About four decades ago, as countries become more industrialised and we became more advanced, infectious diseases like influenza and tuberculosis started to decline.1 In their stead, we saw a dramatic rise of the diseases that are rampant today, like diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and countless more – which are believed to be a result of modern lifestyles.1
‘Inflammation’ is a significant reason behind the increased risk of getting these “lifestyle diseases” or “diseases of civilisation”.
Normally, inflammation is how we fight off infection and trauma. Problems begin to occur when our immune system, which is what governs inflammation, gets overactive.
Let’s take a look at why this can happen.
When the body feels a threat, like a wound, it produces pro-inflammatory compounds in that area itself – that’s when you see symptoms like redness, pain and swelling.
These compounds then orchestrate the entire process of fighting off the threat, like calling for and activating immune cells to the site of inflammation. In the case of a wound, they’d alert the platelets into making blood clots, to curb excess bleeding. Their activity also allows the white blood cells travelling in the bloodstream to identify the site of injury and reach it.2
After the threat has subsided, anti-inflammatory compounds are produced to make the inflammation subside, and restore everything to its normal state.
This process is known as acute inflammation.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always function as designed.
Unbalanced diets and other lifestyle factors can lead to a condition where various parts of the body have an unnatural increase of pro-inflammation compounds.2
As a result, immune cells are constantly sent to sites of inflammation. These cells, constantly accumulating in different tissue of the body, produce even more pro-inflammatory compounds, including free radicals that damage pathogens and cells alike.2, 3
This build-up of cells and compounds, along with the thickening and reddening of tissue, causes blockages (in, for example, blood vessels and airways). Prolonged stress also weakens your body.
This cycle of constant inflammation at a low level is called chronic inflammation or malflammation.
Inflammation and Disease
While chronic inflammation causes several day-to-day problems (for example, inflammation of the hair follicle causes hair loss), it also eventually adds up to cause diseases.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, allergies, arthritis, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.2
In fact, many cancers arise from sites of constant irritation and inflammation. It is now becoming clear that tumour formation and growth is largely orchestrated by inflammatory cells. But we are still far from understanding exactly how this occurs.4
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
Omega-6 fatty acids increase the pro-inflammatory response. Although we require some amount of them, the modern diet is a little too rich in Omega-6.
What’s worse is that our diet lacks Omega-3 fatty acids, which produce the anti-inflammatory compounds.
This imbalance between the Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio is what produces the surplus of pro-inflammatory compounds.
The amount of cells in the blood that mediate inflammation can be a great indicator of overall health. That’s why doctors often ask for the complete blood count (CBC), blood test, and tests for other pro-inflammatory compounds.
Studies have shown that inflammation indicators are higher in obese people and are lowered after weight loss. Today, obesity is considered as a state of low-grade inflammation.2, 5
Some small proteins produced by the inflammatory response have shown to induce insulin resistance, which causes type II diabetes. The free radicals generated during inflammation may also play a role in insulin resistance. That’s why people with rheumatoid arthritis (which is, essentially, a result of inflammation) have a higher risk of developing type II diabetes.5, 6
Obesity goes hand-in-hand with poor nutrition and inactivity, but these have also been found to independently cause inflammation.1, 5
The link between inflammation and stress, anxiety, and depression are also being established through studies.1
Reducing Chronic Inflammation
Refined grains and oils, sugary foods, alcoholic beverages and foods with bad fats (fast food and processed foods) are all associated with inflammation as well.
Here’s why a healthy, balanced diet is so important:
Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes and fish are all associated with lower inflammation because of they have compounds that act as antioxidants. For example, vitamin C, vitamin E and carotenoids have been shown to decrease the amount of indicators of inflammation in blood.2
Fatty-fish, seeds, nuts, avocadoes etc are all rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. Along with eating more of these, it’s also important to reduce your consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids (eg. industrial seed oils) to balance their ratio.
Healthy spices in your diet also help. For example, curcumin from turmeric has a long history of maintaining a healthy immune response, and also acts as an antioxidant.7
Eat in moderation – Even if you are a foodie, enjoy your food in portions that don’t cross into the unhealthy range; studies have shown that lowering energy intake is paramount to reducing inflammation.1
Exercise – Walking as little as an hour per week has been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease. So you can imagine what an hour of exercise per day can do. One study showed that women who engaged in 7 or more hours of moderate-to-vigorous activity per week had a lower risk of breast cancer. How much exercise you need to make a difference depends on how healthy your diet is and how you react to it.1, 8, 9
Sleep – The body needs sleep to repair itself. Poor sleep is associated with an increase in inflammation.1
With these changes, you can reduce inflammation and associated problems, for a healthier, happier lifestyle!
1. Egger G, Dixon J. BioMed Research International 2014, 2014: 731685.
2. Calder PC, et al. Br J Nutr 2011, 106 Suppl 3: S5-78.
3. Mittal M, et al. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling 2014, 20(7): 1126-1167.
4. Coussens LM, Werb Z. Nature 2002, 420(6917): 860-867.
5. Apostolopoulos V, et al. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research 2015: n/a-n/a.
6. Greenfield JR, Campbell LV. Current diabetes reviews 2006, 2(2): 195-211.
7. Jurenka JS. Altern Med Rev 2009, 14(2): 141-153.
8. Warburton DER, et al. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal 2006, 174(6): 801-809.
9. Rockhill B, et al. Archives of Internal Medicine 1999, 159(19): 2290-2296.