You’ve probably heard that inflammation is at the root of many diseases and plays a key role in ageing. In fact, inflammation is so much a part of conversations around ageing these days, that a new term has been coined to note the connection – Inflammaging.
But, before getting to how inflammation contributes to and speeds ageing, it’s important to know that some degree of inflammation is not only normal, it’s necessary and healthy. If you have an injury or illness, your body’s immune response includes sending off messages that trigger inflammation that helps fight off germs and facilitate healing.
Your body also constantly needs to eradicate old, worn-out cells and clean up the debris from the breakdown of those cells to rebuild, repair, and make way for new cells. White blood cells are primarily the clean-up crew; free radicals and the resulting inflammation are their tools. Fasting can accelerate this form of cellular housekeeping, called autophagy, but it’s not a good idea to fast when you feel that your energies are depleted. If you are weak constitutionally, you need to build yourself up to fast. You can read more about fasting in my blog post here.
Like in many situations, inflammation can quickly and easily can go from helpful to harmful. When it becomes excessive or when low-grade inflammation burns on and on unchecked, bigger problems can occur. Inflammation is often associated with the development and progression of cancer; many cancers arise from sites of infection, chronic irritation and inflammation. Read more about the science behind the link between inflammation and cancer in this paper.
Inflammation is exhausting on the body and on the individual and it depletes our energy reserves. One major side effect is accelerated ageing, both internal and external, and the increased risk of symptoms and illnesses that can come along for the ride.
Unfortunately, the solution in modern medicine to inflammation is often to prescribe a drug that knocks out inflammation. But you’re way better off asking, “Why is there damage and excessive inflammation, and what can we do about it?” Chronic inflammation is your body’s cry for help.
Here are some key steps you can take:
Address the stress in your life
One of the biggest drivers of inflammation is stress. There are a few ways stress triggers inflammation, but one of the most significant is by interfering with and disrupting the body’s hormones and complex messaging system, essentially ‘turning on’ the immune system to produce inflammation.
If the body is stressed, it produces more inflammatory messengers. Research has shown a link between both acute and chronic psychological stress and markers of inflammation as well as inflammatory diseases.
While there are many ways to reduce stress, mindfulness practices — whether with meditation or gentle activities such as tai chi and yoga — have proven exceptionally effective, according to research. What’s more, research suggests that they could have a direct impact on inflammation, not only stress; it showed mindfulness techniques seem to reduce the activity of genes associated with a key protein that may turn on inflammation. You can read more about the research carried out here.
Swap processed, sugary foods for a ‘rainbow’ of produce
Refined carbs and sweetened foods and drinks are especially dangerous. They cause insulin levels to spike, potentially leading to insulin resistance, and they contribute to weight gain and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, all of which can fuel inflammation.
A diet high in sugar and refined carbs also leads to an inflammatory process called glycation, which hardens and weakens collagen, nowhere more noticeable than on the face. Processed and fried foods also tend to be loaded with volatile omega-6 fatty acids, which are inflammatory by nature; a packaged pastry or pile of French fries is essentially inflammation on a plate.
On the other hand, healthier eating patterns, which include consuming lots of fresh fruits and vegetables along with fibre-rich whole grains and other plant foods, has been shown to cause fewer spikes in blood glucose and is associated with reduced concentrations of markers of inflammation. You can read more about the research here.
Fruit and veggies are also loaded with antioxidants, which essentially protect collagen and cells from inflammation. Aim to make at least 50% of your diet fresh produce, and opt for a range of richly-coloured varieties – the more colourful, the richer they tend to be in antioxidants. For example, red peppers, spinach, kale, carrots, and blueberries are all antioxidant all-stars.
Make exercise a priority
Part of the inflammatory process is governed by endorphins – they help control the repair process, keeping inflammation from becoming excessive. But if you’re not moving, you’re not producing endorphins.
That doesn’t mean you have to become an elite athlete or even work out intensely. Instead, walk more, do some yoga, and take up hobbies that keep you moving, like gardening, golfing, hiking, or biking. When we move a moderate amount, it’s enough to stimulate endorphin production.
Exercise works in other ways to prevent and reduce inflammation. It promotes the production of adenosine, a chemical in your brain that builds up throughout the day and promotes healthy sleep. Not only is sleep key for managing stress, which is a major driver of inflammation, but it also has a direct effect on inflammation.
