Beware Inflammatory Foods and Extra Weight
Inflammation in the Body: Page 2
Inflammation Surprise #2: Chronic Inflammation Contributes to Almost Every Major Disease
Most people have heard of so-called autoimmune diseases, when the body turns on itself with a hyperactive defense mechanism. Common examples include hay fever, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, pelvic inflammatory disease, colitis, and bursitis.
You can add to this list cancer, Alzheimer's disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, Parkinson's, osteoporosis, and even depression. Many researchers also now believe that inflammation isn't just a result of osteoarthritis; it may be a contributing cause. "The one thing that unifies most major diseases is inflammation," says the Arizona Center on Aging's Nikolich-Zugich. "Whether inflammation is the root cause or whether these diseases are made worse by the inflammatory process isn't entirely clear yet -- but inflammation is almost always a factor."
Why it's important
Scientists believe that the key to extending lifespan and late-life well-being lies in figuring out how to manipulate and cut off chronic inflammation. While all the diseases listed above manifest themselves in the body in very different ways, they seem to share many commonalities down at the cellular level.
Action step: Eat a more anti-inflammatory diet.
Because our bodies are exposed to more damage at the cell level than they can handle -- a process called oxidative stress -- shoring up defenses is key. And there's no easier way to do that than by carefully choosing what we eat and drink.
What foods contain the most antioxidants? You needn't be a chemist. Just think three words: color, taste, aroma. In whole (not processed) foods, these traits signal high-antioxidant chemical content, Duke University's Beth Reardon says. This means:
Bright or deep-hued fruits and vegetables (berries, eggplant, purple grapes, sweet potato, dark green leafy veggies)
Foods with strong flavors (bell pepper, watermelon, tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables)
Foods with powerful odors (garlic, onion, chives)
Other beneficial foods: the spices turmeric, ginger, cinnamon; curry; tart cherries; green tea; red wine; dark chocolate. These help inhibit the formation of inflammatory prostaglandins and COX inhibitors (the same enzyme-inhibiting substances in medications such as Vioxx or Celebrex).
At the same time, avoid highly processed foods full of sugar and saturated fats. These so-called high-glycemic index foods (chips, cookies, crackers, cakes) pour sugar into the bloodstream, upping inflammation.
Inflammation Surprise #3: It's Not the Look of Your Body Fat but What's Inside it That Really Hurts You
Little wonder obesity is linked with so many damaging diseases, from diabetes to Alzheimer's. In just the past five years or so, researchers have discovered that being overweight is a huge cause of inflammation.
"We tend to think of body fat as an inert, annoying consequence of eating too much and not exercising enough," Beth Reardon says. "We need to think of it as what it really is: metabolically active tissue that's actually a source of the compounds that trigger inflammation."
Why it's important
Having too many extra fat cells basically amps up the inflammatory process. That's because fat cells are producers of hormones, such as estrogen and leptin, and other molecules that signal the immune system. Excess fat creates excess inflammation.
Belly fat (accumulated around the abdomen) may be especially dangerous, compared with fat in the hips or rear, because midsection fat tends to produce even more estrogens and inflammatory compounds called cytokines, Reardon says.
There's a silver lining to perimenopausal weight gain, though, she adds. A stubborn muffin top may be nature's way of trying to hang onto estrogen when hormone levels shift as the ovaries close up shop, in order to protect heart health and make symptoms like hot flashes less severe. (Postmenopause, though, you still want to maintain a healthy weight.)
Action step: Aim for a healthy weight.
Possibly the single best health move you can make: Keep moving. Why? In addition to burning fat and warding off unhealthy fat cells, vigorous exercise three to four times a week subjects the body to controlled stress. That trains the immune system to deal with high-energy demands followed by lower, maintenance levels of functioning. "This allows inflammation to recalibrate," says Janko Nikolich-Zugich.
Exercise also produces hormones like endorphins, which make you feel good and therefore encourage you to continue this important, immune-boosting activity.