Chronic inflammation can progress unnoticed for years. Sure, there can be symptoms, like fatigue,brain fog, increased wrinkles, aches and pains. But most people write these off as normal signs of aging. Acute, short term inflammation is different – we notice it right away since it’s a rapid response to injury and infection, and cools down as the body repairs itself. Ongoing inflammation on the other hand, advances over time with things like stress, toxins and pro-inflammatory foods, inactivity, weight gain and numerous other factors. And unlike the acute variety, chronic inflammation can lead to a wide range of serious health problems.
To put it in perspective, virtually all major degenerative diseases involve chronic inflammatory processes in the body. Heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, kidney conditions and neurodegenerative diseases, particularly Alzheimer’s — they all have direct links to long term inflammation.
While all of this can be worrisome, it can also be somewhat reassuring because it gives us an effective therapeutic target. Now that we understand the importance of treating chronic inflammation, we can address it using natural approaches.
Inflammation’s Split Personality
When we stub a toe, or encounter dangerous bacteria or other threats to the system, the body responds with inflammatory proteins, called cytokines, which isolate the injury or pathogen and begin repairs. This is designed to be a rapid response that addresses the problem and then recedes.
Unfortunately, modern lifestyles can trigger acute inflammation that turns chronic over time, essentially tricking the body into thinking it’s always under attack. Long term exposure to toxins and heavy metals, low grade infections, digestive problems, food sensitivities and allergies, chemicals in processed foods, chronic stress, smoking and obesity can all act like injuries to the body. Over time, the constant flow of cytokines and other inflammatory proteins wreaks havoc on cells and tissues. It’s as if we’re continually stubbing our toe over and over—as long as the body perceives an issue, it will respond with inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is dangerous because it can damage cells and tissues the same way heat and friction degrade materials over time. It scrambles cells signals, mutates DNA, threatens cardiovascular health, impairs immunity, acidifies the body, fuels fibrosis (uncontrolled scar tissue build-up) and promotes cancer cell growth and metastasis.
The inflammatory process also produces highly reactive forms of oxygen and nitrogen, which can directly damage our genes. But it gets worse. Inflammation can also turn off mechanisms associated with DNA repair. Damaged DNA can lead to many different health issues, most notably cancer and reproductive problems. So it’s critical we find ways to put out these fires that can burn uncontrolled throughout the body.
Cooling the Summer Heat
Chronic inflammation is a problem all year long. However, we can really do damage during the summer months. Hot weather and excess sun can dehydrate us and stress the cardiovascular system, which in turn can hinder circulation and make chronic inflammation even worse.
However, other favorite summertime activities can have inflammatory results. Take for example, grilling.
The process of charring meat and other food produces a variety of toxic chemicals, such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs).These compounds have been shown to cause cancer in animals, particularly pancreatic, colorectal and prostate cancers. Another dangerous family of chemicals is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are produced by burning fat. The smoke that hits us full force as we stand over the grill is full of PAHs, which can go deep into our lungs. PAHs are also associated with cancer.
Another grilling danger is the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), particularly in grilled meats. In addition to being highly inflammatory, these compounds have a negative effect on the cardiovascular system, blood sugar regulation, and cellular health and accelerate the aging process.
Longer daylight hours can translate into less sleep. Sunburns also generate an inflammatory response. The warmer weather also means more allergies, which are highly inflammatory. Essentially, the fun of summertime can quickly produce a fiery cocktail of risk factors that can lead to chronic illness down the road. It’s a good time to cool off with anti-inflammatory foods, supplements and health promoting practices.
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet
There are many things we can do to help mitigate inflammation this time of year. The first is incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into our diet, which are more abundant during spring and summer seasons.
First, let’s address the grilling issue. Marinades and antioxidant herbs like rosemary help protect meats from high heat damage, limiting the production of inflammatory compounds. They also control fat drippings, a big factor in grill smoke. Try pre-cooking before putting an item on the grill. This can be especially helpful for chicken and other cuts that take longer to cook.
