Inflammation: the enemy to good health

It’s been a long time coming, but many Americans are now more concerned with maintaining good health than waiting until sickness strikes and having to combat some disease. Maybe the fight for national health care or dwindling employee health insurance coverage or the aging baby-boomer population sparked it, but whatever the catalyst, people are trying to eat healthier and exercise more.

Much of the focus has been on losing weight. The diet options seem endless: low fat, low carb, Paleo, Mediterranean, gluten free, low glycemic, vegetarian, pescetarian, vegan, raw, etc. While keeping a healthy body weight for your frame and getting daily exercise can help prevent and maybe actually reverse many diseases, there is another enemy to good health that needs to be brought into the spotlight: inflammation.

Inflammation is the process in which the body creates proteins, called cytokines, and white cells in response to infections, injuries, or other irritations. Sometimes the body’s immune system will trigger an inflammatory response even when there is no foreign substance, basically attacking itself. This is what causes autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. But what is more common is chronic or persistent low-level inflammation, which can lead to health problems that are just as, if not more, serious. Scientists have discovered that inflammation is the basically the same catalyst for many different diseases. What that means is extended periods of elevated inflammation speed up the degenerative process and can shorten your expected life span.

Low-level chronic inflammation has also been found to be one of the characteristics of obesity. While there are several different theories as to how this inflammation arises, the most important common factor has been identified: dietary choices. Regular consumption of inflammation-causing foods can lead to leptin and insulin resistance, major factors in excessive weight gain. Obesity was uncommon before the advent of processed foods. The modern western diet contains grains, certain kinds of dairy, processed oils, and refined sugar, all of which were not present in our ancestors’ diets. Those are the same foods that cause that chronic inflammatory response that causes white cells and proteins to attack healthy tissue. This can lead to a host of other diseases such as periodontitis, hay fever, atherosclerosis, and even cancer.

While this all may sound daunting, the simple fact is inflammation can be controlled and even eradicated with dietary changes. Eating “clean” is one of the best ways of keeping inflammation at bay. Clean eating consists of eating whole, natural foods such as vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates. Avoid things like refined sugar, hydrogenated and trans-fats, preservatives, and refined bleached grains like white flour and white rice. There are also supplements available at health food stores that can help quell inflammation but they can be expensive.  It will take some discipline to change old eating habits, but an adjustment now can result in a longer, healthy life.

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