Finally, staying physically active also helps keep weight in check and reduces body fat. Fat cells are known to secrete a type of inflammatory molecule, especially the dangerous visceral fat that collects around your midsection.
Mind your gut microbes
A healthy balance of bacteria in your body (a.k.a. your microbiome) works to prevent excessive inflammation in a few different ways. For starters, around 80% of your immune system resides in your gut, and the microbes there help modulate your body’s immune response, which includes regulating inflammation.
Recent research suggests that overuse of antibiotics and changes in diet, among other factors, have led to a less diverse and resilient microbiome among modern populations.
Good-for-you microbes help maintain a strong gut barrier. And a strong gut barrier ensures that potentially inflammatory substances can’t make their way through your GI tract and into your system. On the other hand, ‘leaky gut syndrome’ occurs when an unhealthy barrier allows proteins and other substances from food plus toxins and bacteria to get into your system, which then trigger inflammation as your body attacks the foreign invaders.
All the strategies discussed above – a veggie-loaded diet, reducing stress, and getting exercise and enough sleep – can all help keep your gut bugs happy. To ensure that your gut is well-balanced, I always recommend taking a daily Live Bacteria probiotic capsule.
Get your Omega 3s
Omega 3 fatty acids, whether you consume them in fatty fish like salmon and sardines or take supplements, like my high-strength Omega 3 capsules, are one of the most effective ways to reduce inflammation, especially for those at risk for heart disease. Not only are they potent antioxidants, omega 3s seem to exhibit direct anti-inflammatory properties according to this research.
Omega 3s also balance the effects of inflammation-stoking omega-6 fatty acids. The ideal is to keep a low ratio of omega 6s to omega 3s, which you can easily do by reducing your intake of processed and fried foods (which are cooked in oils that are loaded with omega 6s), and upping your intake of fish and taking omega 3-rich supplements.
Look to turmeric as a natural anti-inflammatory medicine
Most herbs have antioxidant properties that help control excessive inflammation. Among the best is turmeric. I love my turmeric lattes, especially in the winter. I make it with almond milk and a little honey for sweetening. Turmeric is a potent antioxidant that lends electrons to hungry free radicals, neutralizing their damaging potential. But turmeric has another useful function – it also works a little like a natural, more gentle ibuprofen.
A study reports that turmeric and its main polyphenol, curcumin, helps manage inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and metabolic syndrome, and may reduce muscle soreness from inflammation after exercise. The findings also suggest turmeric may be beneficial for maintaining health in those with no documented conditions thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Take in electrons
There are a lot of ways to pick up extra electrons aside from eating antioxidant-rich plant foods. Alkaline water is electron-rich water, so it donates electrons that help neutralize free radicals. And breathing in negative ions from the air around pine forests and natural bodies of water also can donate electrons to your body, which may help reduce inflammation.
A trail walk or trip to the shore also gives your system a break from the pollution produced by cars and factories. Air pollution is loaded with positive ions, electron-deficient particles that rob electrons from other molecules and increase systemic inflammation. You can get a good dose of negative ions in the countryside, by the sea, in the forests, especially after a storm. Negative ions can increase the flow of oxygen to the brain resulting in more energy, better clarity, better mood and increased alertness. This is why it feels so good to connect with the great outdoors!
Years of extensive research has shown that connecting to the Earth’s natural energy, by walking barefoot on grass, sand, dirt or rock can diminish chronic pain, fatigue and other ailments that plague so many people today. This connection is referred to as ‘earthing’ or grounding’. To put it briefly, when your bare feet or skin come in contact with the earth, free electrons are taken up into the body. These electrons can be likened to nature’s biggest antioxidants as they help neutralise damaging excess free radicals that can lead to inflammation and disease in the body. So get your shoes/socks/ tights off and walk on the grass, especially after a thunderstorm so you are also getting a good dose of negative ions. You can read more about the science behind earthing in this article.
Clearly our modern world promotes inflammation at every turn, whether via polluted air and processed food, or by encouraging a stressful and sedentary lifestyle. But with the few simple changes detailed above, it’s easy to put out the fire of chronic, uncontrolled inflammation…and in turn slow down the ageing process, so that you are no longer ‘inflammaging’.