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The CDC broadly defines chronic diseases as illnesses that last more than one year. The cause of such conditions is usually not viruses, microbes, or other environmental pathogens. Instead, chronic diseases often develop as we age. However, we can influence them with our lifestyle and diet.
In this article, we will explore the link between inflammation and chronic disease to understand how anti-inflammatory foods and dietary choices may improve our health and prevent several diseases that are often an unwelcome byproduct of aging.
When we think about inflammation, we usually envision swelling, redness, and sometimes pain or itching. On a molecular level, inflammation involves a process that includes signaling substances, receptors, inflammatory cells, and target tissues.
Here is how it works: Inflammatory cells detect particles and react against them by creating inflammatory substances. These substances act as a signal for the neighboring cells to increase blood flow, the permeability of the blood vessels, and the leaking of white blood cells into the affected tissue.
When your body has to sustain these processes for a long time, we call it chronic inflammation, and it causes progressive modifications of the affected tissues. Over time, that often leads to the development of chronic diseases (1).
For example, inflammation contributes to the aging brain in a process that scientists call “inflammaging,” and it may be behind several age-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and others (2).
Inflammation is also a known mediator of chronic pulmonary diseases, the leading player in asthma, and an aggravating factor in rheumatic diseases like arthritis. It is also linked to heart disease and several gastrointestinal problems. Inflammation is even related to metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, diabetes, and cancer (3).
To better explain how inflammation influences the development of chronic diseases, let’s take a look at two wide-spread ailments that affect millions of people every year: Cancer and diabetes.
Scientists have discovered that inflammation plays a vital role in the development and progression of cancer. Cancer feeds off inflammation, so to speak because inflammatory mediators increase the blood flow to provide nutrients to cancer cells (3).
Some inflammatory mediators are therapeutic when the body releases them in normal concentrations, but they start to create problems when they are unregulated. For example, there is a molecule called Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNF-α), which has anticancer potential when secreted by white blood cells of the immune system (4). However, it feeds cancer and many other diseases when cancer cells release it disproportionately (5).
On the other hand, the link between inflammation and diabetes is a bit more complicated. So here is a simplified version:
As part of the body’s metabolism, a substance called the Insulin Receptor Substrate 1 (IRS-1) plays a significant role in receiving the signal of insulin. Without it, the body becomes resistant to insulin, and the pancreas needs to release extra insulin to compensate. At some point, the pancreas would start failing due to the excessive work. Once you have reached that stage, you have diabetes.
Fat cells release substances including inflammatory cytokines. These inflammatory cytokines create a systemic inflammation that can cause alterations in the pancreatic tissue, blood vessels, and more (3) if your body has to sustain them over a long period. As a result, obese people are more prone to having higher levels of inflammation.
Inflammatory cytokines from the excess fatty tissue and pro-inflammatory food trigger a molecule called suppressor of cytokine signaling 3 (SOC.3). This molecule interferes with IRS-1, it causes insulin resistance, and it speeds up the progression towards diabetes.
Now that we understand the relationship between inflammation and chronic illnesses let’s take a look at how our dietary choices influence inflammation. From there we can better understand how to influence the development and progression of specific ailments.
As you might already know, some foods have anti-inflammatory properties that offer a way to control diseases that have an inflammatory root. Examples include arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. However, the diet we choose may also reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses by reducing the systemic levels of inflammation in our bodies.
For instance, we know that unhealthy fats, combined with a diet high in carbohydrate, induces inflammatory cytokines, such as IL-6, IL-1β, and TNFα (8).
As mentioned above, an unregulated TNFα can speed up the progression of cancer, among other things. IL-6 is involved in many auto-immune problems, and chronic fibrosis (9), and IL-1β is involved in rheumatoid arthritis, gout, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases.
The good news is that by making better dietary choices, you can avoid many of these inflammatory cytokines, thus reducing the risk or slowing down the progression of chronic illnesses. For example, studies have shown that lowering IL-1β also lessen the severity of associated disorders (10).
Since inflammation is so deeply involved in the expression of chronic diseases, can an anti-inflammatory diet prevent or even reverse chronic ailments?
I wouldn’t go as far as refusing proper medical treatment, and instead, trying to cure cancer with food. But there is sufficient scientific evidence that proves the relationship between food, inflammation and certain illnesses.
We know about foods with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant profiles, which reduce inflammation and neutralize the damage done by free radicals. Scientists have also demonstrated the link between several types of high-fat, high-carbohydrate meals and an increase in inflammatory and oxidative stress (8).
Thus, it is clear that our lifestyle and dietary habits directly influence the risk of developing chronic diseases in different ways, including an increase or reduction of systemic inflammation.
Resveratrol is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory molecule found in grapes and other fruits with polyphenols. We know that it reduces the formation of free radicals, the concentration of TNFα in the blood, and the expression of several inflammatory mediators (11). Another example is pomegranate, which reduces inflammation in the cartilage tissue (12).
The two fruits above are merely examples of what anti-inflammatory substances you can find in food. There is no reason to load up on any specific type of food. Instead, find a healthy diet that works for you and stick with it. For me, that’s the Paleo diet because it has worked for our ancestors for millions of years and its primary purpose is to avoid foods that have inflammatory properties.
Specifically, the Paleo diet removes excess sugar, dairy, refined vegetable oils, and processed foods, which scientists have shown to increase inflammation.
As we have learned, there is an undeniable connection between our dietary choices and inflammatory pathways. We also know about the link between inflammation and chronic diseases.
Looking at statistics from the CDC, we can see that the rate of chronic illnesses has skyrocketed over the past few decades. At the same time, our food choices have deteriorated, and the food we eat has little in common with what our ancestors used to eat: Fresh veggies, nuts, seeds, seasonal fruits, seafood, and lean meat.
So it’s no stretch to imagine that the western diet has had a massive impact on our overall health and wellbeing. The good news is, it’s not too late to make changes.
There are plenty of choices in our modern world, and by making an educated decision on what food to put on your plate, you will have long-lasting benefits for your health, wellbeing, and quality of life.
I was born and raised in Austria. I speak German, English, and Spanish. Since moving to the U.S., I have lived and worked in Alpharetta, GA. In my twenties, I was a professional 100m sprinter. These days I do mostly CrossFit. I'm a technologist and Apple fan. I love science and don't believe anything unless there is proof. I follow the Paleo diet and intermittently fast every day. I'm married and have two trilingual kids. My goal with this blog is to share what I learn so that you can spend time on something else.
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