What is chronic inflammation and are you at risk?
Do you know what heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, stroke and cancer have in common? Scientists have linked each of these to a condition known as chronic inflammation, and they are studying how high-fat foods and excess body weight may increase the risk for fatal disorders.
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to injury and outside irritants. But when the irritants are persistent, the immune system can spin out of control and increase the risk for disease. Current research suggests that when inflammation becomes chronic it can damage heart valves and brain cells, trigger strokes, and promote resistance to insulin, which leads to diabetes. The latest research suggests that inflammation is also associated with the development of cancer.
Much of the research on chronic inflammation has focused on fighting it with drugs, like cholesterol-lowering statins for heart disease. A growing body of research is now revealing how abdominal fat and an unhealthy diet can lead to inflammation. Some scientists are investigating how certain components in foods might help – an anti-inflammatory diet, if you will.
A recent study found that dietary fiber from whole grains, for instance, may play a protective role against inflammation.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), our bodies need to have inflammation when we have a wound and the immune system goes in to heal it. Yet we don’t want too much inflammation in our system because of the damage it can cause.
One significant discovery concerns obesity and the ways it promotes inflammation. Fat cells, particularly those that settle in the belly and around organs, were thought to merely store excess weight. Instead, we now know that fat cells act like small factories producing molecules known as cytokines, which set inflammation in motion. The most important step people can take is to lose excess weight, which can reduce inflammation in a matter of just weeks or months.
How Do You Know?
A simple blood test can help determine inflammation in the body by measuring a substance known as C-reactive protein. A report published in Archives of Internal Medicine in 2007, which analyzed results of 33 separate studies, found that losing weight could lower C-reactive protein levels. For each 2-pound weight loss whether by dieting, exercise or surgery, the mean reduction in C-reactive protein among participants was 0.13 milligram per liter.
According to the American Heart Association, a C-reactive protein level of:
• less than 1 mg/L indicates a low risk of cardiovascular disease
• 1 to 3 mg/L indicates moderate risk
• greater than 3 mg/L equals high risk
Doctors are increasingly ordering the test for patients at moderate risk for heart disease.
A number of nutritionists and physicians have been working together to develop anti-inflammatory diets. They are based on both the Mediterranean diet and a Healthy Eating Pyramid developed at Harvard University and encourage consuming whole-grain foods, unsaturated fats such as plant oils, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, poultry, eggs and moderate amounts of dairy foods. They also suggest avoiding red meat, butter, sweets and white foods such as rice, potatoes and pasta as much as possible.
The American Heart Association also recommends consuming both omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish like salmon and canola oil, and omega-6 fatty acids, found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils. Investigators are still studying the roles each may play in promoting or controlling inflammation; however, new research funded by the NIH is looking at the relationship of diet, inflammation and cancer.
We are a nation at risk, but the good news is that with dietary changes, exercise and a conscientious effort, you can reduce your risk of inflammation and the diseases associated with it.