What are the links between diet, inflammation, aging, and health?
Over the last two decades, an increasing amount of medical research has focused on the role of inflammation in aging and disease. (See our Research page for a digest of inflammation-related research.)
Certain conditions, such as asthma, allergies, arthritis, and auto-immune disorders, have an obvious inflammatory component. However, chronic, low-level inflammation (sometimes referred to as “systemic” or “silent” inflammation) has now been linked with diseases ranging from heart disease, diabetes, and cancer to depression, Alzheimer’s, and osteoporosis. Inflammation also appears to be a key factor in skin aging and other outward signs of aging.
Exactly how inflammation relates to many of these conditions–whether it is a cause, effect, or innocent bystander–is still unclear. However, we know that elevated inflammation markers are a risk factor for many of the most common diseases of aging. And research suggests that dietary manipulation and other lifestyle changes can reduce inflammation and other risk factors for disease.
Inflammation is not a disease
Because so many health problems have been associated with it, it’s tempting to think of inflammation as a disease. But of course inflammation is not always a bad thing. It’s a vital part of a healthy immune response. Your body depends on inflammatory responses to defend you from bacterial and viral invaders and even cancer cells. Inflammation also helps the body heal from injuries.
The problem is one of balance. As a result of diet and lifestyle, our bodies tend to over-produce inflammatory chemicals. At the same time, we don’t get enough of the nutrients that naturally reduce inflammation. If you are carrying around a few extra pounds, your risk of inflammation-related illness is magnified. Fat cells produce inflammatory chemicals at a rate far greater than other cells. When you gain weight (or fail to lose it), you are putting your body under an additional inflammatory burden that increases your risk of disease and accelerates the aging process. The threat is double-edged, because excessive inflammation also makes it difficult for you to lose weight!
Healthy lifestyle habits such as exercising regularly, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and minimizing stress all help to reduce inflammation. But one of the biggest factors in chronic, low-level inflammation may be the food you eat every day.