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The Invisible Condition That’s Dangerous to Your Health

How inflammation invades your body and causes disease and how to fight against it


(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.)

Have you ever banged your shin and watched as a reddish bump rises to the surface and swells in a painful bruise? That’s your body’s defense mechanism at work. Inflammation at the site of an injury means the soldiers of healing — your body’s white blood cells — have arrived on the scene to make you all better. Acute inflammation, as that process is known, usually lasts only a few days.

But lately, scientists have started homing in on another type of inflammation in your body that may actually be the root cause of many diseases and health problems. Known as chronic inflammation (or low-grade or systemic inflammation), it occurs when your body repeatedly experiences a series of assaults that cause the soldier cells to go into a full fighting mode from which they can never recover. And over time, they begin to create problems in the very organs and systems they were meant to protect.

If you can avoid a lifestyle that produces inflammation, you can live longer and with good health.

— Rudolph Tanzi

“We get wear and tear on our tissues and then those are infiltrated with cells and macrophages (another type of “clean-up” cell) and the tissue begins to ‘heat up,’” explains Rudolph Tanzi, co-author with Dr. Deepak Chopra of Super Genes: Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well Being. “Chronic inflammation, where tissue is being constantly attacked by macrophages and T-cells, creates free radicals, especially reactive atoms that can damage cells and proteins in the body.”

What Inflammation Does to Your Body

The results can be dangerous — chronic inflammation has now been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, kidney problems, cancer, eczema, allergies, arthritis, stroke and asthma, to name a few.

For example, when you repeatedly fill your gut with fat-laden foods such as meat, butter and rich dessert, as well as high-sugar foods, you are asking your body to work overtime to digest it and get it out of your system. Your arteries may become irritated as these substances pass through them, and cholesterol piles up inside them. Soon, you may have an artery that is too sticky for anything to get by — it has become permanently inflamed.

You may believe that your future health is predetermined by your genes, but Tanzi says medical science can now definitively say that is not true. Just because there’s a history of heart disease in your family or of diabetes (except in very rare cases, such as familial onset at relatively early ages), it usually does not mean you are doomed to the same fate.

“If you can avoid a lifestyle that produces inflammation, you can live longer and with good health,” Tanzi says. “We are all going to have some level of inflammation as we get older, but it’s your habits and routines that program your body’s response to it all the way down to the level of your genes.”

Limiting Inflammation Can Protect You From Disease

Tanzi, a neuroscientist who studies Alzheimer’s at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, says studies have shown that the brains of people who live to ripe old ages without Alzheimer’s or dementia have one thing in common: very little, if any, brain inflammation.

Inflammation is less common in people who maintain a healthy weight than in those who are obese. It is less common among those who follow the plant-heavy Mediterranean diet than among those who fill their plates with empty carbohydrates and tons of red meat.

Not surprisingly, the recommendations for reducing inflammation in your body are much the same as those we’ve been hearing for years about how to prevent heart disease, how to avoid cancer and how to live healthfully. The difference, according to Tanzi, is that now these recommendations are backed by incontrovertible scientific evidence. He says: “There’s mounting data that would suggest that these recommendations are becoming obligations — to not follow them is like saying, ‘I don’t believe cigarettes are bad for us.’”

5 Ways To Reduce Chronic Inflammation

It turns out that reducing chronic inflammation is mostly a matter of lifestyle choices, Tanzi notes, that can really make a difference in how likely you are to develop diseases or chronic conditions. Here are the changes you can make:

Diet  At the very least, cut out fast food, cut down on processed foods and limit consumption of red meat to no more than once a week. Better: Eat a mostly plant-based diet that’s high in olive oil, nuts, vegetables and low in dairy products and red meat, the so-called Mediterranean diet. Best: Adopt a vegan lifestyle that will limit your eating to only plant options.

Tanzi says that — whenever possible — you should insist on organic foods that are free of pesticides and other chemicals, which could be interpreted by your cells as cause for fighting.

Mouth health  Brush and floss your teeth every day to stave off inflammation. “Habits and routines program your genes; good habits lead to healthy gene activity,” Tanzi says, noting that flossing your teeth reduces bacterial levels and inflammation in the gums. Once gums become inflamed, the inflammation cells and bacteria can be unleashed into your bloodstream. It is now widely understood that there is a connection (somewhat mysterious) between gum health and heart health. Tanzi is exploring whether this connection also extends to Alzheimer’s disease.

Stress and meditation  Stress can lead to greater inflammation in the body because it causes your brain to produce cortisol, a substance that’s been shown to create inflammation. Meditation has long been described as relieving stress and bringing a sense of peacefulness and calm to its practitioners, but new studies are showing a significant physical benefit to the practice. A 2013 study found that certain genes’ “pro-inflammatory” properties were reduced after subjects were introduced to meditation.

A newer study, about to be published by Tanzi and Chopra, showed even more benefit to meditation — it can actually turn off the damage of stress in the body.

“We did a clinical trial in which we looked at all the genes that get turned on when the body thinks its in trouble — all the genes the body uses to protect itself that can lead to chronic damage,” Tanzi says. “During one week of meditation, all of these genes were quelled — meditation chilled them all out. I would have thought it would have been a stretch to believe what we saw. But meditation is a huge benefit.”

Sleep  At best, you should get between seven and eight hours of sleep each night. Of course, it’s not always possible to reach that goal, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that more sleep equals less inflammation, Tanzi says. “It’s one of the determinants of our level of chronic inflammation.”

A study published this past fall indicated that people who were sleep deprived had higher levels of inflammation than those who got a good night’s rest. Researchers are not exactly sure what the relationship is between sleep and inflammation, but it seems like sleep is when the brain can clean out the toxic protein debris that increases risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercise  Even small changes in your exercise routine can make significant dents in your body’s level of inflammation, Tanzi says. “You don’t have to work out like a maniac, but some exercise each day will make a big difference,” he adds. Exercise actually reduces levels of toxic protein debris in the brain, helps curb brain inflammation, and induces the birth of new nerve stem cells in the brain, particularly in the areas involved with Alzheimer’s disease.

“If you want your health span to keep up with your life span — to live longer with good health — that’s where these old-hat recommendations become new,” Tanzi says.

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