UNDER ATTACK BY anything from bacteria to chemical irritants, the body’s best weapon is inflammation: once the skin barrier has been breached, swelling, heat, redness and pain indicate that the immune system has been mobilized. (The “itis” in bronchitis, gingivitis, tendonitis, etc. refers to the inflammation designed to fight infection, not the infection itself.) Once the intruder has been dealt with, acute inflammation should quickly subside.
When inflammation becomes chronic or persistent, however, the immune system can damage healthy “innocent bystander” cells. In atherosclerosis, for example, white blood cells that embed in the artery walls to gobble up LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, will over extended periods damage the arteries. Excess abdominal fat cells also spur chronic inflammation.
Over time, inflammation can become self-sustaining and contribute to a number of problems, including acne and asthma; Alzheimer’s and Celiac disease; and certain cancers including colon, pancreatic and melanoma. Although osteoarthritis has been long blamed on injury or wear and tear, the true cause may be cellular damage due to low-grade chronic inflammation.
The first line of defense for many against the ravages of chronic inflammation is aspirin, one 81 mg dose/day fights the inflammation associated with heart disease as well as reducing the risk of heart attack due to blood clots. In a large meta-analysis of cancer research, subjects who took daily aspirin for more than four years lowered their risk of cancer by 20 percent compared to those who took no aspirin, with the largest drops in risk of gastrointestinal cancer, especially colon cancer. Additional studies are underway to confirm these results.
Another NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory), naproxen (Aleve), in one study had a marked effect in preventing Alzheimer’s disease, although more research is needed to confirm. And statins like Lipitor reduce inflammation and thus the risk of heart disease.
And then there are steroids (short for corticosteroids) like prednisone, the strongest weapon against inflammation although long-term use risks a host of worrisome side-effects, including weight gain and brittle bones. Usually reserved for chronic auto-immune and lung disease, short-term doses of steroids are sometimes prescribed for severe bronchitis. Animal-lovers report that vets prescribe “pred” at the drop of a hat.
Foods that reduce inflammation include monounsaturated fatty acids, prominent in the Mediterranean diet (olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains); omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish; and, for some, dairy products. Harvard medical professor Christopher Cannon, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Anti-Inflammation Diet,” also advises avoiding red meat, butter, sweets and white foods such as rice, potatoes and pasta. Others warn against corn, soy and “nightshade family” vegetables, such as tomatoes and eggplant. A recent study showed that increasing dietary fiber lowers blood markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein — elevation of this directly correlates with risk of heart disease.
Tracing “the seeds of chronic inflammation” to diet, OBGYN Marcelle Pick believes that for most people, “high-carb, low-protein diets are inflammatory.” Dr. Pick reports a “ballooning rate” of allergies and chronic pain, and “such a spike in patients with symptoms of inflammation that it’s becoming the norm, not the exception.” The good news is that, if these problems are at least in part “environmentally induced” by intolerance to food or environmental irritants, they can be reduced by making specific lifestyle changes.