What do hypertension, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, stroke and cancer have in common?
Health experts have linked chronic inflammation as one of many hypertension causes – and not only that, chronic inflammation is linked to all the other diseases mentioned above too. Health experts are looking at how high-fat foods and excess body weight, among others, may increase risk.
Inflammation is your immune system’s natural response to injury and infectious agents. But when the inflammation doesn't let up - for example because of a constant diet of high-fat foods, too much body fat and smoking - the immune system’s response can itself spiral out of control, paradoxically increasing disease risk.
When inflammation becomes chronic it can damage heart valves and brain cells, trigger strokes and promote resistance to insulin, leading to diabetes. It is also associated with cancer development.
Obesity is known to promote inflammation. Fat cells, particularly those in the visceral fat in the belly and around organs, produce molecules known as cytokines which trigger inflammation. In such cases, the most important thing to do is to lose excess weight - which has been shown to reduce inflammation within weeks or months.
A substance known as C-reactive protein (CRP) is an indicator of inflammation in the body. A 2007 report which analyzed results of 33 separate studies found that losing weight can lower CRP levels.
Many nutritionists and physicians have also developed anti-inflammatory diets.
For instance, one such diet encourages people to consume whole-grain foods, unsaturated fats such as plant oils, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, poultry, eggs and moderate amounts of dairy foods. It also suggests avoiding red meat, butter, sweets and white foods such as rice, potatoes and pasta.
The problem is this - if you are overweight or obese and eat healthy, your excess weight will still counter any beneficial effects of the healthy foods you are eating.
Regular consumption of dietary fiber was shown to lower levels of CRP and other inflammatory markers - probably because fiber improves insulin sensitivity, lowering levels of inflammation.
A combination of nutrients found in dairy food also helped to ease inflammation in patients at risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. In a recent study, patients who were given 3½ servings of dairy daily over 12 weeks showed reductions in several markers of inflammation compared with a group given just half a serving of dairy per day.
Finally, new research funded by the National Institutes of Health is studying the complex relationships between diet, inflammation and cancer. Cancer is caused by many different processes and inflammation is one of them - so in principle if you could inhibit inflammation it would lower cancer risk, an exciting possibility.