ailment like diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, dementia, depression, osteoarthritis, persistent pain, cancer or an autoimmune condition such as multiple sclerosis, thyroid disease or rheumatoid arthritis.
Recently the role of inflammation in chronic disease has been in the news because of the Canakinumab Anti-inflammatory Thrombosis Outcomes Study (CANTOS). It was designed to explore the effect of an inflammation-reducing monoclonal antibody on heart attacks and other atherosclerotic events. Researchers found that reducing body-wide inflammation without lowering LDL cholesterol levels did protect people who had already had a heart attack from having another. As a bonus, they also discovered that reducing chronic inflammation helps lower the risk of dying from diagnosed lung cancer.
But what is chronic inflammation? When a cell is in distress (say, it's persistently being challenged by excess glucose in your bloodstream, accumulated fat in your belly or chemicals from tobacco smoke), it sends out signals for help. Chemicals from your immune system's white blood cells (B cells) increase blood flow to the distressed area, and inflammatory proteins called cytokines rush to help. That's the way it's supposed to be. But when the cell's distress is chronic, this response is repeated over and over, further inflaming cells in your blood vessels or organs, creating a vicious cycle. In heart disease, for example, a repeated inflammatory response to excess cholesterol in the bloodstream causes repeated buildup of plaque along blood vessel walls, making cardiovascular problems even greater.
Here's what to do about chronic inflammation: The monoclonal antibody used in the CANTOS study may one day provide treatment options for people dealing with heart disease or cancer, but it will be a long time before it's something that you can use to overcome damage to your body from destructive lifestyle choices. But you can reduce chronic inflammation on your own.
1. Avoid highly processed foods.
2. Eliminate added sugars and syrups from your diet.
3. Eat the rainbow: Every day, eat around nine servings of fruits and vegetables that are a mix of orange-red, yellow, green and purple-blue.
4. Eat good-for-you fats: extra-virgin olive oil and omega-3, -7 and -9 fatty acids. Omega-3 is found in fish and walnuts; omega-7 in salmon, anchovies and olive, macadamia and sea buckthorn oils; and omega-9 is in olive, cashew, almond, avocado and peanut oil, and in walnuts.
5. Choose only 100 percent whole grains.
6. Eat high-quality protein, such as salmon and ocean trout; legumes and brown rice; and nonfat dairy. Avoid red and processed meats.
7. Limit alcohol intake to one drink a day for women and two a day for men.
Additional ways to put out the fire within:
n Stop smoking if you smoke, and avoid all second- and third-hand smoke.
n Get 10,000 steps a day, and two to three 30-minute sessions of strength-building weekly.
n Ask your doc about taking an 81-mg aspirin twice a day with half a glass of warm water before and after.
n Meditate for 10 minutes daily.
n Make sure to get seven to eight hours of restful sleep nightly.
The You Docs' column runs in Wednesday's Extra.