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When Swelling Isn't So Swell: Curbing Chronic Inflammation

By Dr. Mickey Barber

Of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States, chronic, low-level inflammation contributes to at least seven, including heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and kidney failure (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). It is now widely believed that chronic inflammation that goes undetected for years is the underlying cause of these illnesses, along with autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis), inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease), as well as other diseases which have unknown causes, like allergies, fibromyalgia and migraines.

We know inflammation on the surface of the body as redness, heat, swelling and pain. It is the body’s healing response, bringing nourishment and immune activity to a site of injury or infection. But when inflammation persists or serves no purpose, it damages the body and causes illness. Stress, lack of exercise, genetic predisposition, and exposure to toxins (like tobacco smoke) can all contribute to such chronic inflammation, but dietary and lifestyle choices play a big role as well.

Fortunately, you can reduce inflammation through lifestyle changes. It all goes back to the fundamentals of taking care of yourself: nutrition, exercise, healthy sleep, and a positive attitude.

Nutrition: Trans and polyunsaturated fats get converted in the body to an amino acid which generates pro-inflammatory cells and hormones. If your diet includes these fats, replace them with omega-3 (not omega-6) essential fatty acids that are found in anti-inflammatory foods like wild Alaskan salmon. Also, foods that spike our blood sugar levels quickly, like white breads, cakes, cookies and sodas, prompt our body to produce more insulin to normalize our glucose levels. But excess insulin also elevates the levels of arachidonic acid in our blood, increasing the production of cells and hormones that are pro-inflammatory.

A quick list of foods to avoid/consume less frequently if you want to reduce inflammation: Refined sugar and grains, trans fats, dairy products, commercially produced red meat and processed meat, alcohol, and artificial food additives. Each of these has a role in the body’s inflammatory response. “Clean eating” (foods that are not processed/laden with chemicals) is the best way to lower risk. Replace refined sugar with natural sweeteners like stevia or honey. Replace saturated cooking oils with heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil. Replace processed meat with organic, free-range low-fat meats that contain more omega-3 fats and fewer chemicals. Reduce alcohol consumption (to one glass of red wine a day) and drink more filtered water and green tea.

And while you’re adding wild-caught salmon and green tea to your grocery list, consider adding these anti-inflammatory foods: blueberries, sweet potatoes, kelp (seaweed), shiitake mushrooms, turmeric (found in curries) and ginger (excellent in fresh carrot juice), papaya, pineapple, and broccoli. There’s a reason why they’re called super foods!

Positive attitude: Stress markedly increases the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body. Studies find that mental stress can cause changes to our immune defense systems, making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases and slows down healing by decreasing the production of pro-inflammatory hormones in places where they are needed most. Managing your stress levels (and reducing them) can also reduce inflammation.

Sleep: Robbing yourself of adequate quality sleep time wreaks havoc on your immune system, increasing the amount of inflammation in the body. Even a few hours of lost sleep can prompt your immune system to turn against you.

Exercise: Fat cells aren’t just dormant repositories of excess fat. These fats actually secrete arachidonic acid, which eventually turn into pro-inflammatory substances that circulate throughout our body. So the more fat cells you have, the more inflammation you create. Reducing fat cells and formation of new fat cells is important for reducing inflammation, and you don’t have to be a body builder to make an impact. Even 30 minutes of aerobic activity per day—walking, running, swimming, bicycling—can prevent new cells from forming and reduce the size and output of existing fat cells.

What else? Take a multivitamin and make sure it has 100% of recommended niacin, B vitamins, and vitamin D. If your vitamin D levels are low, add a supplement (and take it at night after a meal). Take an omega-3 supplement (fish oil). Drink lots of water—water is a natural diuretic. Minimize exposure to environmental toxins. One bonus to making these changes is that reducing inflammation is also good for your “visible health”—inflammation can speed up the aging process through damage to skin cells, reducing inflammation can slow it down.

Blood markers that indicate inflammation also help predict the risk of developing certain types of diseases. In my practice, we have a sophisticated Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention program that offers the most advanced screening possible. Markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein, can be detected in blood tests—and treated accordingly. In some cases, daily aspirin or a statin drug may be necessary, but always consider a “holistic” approach in practice and first try dietary and lifestyle changes—even when they’re not easy ones to make! There’s no quick fix for chronic inflammation, but the payoff can be lifesaving.

Dr. Mickey Barber is a highly sought-after speaker and contributor to various media outlets with expertise on a variety of age management and healthy living topics. At her practice in Charleston, SC, Dr. Barber offers an integrative approach to age management medicine while providing the patient with assessment of hormonal balance and overall health and disease risk. Her philosophy for successful aging includes maintaining energy, health and sexual vigor through shared responsibility of the patient-doctor team. Learn more at CenegeticsCarolinas.