Health column: Fighting inflammation is a key to good health

Most Americans know health risks such as high blood cholesterol and blood sugar are important to monitor, but a growing number of researchers believe that other major factors with far–ranging effects on heart disease and cancer should be getting more attention. Among them is inflammation.

Basic healthy lifestyle choices are the key to fighting inflammation, but we need to beat the epidemic of excess abdominal obesity to take the most powerful anti–inflammation step of all. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that among 500 adults with diabetes, medical treatment reduced blood sugars to near normal levels, but markers of inflammation, present in all subjects, were not reduced. Researchers suggest that this may help explain why several large studies of heart disease among patients with type 2 diabetes did not show any lower risk of heart disease despite intensive blood sugar control. Reducing high blood sugar is crucial to limit small blood vessel damage in the kidney and eye caused by diabetes, but it doesn’t appear to be enough to stop the heart disease–diabetes link.

The body’s ability to respond to infections and injury with inflammation is an immediate response crucial to health. But chronic, low–grade inflammation seems to damage body tissues in ways that lead to and accelerate development of chronic health problems linked with age. Scientists now consider atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, an inflammatory process and inflammatory cells have been found in the fatty plaque that builds up in blood vessels. Inflammation may also promote cancer development by damaging genes, increasing cell turnover and increasing development of blood vessels that allow cancer cells to grow and spread.

A variety of lifestyle changes can reduce or prevent chronic low–grade inflammation. Studies show lower levels of inflammation markers in those who don’t smoke and those who exercise regularly. One recent study showed that several inflammation markers dropped within weeks among women in a smoking cessation program. Good dental care that prevents the gum inflammation known as gingivitis may even help to reduce overall body inflammation. Moderate exercise like walking seems to directly reduce signs of inflammation, even after adjusting for its impact on weight control.

A plant–based diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits and beans also seems to decrease inflammation. Studies link a Mediterranean–style diet with lower levels of an inflammation marker called CRP. Scientists emphasize that it’s the impact of the overall diet and whole foods that supplies interacting antioxidant and anti–inflammatory phytochemicals like carotenoids and flavonoids with vitamins like vitamin C that provide protection, rather than just a single compound. A Mediterranean–style diet is traditionally higher than the typical American diet in omega–3 fat, found especially in fish. A healthy balance between omega–3 and other fats reduces production of hormone–like substances that stimulate inflammation.

While all these lifestyle choices impact inflammation, research suggests that obesity may be the single largest influence. Fat cells secrete certain proteins such as interleukin–6 and tumor necrosis factor that stimulate inflammation throughout the body. Fortunately, even a modest 7 percent to 10 percent weight loss as part of a healthy lifestyle is enough to reduce markers of inflammation.

Karen Collins is a registered dietician and certified diabetes nutritionist with the American Institute for Cancer Research that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk.