Think of aging, and what comes to mind? Creaky joints? Heart disease? Declining mental ability? All of those are the manifestations of inflammation gone awry, says researcher and diet guru Barry Sears, author of the 1995 bestseller The Zone. The aging process can be defined as simply increased inflammation, Sears says. And diet has a lot to do with it.
Most people are familiar with the type of inflammation that occurs when they touch a hot stove or sprain an ankle—and that's a good thing, Sears says, because it starts the healing process and prevents continuing dangerous activity. But when inflammation runs unchecked, it can take its toll on virtually every system in the body. Step back from every chronic disease and you see inflammation, he says.
Worse, people who have chronic inflammation may not know it; outward symptoms may not appear until the condition has become serious. Fortunately, simple blood tests can detect inflammation, or what Sears calls silent pain.
The degree of inflammation is determined by the interplay of three hormones: insulin, which helps the body transport sugars out of the bloodstream; glucagon, which restores blood-sugar levels and releases stored energy; and eicosanoids, which regulate cell function.
"It's excess insulin that makes you fat and keeps you fat," Sears says. By lowering insulin, you lower inflammation.
But Sears isn't the only one talking about inflammation. In his book The Inflammation Syndrome (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2003), author Jack Challem says people who have one inflammatory condition, such as asthma or arthritis, are likely to develop others as they age, and the inflammation spreads and affects other parts of the body.
Hormones in chaos
Challem lays the blame for widespread inflammatory diseases squarely on the American diet. So much of the same junk food leads to obesity, heart disease, even cancer.
The worst offenders, he says, are foods with highly refined sugars and starches, because they lead to a spike in blood sugar followed by a spike in insulin. And insulin increases production of C-reactive protein, which is widely acknowledged to be both a marker for and a promoter of inflammation.
Other foods that Challem says promote inflammation are common cooking oils, such as corn, safflower, soybean and peanut; foods with trans fats; and foods devoid of antioxidants.
While the sugars raise insulin levels, the processed cooking oils saturate us with omega-6 fatty acids, which are already present in the American diet in too high a concentration, Challem says. And in general, highly processed foods displace nutrients and generate fat cells, which in turn promote C-reactive protein, he adds. "The net effect is that people are primed for chronic inflammation." Challem suggests that consumers buy organic foods if they can afford it. "The most common pesticides are estrogen mimics," he says, and they can disrupt the natural hormonal cycle.
Sears notes that while eating organic will decrease the load on the body's attempt to detoxify from pesticides, most Americans would do well to increase their consumption of any fruits and vegetables. Frozen products, in particular, are a good option, he says, because of their denser nutrient content and affordable price.
Sears believes the natural foods industry can play a pivotal role in helping consumers eat right to avoid chronic disease. "The real power of nutrition lies in understanding how food affects hormones," he says.
Lending further credence to this concept, researchers from the University of Buffalo published a report in the April issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showing that people who ate an Egg McMuffin and hash browns for breakfast had high levels of inflammatory markers in their blood for three to four hours after the meal.
"Eating that 900-calorie, high-fat meal temporarily floods the bloodstream with inflammatory components, overwhelming the body's natural inflammation-fighting mechanisms," says Ahmad Aljada, the lead author on the study. "People who experience repeated, short-lived bouts of inflammation resulting from many such unhealthy meals can end up with blood vessels in a chronic state of inflammation," Aljada says. In a still-unpublished study, the UB researchers found that a breakfast with the same number of calories, but comprising fruits and fiber, doesn?t promote inflammation. Sears believes consumers can learn to eat in a manner that keeps hormones at therapeutic levels, much as doctors do with drugs, but without the side effects. "Food is the most powerful drug you?ll ever take," he says.
Diet, not drugs
Challem goes further, saying that common nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen can actually make matters worse. Aspirin, he says, accelerates the breakdown of joint cartilage, while other NSAIDs cause the level of glucosamine to drop, even when people supplement with glucosamine. If you're taking [NSAIDs] a few times a day you don't have a chance [for your blood levels of glucosamine] to rebound. What people are doing for short-term pain relief is accelerating the disease process.
Teaching people to conquer pain with diet rather than drugs, says Sears, "allows the natural foods industry to play with the big boys."
And while it's great to avoid foods that promote inflammation, it's better yet to eat foods that fight that process. Challem lists the following foods as anti-inflammatory favorites:
- Olive oil
- Cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout and tuna
- Fresh vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, tomatoes and cucumbers
- Dark leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collard greens and mustard greens
- Nuts and seeds
- Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, kiwi and other fruits low in sugar
Sears, for his part, promotes a low-glycemic-load diet—not, he emphasizes, a low-carb diet—similar to the well-studied and highly touted Mediterranean diet. Two-thirds of a person's calories should come from fruits and vegetables and one-third from low-fat protein, with a dash of mono-unsaturated fats such as olives and nuts thrown in, he says.
Fishing for health
In addition to diet, Sears recommends taking high doses of fish oil, citing studies that show the degree of disability from multiple sclerosis, bipolar disease and dementia can be diminished with fish oil. And, he adds, fish oil helps the body burn fat faster.
Challem would add natural vitamin E and gamma linolenic acid to the shopping cart as well. Studies support vitamin E's ability to reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis as well as levels of C-reactive protein, he says, and GLA is a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Both Challem and Sears stress that the anti-inflammatory approach to wellness takes a lifetime commitment—not the easy fix Americans often seek. Speaking specifically to baby boomers, Challem says, "I would recommend that they start yesterday. It's at this point in your life that I think you have your last best chance to change your major risk factors for serious disease."
However, Sears noted that the approach itself is rather simple: "Eat small meals. Have some protein at every meal. Eat primarily fruits and vegetables. And take your fish oil."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 8/p. 18, 24