The leading causes of death and disability worldwide are chronic degenerative conditions. These familiar diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and type II diabetes are increasing globally, at a dramatic rate, in every region, and in all socioeconomic classes. To be clear, chronic degenerative conditions exceed deaths caused by famine, war, and even infectious diseases. Importantly, this was not always the case.
What has changed? Certainly, it hasn’t been our genetics. Our DNA has changed very little in the past hundred thousand years. And yet, we are suddenly experiencing a virtual explosion in the prevalence of these conditions.
To understand why do these conditions are now so widespread, we have to ask if there’s any shared mechanism that underlies chronic degenerative diseases as a group. Indeed there is. In a word, it’s inflammation. All of these conditions represent a consequence of increased levels of inflammation within the body, and higher levels of inflammation can damage heart arteries, the brain, the joints, and even disrupt the function of the immune system allowing cancer to manifest.
So, if inflammation is at the root of what our now the most pervasive diseases on our planet, it really makes sense to explore how our modern world is amping up inflammation as this should clearly provide us some action points to live a healthier and longer life.
Without question, the biggest environmental change that humans have experienced worldwide in the past several decades has been in the area of the type of foods consumed. The so-called, “Western diet” has unfortunately become pretty much the global norm. This is fundamentally important, because this diet, high in ultra-processed components, sugar, and refined carbohydrates, dramatically enhances inflammation. Of the 1.2 million foods typically sold in American grocery stores, approximately 68% contain added sugar, and an incredible 58% of food consumed by Americans is ultra-processed.
It’s for this reason that forward-thinking healthcare providers are dialing in to diets that are designed to reduce inflammation. These are diets that emphasize whole foods from natural sources, low in sugar and refined carbohydrates, primarily plant-based, with an emphasis on providing adequate amounts of healthy fats. In addition, there is certainly a greater emphasis these days on including foods that contain both probiotics (fermented foods) as well as prebiotic fiber (to enhance the growth and metabolism of the probiotic bacteria in the gut). The reason there is such an emphasis on the gut bacteria has to do with the role of these organisms in maintaining the integrity of the gut lining.
The lining of the intestinal wall represents a powerful line of defense, keeping the rest of the body isolated from various gut related chemical compounds that can aggressively increase inflammation. This explains the important relationship between the health of the gut and systemic inflammation. Threatening the function, health, or diversity of our resident microbes, as can happen with inappropriate food choices, taking various medications like antibiotics, and even exposure to pesticides and herbicides can ultimately play out as increased permeability of the gut lining, now commonly referred to as “leaky gut.” And, to reiterate, this is a situation that powerfully enhances inflammation, setting the stage for a wide array of diseases.
Specific gut bacteria, including Lactobacillus plantarum, and Lactobacillus rhamnosus are known to play important roles in maintaining and even reducing intestinal permeability, and this is why these two species are important components in probiotics supplements. Our gut bacteria also thrive when they are nurtured by foods rich in prebiotic fiber as well as polyphenols. Prebiotic fiber, as mentioned above, is the type of dietary fiber that nurtures our good bacteria, allowing them to produce their metabolic products that ultimately provide health benefits. Some of the best food choices in terms of prebiotic content include dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, onions, and leeks, asparagus, apples, flax seeds, and jicama (Mexican yam). Supplements containing acacia gum and baobab fruit derivatives are also a terrific source of prebiotic fiber.
Polyphenols contribute to gut the health by further enhancing the growth of beneficial bacteria while helping to suppress the growth of potentially pathogenic organisms. In addition, polyphenols are actually antioxidants in and of themselves and help reduce inflammation. This explains why there is so much research involving polyphenols in areas like heart disease, cancer, preserving brain function, and gut related disorders as well. Foods rich in polyphenols include apples, blueberries, peaches, raspberries, broccoli, spinach, black beans, almonds, flax seeds, cinnamon, coffee, dark chocolate, olives and olive oil, and red wine.
Quality sleep remains incredibly underrated in terms of its importance for health and disease resistance. It’s been estimated that a full two thirds of American adults do not get adequate amounts of restorative sleep. This very much plays into risk for chronic to generative diseases as lack of restorative sleep directly enhances inflammation. This may well explain, at least in part, why sleep disorders are associated with increased risk for things like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and type II diabetes. There is a sense that even though for example, we don’t sleep well during the week, we can make it up on the weekend. It doesn’t work that way. Even one night of non-restorative sleep has consequences the very next day not just in terms of inflammation, but in other areas like hormone balance and even blood sugar regulation.
So, it’s really worthwhile to first, get a sense as to how restorative your sleep is. The gold standard is to have a formal sleep study, performed by a physician, in a sleep laboratory. The information that this type of study provides not only includes the length of time a person is sleeping, but the quality of his or her sleep based upon looking at the various stages of sleep. In addition, this type of study can reveal breathing issues that may compromise restorative sleep, like sleep apnea.
But there are certainly less aggressive ways of getting a sense as to the quality of your sleep. These days there are plenty of wearable devices that can provide very meaningful information that will allow and encourage you to make changes to foster a better night’s sleep. That said, some helpful tips include stopping caffeine after 2 PM, minimizing screen time in the evening as blue light from computers, tablets, phones, and TV, can inhibit the hormone melatonin and make it more difficult to fall asleep. Getting some bright light exposure in the morning is also beneficial as it helps to solidify the circadian rhythm. Try to make your bedroom as dark as possible, and you might even consider lowering the temperature by a degree or two.
From multiple perspectives, our environment seems to be getting more and more toxic. And it’s important to call out these sources of toxicity if we want to go about making lifestyle changes geared at reducing their detrimental impact. Stress, for example is one of the most obvious toxins that has become virtually ubiquitous in our modern world. Stress, leads to an increased production from the adrenal glands of the hormone cortisol. Chronic elevation of cortisol, a manifestation of chronically being exposed to a stressful environment, causes important changes to happen in the gut. Changes occur not only in terms of the various species that are represented, but in addition, cortisol acts directly on the gut wall to increase permeability, which, as noted above, powerfully enhances the production of inflammatory chemicals throughout the body. So, it is through this mechanism that we are able to understand a relationship between our stressful modern world and the ever-increasing rates of chronic degenerative diseases.
But there’s good news. We now know that we can offset the damaging effects of stress in our lives. Two important ways to make this happen include meditation, and exposure to nature. Meditation, even for as little as 12 minutes each day, has been shown to lower cortisol, reduce inflammation, balance the immune system, and even improve empathy and compassion. Exposure to nature has similar effects. Essential oils that are secreted by trees increase our sense of wellness. Nature exposure, even in an urban environment, has been shown to dramatically reduce cortisol levels, and this occurs even after just a few minutes. Nature exposure calms inflammation, and perhaps because of this, individuals living in greener environments have increased longevity. To be clear, nature exposure doesn’t mean that you have to plan a trip to Yellowstone each week. Measurable benefits have been demonstrated by simply being around a plant. One recent study demonstrated reduced measurements of stress in individuals in a hospital waiting room when there was a plant present. Incredibly, there’s even benefit from exposure to a photograph or painting of a natural environment!
Inflammation plays an important role in helping combat infections, and recover from injuries. But when the fire of inflammation continues to smolder over a long period of time, it ushers in any number of chronic degenerative conditions. But the good news is our lifestyle choices can make a huge difference in terms of keeping inflammation in check and as such, help us live long and healthy lives.