By Susan M. Kleiner, PhD, RD, FACN, CNS
You might think of inflammation as the red, puffy spot on your face that miraculously appeared as you headed out the door for a hot date last week, or even as the sore shoulder joint you tweaked during your workout. But the effects of inflammation are far deeper than just below the surface of your skin. Scientists now believe inflammation is one of the body’s most constant underlying phenomena and it has been implicated in numerous diseases from cancer to heart disease. How much body fat you carry, and what and how much food you eat, may play a very important role in aggravating or reducing inflammation.
Your body is filled with tissues and anytime they become irritated or damaged, they also become inflamed. The sources of this irritation are nearly endless— an injury, a hard workout, lack of sleep, a fat-laden meal and pretty much everything in between.
When this happens, your body reacts fast. The inflammatory response kicks in and blood flows with haste to the damaged tissue, permeating it with nutrients and immune cells whose job it is to clean up the microscopic materials that are causing the inflammation. This is all part of the healing process. The trouble begins when tissues are constantly bombarded with offending materials: The body’s defenses get turned on and don’t get turned off, leading to chronic inflammation. Ultimately, this persistent, low-grade inflammatory process goes body-wide and gets out of control. The defense system turns on itself and research is indicating it may be at the root of many disorders, from diabetes to heart disease.
Checking Your Defenses
Through research we are nearing the point at which we’ll be able to check out the status of our immune system and level of inflammation in the body. While you can see the pimple on your nose or the redness and swelling where you had your shoulder injury, spotting the inflammation deeper down inside the body is more difficult. Markers of inflammation in the bloodstream have been identified that can indicate when inflammation is occurring. Your doctor still has to figure out where.
There are three common blood markers of inflammation: C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumornecrosis factor (TNF). If any or all of these are high, they signal that an inflammatory process is occurring in your body and you might be well on your way to developing disease.
Numerous studies have linked elevated levels of these markers with development of disease. Chronic inflammation may increase the risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. In the renowned Nurses Health Study, those women with elevated CRP levels had a higher risk of developing diabetes.
Obese people tend to have higher levels of inflammatory markers. Research out of the State University of New York at Buffalo has shown that eating too much, too often, can overwhelm the body’s natural processes and lead to inflammation. Certain foods, such as high-fat foods, increase inflammatory markers, whereas fruits and foods high in fiber cause no inflammatory changes.
High CRP levels have been linked with heart disease, high blood pressure and colon cancer in women. All these studies indicate that underlying chronic inflammation plays a significant role in our short- and long-term health.
Fighting Back: The Mediterranean Diet
New research just published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology points to the anti-inflammatory effects of the Mediterranean Diet as the reason it has been associated with beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system and long-term health. During a year’s time, 3,000 Greek men and women were interviewed regarding the style of their diets. Blood markers of inflammation including CRP, IL-6 and TNF, among others, were measured. The people who most closely followed the traditional Mediterranean diet had significantly lower levels of CRP and IL-6 and other markers of both inflammation and cardiovascular disease, as well as blood pressure. Borderline associations were found with TNF and additional markers of disease.
The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. It includes few saturated fats like the ones in red meat, but plenty of healthier fatty acids found in fish, olives and olive oil. The researchers defined the diet as follows:
- Daily consumption of
nonrefined cereals and products, such as whole-grain bread, pasta, brown rice and the like;
fruits (4-6 servings/day);
vegetables (2-3 servings/day);
olive oil (as the main added fat);
non-fat or low-fat dairy products (1-2 servings/day).
- Weekly consumption of
fish, poultry, potatoes, olives, beans, and nuts (4-6 servings/week);
as well as (more rarely) eggs and sweets (1-3 servings/week);
- Monthly consumption of
red meat and meat products (4-5 servings/month).
- Moderate consumption of wine (1-2 glasses/day) and fat.
Fighting Back: Other Lifestyle Factors
Other lifestyle factors play a big role in the level of inflammation that occurs in your body. While the Greek study controlled for the other healthy lifestyle factors like activity and smoking, the fact is, much of the world is more active on a daily basis compared to Americans. Staying active and maintaining a healthy bodyweight will go a long way in keeping your whole body healthy. Not only following the Mediterranean diet, but spreading your calories out during the day as small, frequent meals and snacks will decrease the impact that huge meals have on the inflammatory process.
Simple things like brushing and flossing your teeth reduces the bacterial levels in your mouth and the inflammation in your gums. Periodontal disease is a leading inflammatory site and cause of elevated CRP levels.
It may not be long before we can measure our markers in the privacy of our own homes. Just like diabetics can measure their blood sugar levels with a prick and a small home monitor, scientists are developing a home monitoring device for blood levels of CRP. In the meantime, ask your doctor to monitor your levels and try to avoid the inflammatory confrontation by sticking to the Mediterranean diet and an active lifestyle.