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Inflammation and Health

When you hear about inflammation you probably think of redness in skin, pain and swelling. Inflammation is a natural reaction of the body to injury or infection, and is caused by release of chemicals from tissues and migrating cells.

The inflammatory response is the body`s response to certain stimuli, which may or may not be disease-related. For example, a splinter in your finger would trigger an inflammatory response to a small degree, which is not related to or a result of disease. On the other hand, a fever during the flu is a clear example of a disease-related inflammatory response. Inflammation existing within the body has the potential to negatively affect health, especially when it is chronic in nature.

Chronic inflammation is a major concern in medicine today. Long-term adverse health effects occur when inflammation persists at low levels. In fact, many researchers now believe that inflammation may contribute to the cause of many chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. It is well established that elevated levels of inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), Interleukin-6 (IL-6), and others indicate significantly greater risks of contracting specific diseases.

For example, researchers are trying to understand why some individuals suffer heart attacks even though they do not have major heart blockages. In addition, inflammation is a painful component to arthritis. The pain, redness, heat, swelling and other harmful effects of inflammation can be treated with medication, diet and exercise. Some researchers have also characterized obesity as a chronic, systemic low-grade state of inflammation. New research is looking at nutrition as a powerful weapon against inflammation.

C-Reactive Protein: Should you get tested?

C-reactive protein (CRP) is a special type of protein produced by the liver that is only present during episodes of acute inflammation. Testing for CRP measures the concentration of a protein in serum that gives a general indication of inflammation. Recently, new studies have suggested that CRP may be elevated in those at risk for heart disease. Researchers are uncertain of the role of CRP may play in heart disease; it is not known whether it is merely a marker of disease, or whether it actually plays a role in causing heart disease.

Many consider elevated CRP to be a positive risk factor for coronary artery disease. Some researchers have suggested that inflammation is more important than cholesterol at triggering heart attacks, and individuals with high levels of CRP have twice the risk of people with elevated cholesterol. Many healthy, middle-aged Americans have normal cholesterol but above average inflammation, putting them at an unusual risk for heart attacks and stroke.

*If an individual is at risk for heart disease or has any other condition where inflammation may be present, it is important talk to their health care provider about testing for CRP.

Diet and Supplementation Can Help

The typical western diet is high in saturated fats and sugar--two key players that promote inflammation. Choosing fresh whole foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, along with healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, tuna, walnuts, flaxseeds/oil, etc., may help keep inflammation at bay. It is also important to stay hydrated.

Nutritional supplements can promote health and may aid in staving off inflammation, especially if these “anti-inflammatory” foods are lacking in the diet. Vitamin E may play a critical role in the reducing elevated blood inflammatory markers, such as CRP and IL-6, seen in inflammatory processes. Furthermore, some new research suggests vitamin C may be beneficial for reducing CRP. In one study, participants were either smokers or exposed to cigarette smoke, and were randomized to receive either a daily dose of a vitamin C supplement (500 mg), a mixture of antioxidant supplements (E,C, and alpha lipoic acid), or a placebo (sugar pill).

Results showed a decrease in CRP by 24% among those taking vitamin C when compared to the placebo group (Block et al. J Am Coll Nutr, 2004). Other antioxidants such as selenium may help fight inflammation. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of selenium may be enhanced when combined with vitamin E. A deficiency in vitamin D is a risk factor for several disorders with inflammatory components, such as heart disease, diabetes and automimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis. (Timms, PM et al.,QJM 2002; Hein, G and Oelzner, P. Z Rheumatol, 2000.)

The essential fatty acid, omega-3, is also very important to prevent or reduce chronic inflammation. Omega-3 fats provided through diet and/or supplementation produce anti-inflammatory substances that prevent chronic inflammation from occurring. Essentially, omega-3 fats prevent the formation of inflammatory substances which are produced in abundance when the diet is lacking in omega-3 fats. (The typical American diet is high in fat, but is lacking in nutritionally essential omega-3 fatty acids).

Overall, eating a healthy diet, taking a daily multivitamin along with some antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids such as fish oil and/or flaxseed oil, is the right “nutritional prescription” for an anti-inflammatory diet. *It is important to note that nutrition is only one factor in the inflammation process and individuals should see their physician for other appropriate treatments for combating inflammation.

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