Despite the fact that Americans are living longer than we have in recent history, our overall health is declining rapidly.
There are big increases in chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and allergies. A few common factors can be found with all these problems; first and foremost, they are all primarily lifestyle diseases. Another link is that they are related to chronic inflammation.
Acute inflammation is the body’s response to an injury or infection. It involves swelling, redness, pain and heat. But inflammation can also be caused by a poor diet. This type of inflammation, sometimes called systemic inflammation, is not triggered by a local injury, but involves the entire body. If it drags on for too long, it can actually start to cause tissue damage.
This bodywide inflammation may be responsible for many diseases, as well as chronic pain. A leading example is heart disease. The theory is that the lining of the arteries to the heart is damaged by inflammation, the body tries to heal it by depositing cholesterol, and the resulting plaque begins to block blood flow to the heart.
Our bodies make chemicals that naturally resolve inflammation, called “resolvins.” They are made from dietary fats, called Omega 3 fatty acids, and a deficiency of these essential fats is one of the most important imbalances in our modern diet. Omega 3 fats are present in healthy amounts in most meats, unless the animal was raised on grains, in which case the Omega 3 fats are largely replaced with Omega 6s. Because our diets (and the diets of the animals we raise) are so high in grains and vegetable oils, we consume far more Omega 6 fats and fewer Omega 3s than our ancestors. This imbalance likely contributes to chronic inflammation, and also interferes with the healing of acute injuries.
Another major source of bodywide inflammation is high insulin levels, caused by eating sugary foods, as well as a diet high in grains. All grains can trigger the insulin response but refined grains — white flour and white rice, for example — are the worst.
A common medical solution to chronic inflammation is anti-inflammatory drugs. It has been estimated that Americans consume about 30 billion doses of these drugs per year, including prescription and over-the-counter uses. But these drugs cannot counteract all the negative effects of chronic inflammation, and have serious side effects, especially with long-term use.
So what is the best way to reduce inflammation and prevent these chronic health problems? Lifestyle changes, of course. Start by avoiding or at least reducing the “pro-inflammatory” foods, such as sweets, fruit juices, wheat and other grains, grain-fed meats, processed foods, especially ones with hydrogenated or “trans” fats, and vegetable oils. Instead, stick to grass-fed or wild animal meats, eggs and milk (also from grass-fed critters, which causes the foods to have more Omega 3 oils), minimal white sugar and flour, lots of vegetables (preferably lightly steamed, not canned or in soup or juice form), as well as some fresh fruit.
For some patients, just changing to an “anti-inflammatory diet” makes a huge difference in their health; others need more help. But either way, this diet will go a long way toward helping your body reduce systemic inflammation and prevent many chronic diseases.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.