The Mechanism Behind One of the Biggest Threats to Our Vitality
Aging is an incredibly complex biological process. While numerous factors are at play, most scientists agree that chronic inflammation is one of the key contributors.
Inflammation at the cellular level is heavily tied into the progressive degenerative process of aging, says Nancy S. Jenny, Ph.D. And while inflammation on its own is a healthy response to a threat to the body, chronic inflammation—that is, inflammation that persists for weeks or longer—erodes our cellular health from the inside. That process wears down our health and vitality as we get older.
In this post, we will explore the biological pathways that contribute to chronic inflammation and the ways we can fight back against its ill effects.
The Connection Between Inflammation and Decline
According to a recent study conducted by researchers at Yale School of Medicine, our cells change as we age, resulting in the immune system producing chronic, low-level inflammation throughout the body. This can lead to a general loss of functioning that makes it harder for us to ward off illness and disease. In addition, this inflammation has been shown to contribute to a variety of health-related issues—bone loss, frailty and cognitive decline—and is a factor in the development of chronic age-related diseases like arthritis, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
Separate research from Longevity & Healthspan points out that inflammaging—the chronic inflammation that occurs as we age—is thought to be a consequence of a remodeling of the innate and acquired immune system. These are changes that happen at the cellular level. Likewise, MedlinePlus writes that many cells start to lose their ability to function at this point or start to function abnormally, which accelerates both physical and cognitive decline.
It should be noted that not all inflammation is bad. As we’ve written before, there’s a difference between acute and chronic inflammation—acute inflammation is what helps heal us after we’ve been injured.
Chronic inflammation, however, can result in bodily responses that lead to tissue degeneration. That’s problematic for our bodies. Worse yet, chronic inflammation tends to build up as we age, and changes at the cellular level only reinforce those inflammatory responses.
The Factors That Contribute to Inflammation
Some degree of inflammation is inevitable with age. There’s just no getting around it. But as scientists have found, there are several factors that can contribute to our inflammatory responses and speed up the aging process.
Here are some of the primary causes.
Exposure to Toxins
Results RNA identifies some of the most harmful toxins, which include the following:
- Outdoor air pollutants such as smoke, carbon monoxide from vehicles and sulfur dioxide from coal
- Indoor air pollutants like cigarette smoke, chemicals from household products, mold and lead
- Synthetic chemicals found in some consumer products such as deodorant and toothpaste
- Fruits and vegetables with high levels of pesticides
- Seafood with high levels of mercury
As Birandra K. Sinha at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences writes, the toxicity of environmental pollutants plays an integral role in the formation of free radicals, leading to subsequent damage to cellular macromolecules. This process may result in a host of unsavory side effects including the formation of tumors, cancer and inflammation.
What’s interesting is free radicals are both a cause and a result of inflammation. The damage from free radicals causes inflammation, which in turn goes on to a produce an abundance of free radicals; these free radicals then contribute to further inflammation. It’s a vicious cycle and can be detrimental to many systems in the body.
Research from Carnegie Mellon University has found a link between the effects of psychological stress and the body’s inability to regulate inflammation. Psychology professor Sheldon Cohen, head of the research team at CMU, found that inflammation is partly regulated by the hormone cortisol.
Prolonged stress inhibits the effectiveness of cortisol, and when cortisol doesn’t function correctly inflammation can get out of control. Cohen adds that when immune cells become insensitive to cortisol’s regulatory effect, inflammation is likely to promote the development and progression of many diseases.
According to the International Journal of Endocrinology, there’s a correlation between obesity and chronic inflammation. It states that the starting signal of inflammation is overfeeding, so individuals who are overweight often experience low-level, chronic inflammation. This is based on research in both mice and humans where there was evidence that consumption of nutrients may acutely evoke inflammatory responses.
Separate research by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology likewise found a connection between obesity (as caused by high-fat, high-sugar diets) and changes to immune cells.
Lack of Sleep
Alanna Morris, MD at Emory School of Medicine discovered a link between acute sleep deprivation and increased inflammation. She explains that acute sleep deprivation results in an increased production of inflammatory hormones as well as changes in blood vessel function.
Her studies found that people who sleep six or fewer hours per night have higher levels of three critical inflammatory markers—fibrinogen, IL-6 and C-reactive protein. These levels are lower for individuals who sleep between six and nine hours per night.
Lifestyle Changes That Can Suppress Inflammation
We’ve established that inflammation at the cellular level is a key contributor to our bodies’ showing signs of aging. We’ve also found four lifestyle factors that can add to inflammation.
But what can you do to suppress it and minimize its impact? Fortunately, there are some proactive steps you can take.
While it’s true that some things are outside your control (like your family history), Anne Newman MD, MPH points out that longevity is only 20–30% heritable. This is good news and means there are several ways to fight inflammation.
Here are three steps you can take today.
Eating a Healthy Diet
Dr. Frank Hu at the Harvard School of Public Health has performed many experimental studies showing how certain foods and beverages have anti-inflammatory effects. According to Dr. Hu, these are some of the worst foods for inflammation:
- Refined carbohydrates such as white bread and pastries
- Fried foods
- Soda and other sugary beverages
- Red meat
- Processed meat
Some of the best foods for combating inflammation include the following:
- Green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale
- Fruits such as blueberries, strawberries and oranges
- Nuts such as almonds and walnuts
- Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel
Forrest H. Nielsen, Ph.D., a research nutritionist at the USDA’s Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, says green leafy vegetables are especially rich in magnesium, which is something that roughly half of the population is deficient in—and a mineral that’s great at reducing inflammation.
Getting a Proper Night’s Sleep
Seven to eight hours per night is considered a normal sleep duration. Whenever sleep disturbances occur from either too much sleep or not enough, it can trigger inflammation.
Therefore, it’s crucial to aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night. While this is easier said than done, hitting this sweet spot is something we all should aim for.
In a recent study, head researcher Suzi Hong, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, hypothesized that a 20-minute exercise session would trigger sympatho adrenergic activation, which in turn would suppress monocytic cytokines. The results suggest this hypothesis is correct. The team found that a single 20-minute session on a treadmill results in a reduction of the cytokine TNF. In other words, routine exercise—even in small amounts—can go a long way in reducing inflammation.
Lifestyle Changes That Add Years to Your Life
While the research into chronic inflammation is promising, it also means that we, as individuals, are responsible for making lifestyles changes that help promote vitality and longevity. We know what factors contribute to chronic inflammation, and we know what steps we can take to push back against it.
Not sure where to start? We have several articles on lifestyle to check out for further reading. And, of course, our own VitaYears™ Anti-Aging Multivitamin provides anti-inflammatory nutrients to help you build a cellular-level defense against the effects of chronic inflammation.
images by: michaeljung/©123RF Stock Photo, xixinxing/©123RF Stock Photo, kuznetsovkonsta/©123RF Stock Photo