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Inflammation has a bad reputation, but it can also be a good thing. When the body is injured or invaded by pathogens, inflammation is one of the first lines of defense. The pain, swelling and redness are signs of our focused repair mechanisms.
Like every system in the body, the key is balance — because inflammation does have a serious downside. It’s a slippery slope: A normal healing response can progress to an ongoing inflammatory process that spreads throughout the body under the right (or rather, wrong) conditions. Acute inflammation results from a specific injury and subsides with that injury. Prolonged or chronic inflammation reflects an imbalance in this critical response system. And it can drive premature aging and obesity as well as diseases, including aggressive cancer, autoimmune disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease.
So it’s important to recognize the short- and long-term effects of this vital function. Inflammation in small amounts protects health. But like a car running too long without oil, the system eventually overheats and breaks down. Looking closely at our fast-paced lifestyles, we can easily identify the route to overheating and alter the course to prevent breakdowns within the body’s intricate machinery.
Whether it is a bruise or bacteria, the body responds rapidly to any perceived threat. Signaling proteins such as cytokines put the body on emergency alert. Cytokines tell cellular DNA to trigger specific changes, including the release of more cytokines. Cytokines also promote oxidation, another useful immune mechanism that can wreak havoc when the process becomes imbalanced. Overoxidation creates an excess of unstable free-radical molecules, which can damage DNA and increase inflammation.
There are a number of risk factors for chronic inflammation, including toxin exposure, heavy metal body burden, long-term infection, smoking, obesity, inflammatory foods and allergies. These challenges put the immune system on high alert, but such a defensive position is not sustainable over time. As a result, the constant flow of DNA-adjusting cytokines has a cumulative effect and can rapidly damage health.
Poor circulation is a secondary risk factor for chronic inflammation, since impairments in the circulatory system can cause hyperviscosity (blood stickiness). When inflammation and hyperviscosity combine, they can negatively affect every system in your body, compromising the immune system and leaving you vulnerable to disease. So we can begin to see how balance in the relationships between circulation, inflammation and immunity is critical for long-term health. Luckily, many of the natural solutions discussed below can support these highly interrelated systems simultaneously.
A number of studies have shown that visceral fat, the weight we carry in our midsection, contributes to inflammation, and vice versa. This is a significant risk factor in metabolic syndrome (aka prediabetes), a skyrocketing epidemic related to chronic inflammation, cardiovascular disease, obesity, insulin resistance and other factors. To make matters worse, elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol join forces with visceral fat to produce even more inflammatory cytokines.
Pro-inflammatory foods are another huge factor. Regardless of relative fitness, we should all stay away from processed foods and drastically limit our intake of inflammation-fueling sugar and trans fats. Processed and fried foods and those that have been grilled too much are high in advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which trigger oxidation and inflammation. As the acronym suggests, these glycotoxins promote premature aging and disease, particularly when consumed in excess.
One study, conducted by researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, outlined how dietary changes can have a profound impact on inflammation and health. Two groups were assigned separate diets. One ate a normal Western diet, high in glycotoxins. The other was asked to poach, stew or steam their meals — cooking methods that produce fewer glycotoxins. After four months, the latter group showed dramatic reductions in inflammatory markers and had other indications of improved cardiovascular and metabolic health.
Fight with food
The Mount Sinai study results are no surprise. Making good food choices can be a one-two punch against inflammation. First, as the study indicates, we need to reduce the amount of processed and overcooked foods we eat. But we should also be mindful of what we’re eating and be sure to consume the following: quality protein, particularly cold-water fish to increase levels of inflammation-busting omega-3 fats; nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, particularly the leafy green variety. These foods are high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, which will help counteract the effects of glycotoxins, free radicals and inflammatory proteins.
Phytonutrients from plant foods tend to be high in antioxidants and other powerful health-promoting compounds. Richly colored foods like tomatoes, squash, yams, peppers, blueberries and strawberries are excellent sources. I also recommend cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, kale and cauliflower. Eating cruciferous vegetables metabolizes a compound known as DIM (3,3‘-diindolylmethane), which controls inflammation, modulates estrogen metabolism and even combats cancer.
Probiotics may also reduce chronic inflammation. Probiotic foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso and kimchee help maintain the balance of healthy flora in our bodies and can help control inflammation and weight gain, enhance immunity and even boost mood.