Be sure to steer away from processed foods, trans-fats, sugar and alcohol. On the other hand, there are many foods that can help us keep inflammation at bay. Start with lean proteins, sprouted whole grains and lots of organic fruits and vegetables. One of summer’s many advantages is the increased availability of fresh produce. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables tend to be high in antioxidants and phytonutrients to help to alkalinize and cool inflammation in the body: Peppers, carrots, melons, greens, tomatoes, summer squash, cherries and berries are good examples.
Omega-3 fatty acids from sources like wild sardines, flax and chia seeds and walnuts also help fight inflammation. Green tea is a wonderful anti-inflammatory beverage to incorporate, with multiple health promoting benefits. A squeeze of fresh lemon in your water adds a refreshing and alkalinizing effect, important for reducing inflammation.
While making that savory marinade, include a number of anti-inflammatory spices for additional protection. For centuries, many spices have led a double life as both food and medicine, and research shows that many of them contain powerful anti-inflammatory compounds.
- Ginger shares a number of mechanisms generally found in non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Cox1 and Cox 2 inhibitors. Ginger also turns off genes associated with inflammation.
- Rosemary has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, boosts immunity and can improve circulation.
- Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which has been shown to reduce inflammation throughout the body.
- Oregano, in addition to reducing inflammation, is a rich source for antioxidants and antimicrobial compounds.
- Garlic has been proven to help people suffering from arthritis, and contains sulfur compounds that inhibit inflammation.
In addition to everyday herbs and spices, there are other medicinal herbs that can help protect against chronic inflammation while providing additional health benefits. Boswellia and willow bark are two good examples.
I also recommend a supplement derived from the pith of citrus peels, called modified citrus pectin (MCP). This unique ingredient has an affinity for the inflammatory protein galectin-3. A number of studies have linked elevated galectin-3 levels to cancer, heart disease, chronic inflammation and fibrosis of organs and tissues. Galectin-3 levels can also be tested with a simple blood test for the screening of cardiovascular disease. MCP works by binding to excess galectin-3 and blocking its pro-inflammatory and pro-cancer effects. MCP is also an excellent detoxifier, safely removing heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the role of friendly bacteria in our bodies. Turns out they influence more than digestion, assisting with immunity, nutrient absorption, weight control, and even emotional wellbeing.
The bacteria in our guts have also been linked to inflammation. Several studies have shown that probiotics can help reduce inflammation in the gut. There is also evidence that probiotics can reduce the inflammation associated with psoriasis and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics: Yogurt, kefir, kimchee, sauerkraut, and miso. It’s also a good idea to incorporate prebiotic nutrients, found in prebiotic supplements as well foods like asparagus, dandelion greens, onion, garlic, burdock root and others. Prebiotics feed beneficial bacteria and encourage their growth in the digestive tract.
Whether we like it or not, our bodies aren’t well-suited for our hyper-busy lifestyles. Chronic stress, lack of sleep and mental/emotional burn out increase stress hormones that can fuel chronic inflammation. While slowing down is easier said than done, it’s critically important in order to tamp down inflammatory stress hormones.
The first step is to exercise more. We should all be walking at least 30 minutes a day. Some of us may adopt more strenuous workouts, which is okay — but don’t overdo it. For reducing inflammation, gentle exercise trumps workouts that are hard on the body. Walks in nature are especially beneficial, as they can help calm the mind. In addition to reducing stress, consistent activity can help keep our weight in check, since excess body fat has a strong link to inflammation.
Meditation is also a great way to reduce stress. Even just a few minutes in the afternoon, perhaps right after lunch, can help reset our minds and leave us refreshed for the rest of the day. Getting enough sleep is also key.
Hot Health Topic
Chronic inflammation is associated with so many dangerous conditions as well as premature aging in general, that it has become a “hot topic” in the health world today. But the focus on inflammation may also be due to the fact that again, it points us to a substantial therapeutic target. By making a few lifestyle adjustments, we can put out the fires of chronic inflammation and reap the benefits of more energy, greater mental clarity, improved mood, better immunity and long-term protection against chronic disease.