As each year passes, the signs of aging gradually reveal themselves. The creases on the side of your eyes deepen and become more visible, brown spots appear, and wrinkles blanket the skin. These outward manifestations of aging may seem the most alarming effects, but how aging affects what is happening inside the body is the true indicator of your health and wellness. Over time, changes on a molecular and cellular level lead to changes on the level of tissue and organs that result in the effects of aging. While there is no single explanation for these changes, and in fact multiple processes contribute to their speed and effects, inflammation is closely linked to these changes. In fact, inflammation may be a primary trigger of premature aging and several diseases once believed to be a result of aging. Just as we apply creams and suffer through lasers to fight visible signs of aging, we can adjust our diet and lifestyle to fight the internal chronic inflammation that potentially triggers the effects of aging.
To fight inflammation you have to understand inflammation. The body’s biochemical response to harmful stimuli most often triggered by infections, wounds, and damaged tissue is inflammation. When we suffer an acute injury like a fall or a blow to the knee, the inflammatory response is triggered; chemicals are released into the blood or affected tissue to protect the area of injury from foreign and/or harmful substances. Signs of the inflammatory response are increased temperature, redness, swelling, and pain in the area of injury. In protecting the area from harmful stimuli, inflammation creates an environment that allows for the healing process. Acute inflammation is an important and necessary part of our bodies’ immune response; infections, wounds, and any damage to tissue would never heal without inflammation.
The problem arises when the inflammatory response to infections, wounds, and damaged tissue is out of proportion to the actual issue faced by the body, or when there are no harmful stimuli present. In this scenario, inflammation becomes self-perpetuating; more inflammation is created in response to existing inflammation. The result is chronic inflammation—long-term inflammation that can last for several months and even years. Over time, chronic inflammation takes a serious toll on the health of the body. The inflammatory process produces free radicals to fight bacteria during the healing process. This is necessary to heal an acute injury. But over a long period of time, the free radicals produced during the inflammation response cause continuous cellular damage. Cellular damage, a key cause of aging, typically accumulates gradually over a lifetime. The amount of free radicals produced with chronic inflammation significantly increases cellular damage, causing a faster aging process.
Chronic inflammation is pervasive in our society. If you have heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, bacterial or viral infections, osteoporosis, arthritis, acid reflux, or even acne, then you may have chronic, low-grade inflammation. And if you do not suffer from these maladies, keep in mind that chronic inflammation is thought to be one of the leading causes of disease and premature aging. Reducing inflammation and thus the damaging effects on not only your current health but also your future health and your body’s overall response to aging is necessary. With the right diet and lifestyle choices to support your health, you can fight disease and aging.
- Practice an anti-inflammatory diet. Chronic inflammation and conditions associated with chronic inflammation can be made worse or better depending on a person’s diet. Further, eating to avoid constant inflammation promotes better health and can ward off disease. Eating an unbalanced diet and unhealthy food can cause inflammation. Whether you are struggling with or seeking to avoid chronic inflammation, focus on a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, sources of omega-3 fatty acids like cold-water fish (including salmon, sardines, herring, and cod) and walnuts, and lean protein sources like chicken. Minimize saturated and trans fats, refined carbohydrates such as white pasta and rice, and red meat; avoid processed foods like chips and pretzels and fast foods. See our complete list of anti-inflammatory foods to better define your dietary choices.
- Manage stress. The inflammatory response is triggered by chronic stress. Stress increases blood pressure and heart rate, making the blood vessels work harder to move blood throughout the system. The harder you make the blood vessels work, the more damage you create, and the more damage, the more inflammation. There are many potential ways to manage stress. Research shows that restorative yoga reduces the stress response and therefore potentially the inflammation response. In fact a 2010 study found that women who regularly practiced restorative hatha yoga twice a week for at least two years had lower levels of inflammation compared to those who practiced less frequently.
- Exercise. Physical activity, even if moderate, prevents and may even decrease inflammation already present in the body. A study by Mark Hamer, PhD, an epidemiologist at University College London, revealed that men and women who moderately exercise each week—about twenty minutes a day or a total of two and a half hours a week—over an extended period of time show lower levels of inflammation. It is hypothesized that when you exercise, cytokine, a type of protein molecule, is released into the bloodstream. It is this release of cytokine that likely causes the drop in inflammation.