I will just give it to you right away… The key to health and longevity is switching off chronic inflammation. There you go. That really is the answer. Cardiovascular disease (heart attacks, strokes etc), neurodegenerative disease (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Motorneuron disease etc) and cancer all start with chronic inflammation in the body. You don’t need a degree in medicine to understand that persistant low level inflammation can lead to premature death. The real problem is that by the time real symptoms start showing, the damage has already been done.
Genetic factors also come into play and cannot be ignored, however epigenetics has explained to us that even though we may be genetically pre-disposed to certain conditions or diseases, those genes still need certain environmental “triggers/conditions” to be expressed (activated). If they are not activated they can and will remain dormant in the body without ever affecting your health.
If you would like to understand how the inflammatory response functions and what you can do to deal with it, keep reading.
Accute inflammation is vital for your survival and forms part of the healing process within your body. The inflammatory response is switched on when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. In layman’s term it is called “fight or flight” and is the nervous system’s response to a possible “threat”. This usually occurs when we are under perceveived stress. Our immune system is on high allert to repair any tissues that may be damaged and energy is made available to be utilized during the stressfull situation. All non-vital bodily functions are put on hold to ensure all resources are made available to deal with the threat. Now the body is in a pro-inflammatory state. In the blood system macrophage, a type of antigen(defense cell), responsible for detecting, engulfing and destroying pathogens (intruder cells), are released. The macrophage sets the immune response in action leading to the release of pro-inflammatory mediators (hormones and neurotransmitters). These mediators are necessary to protect the body against “intruders”.
This is great in a survival situation that only lasts for a few seconds, acute physical stress. Then if the threat moves on, inflammation has done its job and is switched off. This is what happens in a perfect world. In the short term inflammation promotes healing, helps us adapt to external physical stressors and internal pathogens and plays a crucial role in survival. The problem comes in when there are in fact no “intruders” present and the stressor is psychological in nature and it doesn’t move on.
Acute inflammation is protective, chronic inflammation on the other hand is the precursor to many types of disease and an early death.
Whether inflammation is a friend or foe depends on your body’s ability to switch it off when it is no longer needed.
The problem is we don’t live in a perfect world, and chronic inflammation caused by stress rears its head in many forms. Firstly there is a need to differentiate between physical stress, like trauma from an accident, intense exercise, hunger, famine or a mugging and psychological stress like fear or anxiety.
Common causes of psychological stress includes but are not limited to the following:
- Any sudden changes in your environment and daily routine
- Loss of a loved one
- Erratic sleep
- Severe traffic or constant traveling
- Mental consequences of physical trauma
Therefore the key to health, wellness and longevity is turning off chronic inflammation, which is synonymous with stress.
By now, I am sure you understand the importance of effectively balancing the pro-and anti-inflammatory forces in your life and you would like to know how you can turn off this silent killer. There are two pathways that you can use to achieve this objective: mental and physical.
They work together and form part of the human mind-body system. The best way is to approach this problem is twofold.
There is a mountain of research that supports higher aerobic fitness is associated with much lower rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and increased cognitive function etc. Traditionally, this relationship was thought to be due purely to changes in the cardiovascular system itself. However, it’s becoming clearer that a big reason higher aerobic fitness leads to lower risk of the most common lifestyle diseases is because it protects against inflammation. One reason is because this type of exercise stimulates the release of serotonin and dopamine. Research is clear that low intensity endurance training develops the body’s ability to mitigate inflammation. High intensity training is a huge driver of inflammation, simply because it places so much stress on all the tissues and the immune system. High intensity training has its place, but prioritize low intensity training, especially if you want to minimize chronic inflammation. This includes activities like swimming, cycling, jogging or brisk walking where your heart rate is around 120-140 bpm (beats per minute). Doing this for 30-60 minutes, 3-5 times a week, depending on individual fitness levels will suffice.
Without going into too much detail, a balanced diet based on whole foods that is built around fruit, vegetables, lean protein, nuts, seeds, oils (with a balance between saturated, mono and poly-un-saturated fat), whole grains and some dairy while avoiding highly processed foods like refined carbohydrates, hydrogenated vegetable oils and trans fats will help you to further reduce the inflammatory response.
Eliminate caffeine after exercise and a few hours before bedtime. Stimulants increase sympathetic nervous system function, which drives inflammation.
Eating causes an increase in dopamine and oxytocin – a good thing. Although eating too much is not a good thing.
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Psychological stress is after all a state of mind. Dr Ian Weinberg, who pioneered PNE (Psycho-neuro endocrinology) has illustrated that when pro-inflammatory mediators (cortisol, adrenaline and pro-inflammatory cytokines) are high, this activates the amygdala (centre in the brain responsible for fear, anxiety, panic and rage), which in turn suppresses the immune system and lowers dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. This impairs the pre-frontal cortex (centre of the brain responsible for clarity, calmness, reason and focus) and kills cells in the hippocampus (centre of the brain responsible for short-term memory and stress buffering). This pro-inflammatory hormonal cocktail combined with other irritants like cigarette smoke and highly processed foods contribute to a host of diseases.
Enough with the bad – in order to create an anti-inflammatory hormonal profile you want to increase the release of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Besides the physical steps you can take mentioned earlier, you want to increase experiencing the following mind states:
- Self-worth, self-esteem and self-efficacy
- Purposeful motivation
These mind states lead to an increase in dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Which in turn stimulates the prefrontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens and the hippocampus while de-activating the amygdala. The activation of these areas of the brain leads to improved memory, learning, attention, calmness, clarity, reason and interestingly a reduction in inflammation.
According to Dr Weinberg this forms the ‘Golden Triangle’ responsible for a robust immune system, maximal neuroplasticity and a healthy, meaningful long life.
Now you know the facts and cannot claim ignorance. Be proactive about your health rather than waiting until something goes wrong.
About the author: Reinhard Korb is a thought leader in the combined application of nutrition, exercise, neuroscience and mindfulness. He helps optimize health, wellness and performance in his clients. As the founder of Thrive, he has facilitated and helped various organisations and individuals actualize their potential and achieve peak performance states. He is a certified Fitness & Nutrition Coach, Meta Coach, Neuro Coach, Stress Management Coach and Wellness Coach