Chronic inflammation is a heavy link in the chain of cause and effect. At the end of the chain is chronic disease, but the chain really starts with our busy lifestyles. Because we are so overextended, we neglect the routines that help maintain our health: preparing healthy meals (rather than grabbing junk food on hand), getting a good night’s sleep, exercising and finding a few quiet moments to simply do nothing except take a few deep breaths.
Given this frenetic approach, it’s no wonder we’re on fire. Even worse, chronic stress floods our bodies with cortisol and other stress hormones associated with the fight or flight reflex, which has a direct link to inflammation as well as obesity, as noted earlier.
So in addition to slowing down and creating time for self-care, it’s important to learn how to turn off (or at least turn down) the stress switch. Adopt practices that promote a lasting sense of inner peace: mindful meditation and breathing practices, yoga, tai chi, long walks, swimming, etc. These and other relaxation practices have a dual purpose. First, they help quiet the mind and are proven to reduce stress responses over the long term. But they’re also excellent forms of exercise, which can help reduce weight and mitigate other factors associated with inflammation.
Don’t forget to rest. Sleep is the body’s natural path to rejuvenation. Even if we eat well, exercise and control stress, lack of sleep can undo all of these efforts, triggering chronic inflammation and other long-term damage. If you suffer from insomnia, seek natural sleep support with gentle botanicals and nutrients that also help reduce inflammation and support other areas of health. Good examples are melatonin, skullcap, passionflower and others.
Detoxifiers and antioxidants
In addition to cytokines, there are a number of other proteins produced by the body that can fuel inflammation. One of these proteins is called galectin-3. When elevated beyond normal levels, galectin-3 can trigger chronic inflammation leading to fibrosis (uncontrolled scar tissue buildup) throughout the body. This “rogue molecule” is a prime culprit in metastatic cancer and heart disease, as well as kidney fibrosis and other pro-inflammatory conditions. A Food and Drug Administration-approved galectin-3 blood test is now available as an important tool covered by health insurance to measure cardiovascular disease risk and progression.
A natural supplement that controls galectin-3 is modified citrus pectin (MCP). MCP is derived from the pith of citrus peels such as oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit. It is modified to a specific molecular weight for better absorption into the bloodstream. Numerous studies have shown that MCP effectively blocks the pro-inflammatory and pro-cancer effects of excess galectin-3. By controlling galectin-3, MCP wards against cancer, heart disease, kidney fibrosis and a number of other chronic conditions. MCP is also clinically shown to gently remove pro-inflammatory heavy metals from the body, including mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic, without affecting essential minerals. Gentle heavy metal and toxin removal offers another effective approach to reducing chronic inflammation.
As noted, oxidation plays a large role as well. Chronic inflammation and oxidation are part of a vicious degenerative cycle, increasing free radicals, which damage DNA and degrade cellular integrity. There are a number of antioxidant supplements that can help reduce oxidation and fight free radicals, providing powerful anti-inflammatory effects as well: alpha lipoic acid, glutathione, acetyl L-Carnitine, vitamin C. Botanicals like curcumin from turmeric, the bioflavonoid quercetin, and honokiol extract from magnolia bark are all potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredients. They effectively neutralize free radicals and the damage they can cause, squelch inflammation and enhance additional areas of health.
I also recommend a traditional Tibetan herbal formula, shown in more than three decades of published clinical research to promote healthy responses to inflammation. This time-honored herbal formula is made with a blend of antioxidants, phytonutrients and other beneficial botanical compounds to support circulation, immunity and healthy inflammation responses.
As an integrative physician, my primary goal is to treat the root causes of a condition, rather than simply alleviate symptoms. Because chronic inflammation plays a central role in so many health problems, addressing it takes on a special urgency. Still, it’s challenging for anyone to completely overhaul his lifestyle overnight. I recommend gradually incorporating small refinements that can make a big difference: eat more vegetables, reduce processed foods, practice healthy stress relief, and look for supplements that reduce inflammation, boost circulation and fight free radicals. Chronic inflammation requires a holistic, lifestyle approach. In return, however, the potential gains of such healthy improvements will ripple into every area of life, offering increased vitality, energy and vibrancy on physical, mental and emotional levels. Now that’s cool!
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