Quick: what causes heart disease, diabetes and cancer? To everyone
who said smoking, a poor diet, no exercise, genes: you’re not wrong. But
scientists are beginning to understand that inflammation may be the
Researchers are at last piecing together the puzzle of how and why
certain chronic diseases claim millions of lives every year. Scientists
are excited: a large body of evidence indicates that the human body's
inflammatory response – that essential body function that helps us heal
and which is highly efficient in the short term – may be inherently
flawed in the long term.
What the research shows is that, in the process of curing wounds
and fighting infections, the body's metabolism is "upgeared" to meet the
requirements of healing. In doing so, our infection-fighting white
blood cells produce chemicals that are highly reactive. But while these
chemicals do a good job of killing the germs, they also seem to damage
our cells in the long run.
Projected over several years, this damage becomes highly
significant, ultimately altering the functionality of our cells and
setting the stage for chronic disease, whether in the form of cancer, heart disease or diabetes.
Fortunately, however, the science is also showing that we're all
able to intervene: by simply eating foods that have anti-inflammatory
properties, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and making certain
other lifestyle changes, we can help our natural defence and healing
mechanisms function optimally.
What is inflammation?
In its simplest form, inflammation is the body's response to injury,
explains Prof Demetre Labadarios, an executive director at the Human
Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and former head of the Department of
Human Nutrition at the University of Stellenbosch.
If you take a look at a new, small cut on your finger, you'll
notice that it's red, slightly swollen, hot and possibly a tiny bit
sore. This is because white blood cells have zoomed in on the area to
start the healing process and get rid of germs and other foreign
particles. In other words, the area is inflamed.
Inflammation is essentially a good thing: it helps us heal and it
keeps us alive after suffering injury. Whether the inflammatory
response is triggered by a scratch, a burn or an infection doesn't
really matter: the body reacts in exactly the same way, sending armies
of white blood cells to deal with the problem.
Ageing: the end product of inflammation
Now, in your mind's eye, compare the skin of a new-born baby to that of a 90-year-old grandpa.
There's a huge difference in what their skins look like, but
there's also a big difference in what's happening underneath the skin.
"You'll find literally no inflammation under the baby's skin,"
Labadarios says. "But the 90-year-old's skin will be full of it." So,
inflammation also has a role to play in ageing.
This same principle can be applied to the blood vessels. Most of
us regard high cholesterol and hypertension as the primary contributing
factors to heart disease, which is correct in terms of increased risk
for developing the disease. But, mechanistically, they have little in
common on their own in predisposing to the disease. Instead, chronic
inflammation seems to be the underlying mechanism.
It's also here where the recently publicised link between
heart-disease risk and gum disease comes in. "We now know that gum
disease is a source of chronic inflammation, and that this is why it's
associated with an increased risk for heart disease," Labadarios
The link to cancer
In terms of cancer, groundbreaking research is also underway, and
inflammation has already been linked to cancers of the liver,
oesophagus, stomach and colon.
Study results published in a 2006 edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine found
that an elevated white-blood-cell count was associated with cancer
mortality in older Australians, independent of smoking, diabetes,
fasting glucose levels and other related factors.
The body of research on cancer furthermore suggests that
inflammation boosts the development of cancer by damaging the DNA – a
process that makes our cells "turn over" more rapidly and which
increases the development of blood vessels that allow cancer cells to
develop and spread.
"The concept of inflammation isn't new," Labadarios notes.
"However, a better understanding of its role in terms of chronic disease
is developing every day."
Built-in protective mechanisms
We all know the process of ageing is inevitable and, at some stage, we
all have to die of something, right? But if we can find ways of slowing
down this life course, of preventing the inflammatory response from
being activated over and over again throughout our lifetime, we might
just be able to add years to our lives.
Our bodies already have built-in mechanisms to protect us – it's
simply a question of activating them. Something as simple as eating more
of the right foods can have a major impact. For example, eating at
least five fruits and vegetables, as well as other anti-inflammatory
foods, every day is one way of counteracting the inflammatory response.
Unhealthy eating habits, however, have the opposite effect.
When foods are metabolised to produce the energy we need to keep
us alive and enjoy daily activities, the process results in the
production of free radicals. These are reactive compounds that
inherently cause chronic inflammation, Labadarios explains. A diet poor
in variety, excessive eating of refined and fatty foods, and consumption
of nutrient-poor foods compromises the body's natural mechanisms that
protect against these dangerous compounds.
"The daily choices we make affect the balance of inflammation,
healing and protection," he says, noting that this makes the case for
eating fruit, vegetables and other anti-inflammatory foods so much
stronger. "It's fundamentally important and the beginning of our
understanding of what makes food so important in terms of disease
patterns and longevity," Labadarios says.
Other lifestyle factors that have been linked to chronic diseases
of lifestyle, such as smoking and physical inactivity, also seem to
disturb this delicate balance. Scientists worldwide are currently doing
research to understand exactly how these factors have an impact.
It's also in your genes
Of course, your individual response to lifestyle factors is also
determined by your genes. For example, some people can get away with
eating unwisely; others can't. Your body's inflammatory response depends
on your genetic make-up. "But this doesn't mean the person who eats
poorly won't suffer harm," Labadarios says. "He or she will, but it
might not be to the same extent.
To complicate matters further, genes also appear to determine the ill effects of obesity on health.
Obesity is now considered to be a pro-inflammatory condition.
"However, the concept is emerging that, in people with a certain genetic
background, obesity may not necessarily be associated with ill health
effects," Labadarios says. Whether this means that obesity can be
healthy for some isn't certain at this stage, but the possiblity is
- (Carine Visagie, Health24, updated January 2014)