Did you know that your immune system is hard at work 24/7, keeping you healthy all year round? Without its ability to activate acute inflammation when an injury or harmful substances enter the body, there would be virtually no way we can stay healthy and maintain a strong and active immune system. While inflammation may have short term benefits, it can also be harmful when it occurs excessively or for a prolonged time.
Did you know that your immune system is hard at work 24/7, keeping you healthy all year round?
As the human body’s primary line of defense, the immune system is a powerful network of cells, tissues, and organs designed to prevent and fight off infection. As soon as an injury occurs or a harmful pathogen, toxin, or allergen enters your body, the immune system responds by triggering a short-term process called acute inflammation. According to the Columbine Health Systems Center for Health Aging, this mechanism is a manifestation that your immune system is functioning well.
To illustrate, within minutes of getting a fresh wound on a specific area of your body, you may observe that the cut will turn red in color or swell. During this time, white blood cells are rushing to your wound to determine whether there is an infection in its surrounding areas. Following this, they will remove foreign bodies, if any, and begin repairing the damaged skin.
Without the immune system’s ability to activate acute inflammation in such situations, there would be virtually no way we can stay healthy and maintain a strong and active immune system.
While inflammation can benefit the immunity’s protective efforts, it can also be harmful when it occurs excessively or for a prolonged period of time—this is called chronic inflammation. It happens when cases of acute inflammation aren’t resolved completely, and often alongside aging, too. Because of this, the immune system remains in a constant state of high alert or overdrive—thereby increasing its risk of “overreacting” and attacking healthy cells.
How is aging associated with chronic inflammation?
Oxidative stress is one of the factors that contribute to aging and drive chronic inflammation. A naturally-occurring phenomenon, oxidative stress is driven by the body’s metabolic processes, natural immune response, and injuries.
As metabolic processes occur, molecules called free radicals and antioxidants are produced. Free radicals are unstable and highly reactive molecules that can interfere with cell function and overwhelm your immune system if they occur in excessively high levels. Levels of free radicals may increase if you are frequently exposed to harmful factors such as poor nutrition and pollution. Antioxidants, on the other hand, are stable molecules that respond to free radicals and counter or “cancel out” their damaging effects.
Your body robustly ensures that the levels of both molecules are balanced or proportional—but over time, it becomes less effective in doing so. Excessive free radicals entails cellular damage and oxidative stress left uncontrolled, which can create cycles of chronic inflammation and accelerate aging. In effect, this can leave you more prone to getting sick.
When such cycles of chronic inflammation occur alongside aging, this is called inflammaging.
How do I know if I have inflammaging? Are there any symptoms?
The Journals of Gerontology describe inflammaging as a chronic low-grade inflammation that does not necessarily accompany an “overt” infection—making it a “sterile” or pathogen-free inflammation. This means that symptoms of inflammaging, if any, can be difficult to detect. According to non-profit organization Scripps Health, signs of chronic inflammation can be as vague as feeling slightly fatigued—over time, however, it can cause damage to cells, tissue, and organs, as well as contribute to the onset of chronic diseases.
Despite this, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center says that it is also possible to feel its signs. Some possible markers of chronic inflammation are listed below:
- Feeling exhausted without any apparent reason
- Brain “fog” or having difficulty thinking or concentrating
- Experiencing digestive problems, or sensitivity to inflammatory foods
What is the impact of inflammaging on my body? What diseases can it lead to?
Inflammaging is a worrisome condition because it can compromise our adaptive and innate immune functions over time. Besides this, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A says that inflammaging is a significant risk factor for disease and death among the elderly, considering that chronic conditions usually develop due to persistent inflammation.
According to the Nature Reviews Cardiology journal and The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, inflammaging is associated with the following health conditions:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Atherosclerosis, a leading cause of heart problems
- Cardiovascular disease
- Degenerative arthritis
- Chronic kidney disease
- Diabetes mellitus
- Macular degeneration (also known as the deterioration of the retina, affecting one’s vision)
- Sarcopenia (also known as loss of muscle mass)
Is it possible to cure inflammaging?
The good news is that you can counter the harmful effects of inflammaging—all it takes is to work towards a healthier lifestyle and commit to it long-term.
Consume inflammation-fighting food
According to the Harvard Medical School and the Arthritis Foundation, an anti-inflammatory diet can help you reduce your risk of disease. Consider adding more of the following foods to your plate:
- Olive oil
- Whole fruits (e.g. tomatoes, oranges)
- Fatty fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel)
- Green leafy vegetables (e.g. cabbage, spinach)
- Nuts (e.g. walnuts, pistachios)
- Beans and legumes (e.g. black beans, lentils)
Conversely, avoid the following foods that aggravate inflammation, such as:
- Refined carbohydrates
- Processed food and meat
- Sugary drinks
- Trans fats
Make time for regular exercise
Maintain at least 30 minutes of physical activity everyday. Perform aerobic activities such as jogging or running, brisk walking, zumba, indoor cycling, and swimming. Strength training—resistance band- or weights-assisted—activities may also help, such as weighted squats, push-ups, and planks.
Alongside the physical activities mentioned above, it may also help to practice meditation, limiting time spent on social media, and other mindfulness activities in order to de-stress and allow yourself to make more time for rest.
Take supplements that target inflammaging
Hawthorn berry, tocotrienol, and zinc are some of many supplements that can help you combat the harmful effects of inflammaging. These three nutrients have antioxidant properties that may contribute in slowing the aging process, mitigate chronic inflammation, and ensure that the immune system remains potent.
How can supplements help manage or control inflammaging?
Hawthorn berry extract is made from the hawthorn tree’s sweet and tangy fruit. Historically, hawthorn berry has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to help treat gastrointestinal and cardiovascular health issues. It is abundant in potent plant compounds with antioxidant properties called polyphenols. Polyphenols are associated with health properties such as anti-inflammation, anti-premature aging, good digestive health, and cholesterol management.
Tocotrienol is one of two main forms of Vitamin E, a vitamin that is essential to our organ function. Like the hawthorn berry, tocotrienol boasts antioxidant properties. Tocotrienol has shown the potential to boost the immune system, protect the skin from harmful ultraviolet rays, strengthen hair and skin health, and maintain good eyesight.
Vitamin E’s most popular health benefit, however, is that it may be able to inhibit aging at the cellular level. For instance, a clinical trial published in the Nutrition Journal found that middle-aged and older adults who consumed tocotrienol supplements had reduced damage to their DNA three to six months following the study. With this, if consumed long-term, tocotrienol may help ensure that over time, healthy individuals face only a slowed progression of the aging process.
Zinc’s primary potential benefit lies in its immunoprotective properties. Zinc, which acts like an “anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent,” supports the production of white blood cells. White blood cells serve as the immune system’s guardians against infection—they are mainly responsible for detecting and eliminating the harmful pathogens that attempt to invade our systems. They also help the immune system in returning back to its normal state following an infection.
According to research from the Ohio State University, zinc has the potential to help balance or manage the immune system’s response to infection, as well as ensure the prevention of excessive inflammation.
Consult with your healthcare provider if you plan to start taking dietary supplements, especially if you are currently taking prescribed medications or have any existing health conditions that require medical care. In addition, it helps to do your research on the specific dietary supplements that you wish to take. Pay close attention to the listed precautions, such as adverse effects, dosage limits, and drug interactions.
Dietary supplements are also not meant to substitute prescribed medications. As the name “supplement” suggests, dietary supplements are meant to complement healthy lifestyle choices.
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