A quick overview of what you’ll learn from this blog post:
- Inflammation defined and how it impacts health
- The connection between anti-inflammatory diets & inflammation
- The implications of inflammaging on longevity
Inflammation and longevity
In the most general sense, inflammation is the process by which your body works to fight off potential harm. It does so for a variety of reasons like infection or bodily injury, or in response to certain endogenous toxins – whether through diet or following exposure to irritants or pollutants.
Regardless of the cause of physiological distress, the immune response is the same: the release of inflammatory products. In the short term, that’s a good thing! Inflammation is the arrival of reinforcements when you are pinned down by whatever is causal to distress and ready to retreat.
The problem, and where inflammation gets a bad rap, is when distress is persistent or even chronic. When this happens, inflammation must persist as well, which can be just as damaging as the infection, injury, disease, or toxin that preceded the initial immune response.
It is at this point that well-intentioned inflammation becomes harmful inflammaging —a highly significant risk factor for both morbidity and mortality, especially in the elderly. In one 2018 study of chronic inflammation and age-related illness, researchers argued that chronic diseases “are not only the result of aging and inflammaging” but may “accelerate the aging process and can be considered a manifestation of accelerated aging.”
But how does one keep physiological distress at bay, and ALSO undo the damage of inflammaging? Believe it or not, there is a clear set of action items that can almost immediately eliminate inflammatory pathogens from the body. When these measures are taken, and inflammation subsides, the body can rebuild normal tissue again.
The most obvious intervention is diet, but as we’ve learned, inflammation is driven by more than just overnutrition or gluten intolerance, so this is certainly not a fix-all. Individuals may experience low-grade inflammation due to stress, viral infections, or other pathogenic infections that the body has a hard time clearing. In other cases, such as immediately following physical trauma, an inflammatory response can also occur in spite of an anti-inflammatory diet and exercise.
The anti-inflammatory diet
For a time, anti-inflammatory diets were largely viewed as a necessary evil for those living with relatively serious autoimmune disorders. Some common diagnoses for which this is true include Celiac disease, Rhumetosis, and Hashimoto thyroiditis to name a few. In each case, symptoms are often a result of oxidative stress and inflammation that occurs as a direct result of what we put in our bodies. For these individuals, eliminating food and drink known to cause inflammation can help subdue or even reverse various IBS-related symptoms like constipation or diarrhea; skin blemishes, and breakouts including eczema and psoriasis; joint pain ranging from a dull annoyance to a full-fledge arthritic flare-up.
In the case of Celiac specifically, a counterproductive immune response is largely due to an intolerance of gluten – a naturally occurring group of proteins found in rye, barley and triticale – a cross between wheat and rye. One study of 34 women with Hashimoto’s did find that a gluten-free diet reduced antibody levels. Similarly, researchers at the Department of Internal Medicine and Rheumatology at Ospedale Nuovo Regina Margherita in Rome, Italy conducted a study of patients with long-standing rheumatoid arthritis and no response to prescription therapy. Findings suggest that once a gluten-free diet was added to patient treatment plans, RA symptoms improved.
Despite the research, however, it is important to note gluten is not in and of itself an ‘inflammatory food’ and in fact, gluten-containing foods such as whole grains (within the context of a healthy, high fiber diet) are associated with lower inflammation. Rather, gluten is an extreme example of the way in which dietary inflammation is unique to the individual. In the context of gluten intolerance, inflammation is a response to an allergy rather than a direct response to wheat proteins. This is also the reason autoimmune disorders like Celiac and Hashimotos are often determined following elimination diet protocol.
And yet, there are some hard and fast rules for those of us hoping to fight inflammaging and bolster longevity through diet. Harvard Health recommends avoiding the following known inflammatory foods as much as possible: refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and pastries; french fries and other fried foods; soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages; red meat (burgers, steaks) and processed meat (hot dogs, sausage); margarine, shortening, and lard.
But an anti-inflammatory diet is more than just what not to eat. Here are some foods to work into an anti-inflammatory diet shown to deter inflammaging and subsequent age-related illness: tomatoes; olive oil; green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and collards; nuts like almonds and walnuts; fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines; fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges.
What the science says
But does the anti-inflammatory diet work that way, and can we really stymie inflammation and potential age-related illness?
Here’s what a September study out of the Research Center On Aging at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada (among a long list of other affiliations) had to say about the newly coined phrase of inflammaging:
“The inflammaging concept” considers “the lifelong proinflammatory process as an adaptation” with “either beneficial or detrimental consequences. Both genetics and the environment influence this dichotomy. Depending on which way prevails in an individual, the outcome may be healthy longevity or pathological aging burdened with aging-related diseases…”
In simpler terms, the study suggests an inflammatory or anti-inflammatory diet may have a massive impact on age-related illness. That said, the precise effect is dependent less on the diet itself, and more on the individual, their genetics, and environment.
More research out of the Department of Clinical Gene Therapy at Osaka University in Japan takes a bit of a more rigid stance. The Osaka study denotes inflammaging as “chronic low-grade inflammation occurring in the absence of overt infection.” When this happens, it poses a massive threat to age-related health, primarily due to associated morbidity and cognitive degeneration in the elderly.
The bottom line? As we age, inflammaging can be detrimental to overall health, at worst culminating in potentially fatal age-related illness. However, a few simple lifestyle changes – including an anti-inflammatory diet – can help protect against the negative effects of chronic inflammation and support overall health and longevity.
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