Is your body doing the slow (invisible) burn that fires up cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and brain drain — and even increases wrinkles and hurts your sex life? You can't really feel inflammation until its damage is obvious, but the answer could be “yes” if you've got a wide waistline, a stressed-out schedule, a taste for fast and processed foods or a neglected container of dental floss in your bathroom cabinet.
If you're mumbling, “Yikes, that's me!” don't panic ... yet. The pay-attention-to-this news: You get a do-over! It's true that inflammation makes cancer-stopping genes (you have 'em) impotent, leading to the development of new cancer; plus, it fuels existing small cancers and the buildup of heart-menacing plaque in artery walls. But you can turn off inflammation, and that's key to controlling those gene switches, beating cancer and dodging heart disease.
So, what's inflammation and how can you control it?
Inflammation is an immune-system reaction designed by Mother Nature to protect your body. How? By getting the warriors of the immune system (your T-cells) marching off to war against invading disease-causing bugs and other cell-damaging intruders. But excess body fat, stress, major-ager foods like sugars and bad fats, simmering infections or even more candles on your birthday cake can cause the immune system to boost inflammation and keep it boosted. (And some people have a genetic predisposition to it.) As a result, your bloodstream gets overloaded with inflammatory chemicals that can do serious damage, messing with the way your body processes blood sugar; dislodging plaque that lines your arteries, causing blood clots or heart attacks; feeding cancers; and fueling brain changes that destroy neural connections, brain cells and increase your Alzheimer's risk.
Drugs, such as lousy-LDL-cholesterol-lowering statins, cool off inflammation. It is more than 40 percent of their beneficial effect. And so can do-it-yourself behavior like being physically active (in reasonable amounts, not more than two hours at a time), quitting smoking, avoiding secondhand smoke, getting a flu shot and losing belly fat. But don't stop there. Here are five feel-good, drug-free strategies proven to douse inflammation's slow burn:
• Dive into a bowl of berries, cherries or both. Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and cranberries contain polyphenols that shut down inflammatory signals triggered by chemicals in your body. Add tart cherries — they boost antioxidant levels inside your cells (as physical activity does) — and that cools down inflammation.
• Pair citrus and dark chocolate. Flavonones in oranges and grapefruit can reduce inflammation enough to help lower your risk of stroke by 19 percent. Just a few bites of very dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa that's low in added sugar) can chill out the fire within, too. Why not pair a square with berries or citrus for a sophisticated, inflammation-soothing dessert?
• Grill salmon or trout, or pop some walnuts, and take a supplement. Regularly getting good omega-3 fats (in fish and supplements) can reduce inflammation levels by 10 percent or more. And the omega-9s in olive oil also cool inflammation. If you're not eating fish at least twice a week (and even if you are), we recommend taking 600 milligrams of DHA omega-3 fatty acids daily (900 mg for age 50 or older) and, based on incoming data, maybe 420 mg of omega-7 daily, too. (Speaking of supplements, get a daily dose of 1,000 IU of vitamin D-3; 1,200 IU for age 60 or older.)
• Chill out with meditation. We started our daily meditation practices to ease stress, then found out it reduces inflammation. It will quell yours, too. Sit in a comfortable chair in a quiet room, close your eyes, follow your breath — in, out, in, out — as you tense and relax each body part from toe to head.
• Upgrade your smile. Gingivitis, gum disease that leads to inflammation, starts simmering within days when you take a break from flossing. Floss every day, and see your dental professional regularly to maintain a sexy, healthy smile.