Here’s the profile of the average sufferer of chronic inflammation: has a diet high in sugar and processed foods, isn’t sleeping well, experiences prolonged stress, doesn’t get enough exercise and is carrying too much belly fat. Sound like anyone you know?
Chances are that even if you don’t fit this profile, other members of your family do. In fact, many health experts believe that it would be a rare adult in the developed world who isn’t walking around with some level of chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation has been called a “man-made” condition because of its direct links to the 21st century “western lifestyle”. Since the condition was first uncovered by scientists in the 1990s, it’s gained prominence as a fairly serious health issue, with more and more scientific data linking it to health conditions such as asthma, diabetesand other metabolic disorders, obesity, depression and even dementiaand cancer. From a vanity point of view, inflammation also appears to be a key factor in visible signs of ageing, such as of the skin.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation isn’t all bad. It’s an essential and life-saving part of the body’s immune response, fighting infection, dealing with injuries and beginning the healing process.
However, the chronic, low-level version that lurks under the surface for long periods of time isn’t seen as a healthy response because it isn’t working to heal; instead, it may be firing up other conditions.
That’s the belief of Garry Egger, professor of Health and Human Sciences at Southern Cross University in northern NSW, and one of Australia’s leading researchers in this area. He believes the total package of our modern lifestyle is responsible for basically all of today’s chronic conditions.
“People go on a weight-loss diet and start exercising to get healthier, but while it may help you lose weight – and yes, it will improve your health to an extent – if you’re still eating refined foods, getting stressed and not having enough sleep, the inflammation will still be there and your risk for developing a chronic illness remains higher,” Egger says.
Kangaroo vs wagyu
Egger refers to a study he conducted a few years ago to show what a diet bearing more “human interference” can do to inflammation levels. In his research, he measured the inflammatory markers of people who ate 100g of either kangaroo or wagyu beef, two hours after fasting. Two weeks later, the groups swapped to eat the other meal and the results were compared. They showed that eating the more human-manipulated wagyu created an immune response – the subjects showed greater signs of chronic inflammation – while eating kangaroo didn’t.
“Kangaroo is low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat,” Egger says by way of explanation. “Wagyu is more of a ‘man-made’ meat that’s high in both fats.”
The results support Egger’s theory that human interference or “anthropogens” (the man-made environments, their by-products or the lifestyles they encourage) are fuelling chronic inflammation.
“Anthropogens such as processed food, sedentary lifestyles and sleeping less are all relatively new to humans, mostly occurring in the 200 years since the industrial revolution,” Egger says. “Our bodies are reacting against these because they just haven’t been around long enough for us to develop any kind of immunity.”
The asthma connection
This theory is backed by new research from the University of Newcastle, which found that a diet consisting of foods deemed as inflammatory can cause, or exacerbate, asthma and poor lung function.
“While more research is needed, it appears that diet plays a definite role in asthma,” associate professor Lisa Wood, of the university’s Centre for Asthma and Respiratory Diseases, says. She adds that “a diet low in saturated fats and rich in fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grainscan significantly reduce asthma attacks”.
Change your lifestyle
Egger admits there’s nothing new to this clean-living message, as “we should all be eating healthier, sleeping better, quitting smoking andexercising regularly”. But while inflammation may not be a disease in itself, he says it’s a trigger for much that ails us, so it’s vital that we take stock of our lifestyle.
Research from 2012 by Carnegie Mellon University in the US found that prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of the hormone cortisol’s ability to do its job, which is regulating the inflammatory response. This is because immune cells become insensitive to cortisol’s regulatory effect and the inflammation isn’t controlled.
“The power of meditation in helping with stress and, therefore, inflammation is phenomenal,” naturopath Leah Hechtman says. “We all need to find at least 10 minutes a day to switch off and break the stress.”
Turmeric: An anti-inflammatory powerhouse
Turmeric has been used in medicine for centuries thanks to its high content of antioxidants and nutrients, including betacarotene, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), calcium, flavonoids, fibre, iron, niacin, potassium and zinc. Its best-known health benefits – treating stomach ulcers, digestive issues and even some cancers – are linked to its levels of the chemical curcumin.
However, the primary effect this pungent, yellow spice has on the body is to decrease inflammation. Hechtman says that if you can’t get your hands on fresh turmeric, buy it as an organic powder. “Throw it in everything from homemade curries to smoothies,” she adds. “Your body will thank you.”