How to combat chronic inflammation with lifestyle, diet and gut microbes

How to combat chronic inflammation with lifestyle, diet and gut microbes

Discover how lifestyle, diet, and the gut microbiome can influence your risk of chronic inflammation.

Inflammation is a natural response to a threat. It is necessary to prevent infection, fight illness, and heal damaged tissues. But when this process gets out of control and becomes chronic, inflammation increases risks of preventable diseases.

Chronic inflammation is sterile because it normally begins without an infection, but can persist for decades. To illustrate, last time we reviewed how plaque on the arteries (atherosclerosis) can cause inflammation by confusing the tissues and immune cells.

We also explained how excess fat tissue present in obesity can secrete pro-inflammatory molecules, and by doing so, increases the risk of type II diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.

Now it is time to go further and explore how diet, lifestyle, stress, and gut microbiome health also play a role in chronic disease. Here are some quick links to access the topics in this article that spark your interest.

  1. How does lifestyle influence chronic stress?
  2. Chronic inflammation and the gut microbiome
  3. Use your diet to prevent chronic inflammation

Lifestyle and chronic inflammation

Smoking, physical inactivity, stress, and sleep deprivation facilitate chronic inflammation.

Our daily routines are often chair-bound. Whenever you commute, work at a desk, watch TV, or eat, you are sitting. The person writing this article was also sat at a computer, looking at a screen for hours.

Sit less, do more

But the main problem is not in just sitting, it's the sedentary lifestyle that has become commonplace in developed countries. Inactive people are at higher risk of developing a chronic condition, like coronary heart disease, compared to active individuals.

The health risks associated with sedentary living increase with age. As we grow old: we don't burn fat as effectively and it becomes easier to gain weight. Excess fat stores secrete pro-inflammatory molecules, thus increasing the risk of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease, and cancer.

Growing a beer belly is not the only risk associated with ageing: the immune system also gets overstimulated by damage and cell debris accumulated by our tissues. Scientists coined a new term for this: inflammaging.

However, this relationship is a two-way street. Biological age markers are more pronounced in patients with inflammatory diseases, but an anti-inflammatory lifestyle can slow down the progression of age-related illnesses.

Exercise, it's essential

Regular moderate physical activity over a long period of time can reduce chronic inflammation and disease risks. Research also shows that exercise can be effective for patients with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and depression - all of which include a component of chronic inflammation.

The exercise-induced hormone, adrenaline, reduces the production of TNF𝛂 by immune cells, lowering the risk of insulin resistance and type II diabetes. Practicing regular cardiovascular exercise can combat chronic inflammation, something doctors might check by measuring your C-reactive protein levels if you are making lifestyle changes for health.

Tumour Necrosis Factor 𝛂 (TNF𝛂) is a pro-inflammatory chemical secreted during inflammation that activates a number of immune cell types. TNF𝛂 can cause insulin resistance. It also stimulates the production of C-reactive protein in the liver.

C-reactive protein (CRP) is an inflammation-associated protein, and elevated CRP levels are associated with increased risk of heart disease and type II diabetes. Doctors often include a CRP blood test for complex health problems because it’s a marker of chronic inflammation.

Manage stress levels

If an inactive lifestyle is the first horseman of inflammation, the second is chronic stress. Not all stress is negative, but things like persistent work overload, toxic relationships, arguments, and financial difficulties can take their toll.

Stress affects almost every system in the body, putting our cells and tissues on high alert, and stimulating the production of several hormones, including cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels are also linked to weight gain and insulin resistance, both of which are factors of inflammation.

Chronic stress contributes to atherosclerosis progression and makes people vulnerable to mental health issues. It also increases type II diabetes risk, especially in obese individuals. Fortunately, there are several ways to combat chronic stress.

Focus on the quality and quantity of your sleep (7–9 hours per night) - it's an essential process that repairs the body. It's also when your brain gets rid of the debris from activities during the day.

Finding time for yourself, a relaxing hobby, breathing exercises, and building a reliable social network of caring friends and family are also important. These positive interactions and activities help the nervous system to unwind from negative stimuli that cause stress.

Drop the booze and fags

Not all de-stressing is good. Smoking just one cigarette a day increases the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and several cancers. Excessive alcohol consumption also boosts cancer risks and contributes to psychiatric and digestive diseases.

☝️REMEMBER☝️Giving up smoking and alcohol is hard and can have side effects for your body. Always consult your doctor before making important changes to your lifestyle.

Your microbiome and chronic inflammation

Gut microbiome health is reflected in many processes in our bodies, including chronic inflammation and associated disease risks.

The gut microbiome is an ecosystem of bacteria that live in your large intestine. It's not only important for your physical health, but your mental wellbeing too.

Gut microbes and stress

Negative alterations in the composition of the gut microbiome, also known as dysbiosis, has been shown to make mice more anxious. They've also shown that chronic stress can reduce levels of important probiotic bacteria called Lactobacillus.

Studies of stress and the gut microbiota can't be conducted in humans because it's not ethically appropriate to subject humans to chronic stressors and see what happens. Interestingly, other studies in mice showed that transplanting the microbiota of stressed mice into other ones caused them to display anxiety-like behaviour too.

Studies in humans indicate that probiotic bacteria can help alleviate depression, increase stress resilience, and relieve anxiety. Researchers suggest that it's because gut bacteria influence our levels of mood chemicals like serotonin and Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA).

Butyrate combats inflammation

Multiple aspects of our health depend on molecules produced by the gut microbiome, and the human body simply cannot make them, but our bacteria can. The main question is whether having this supply is good or bad for us.

Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) produced by microbes from dietary fibers that the human body cannot digest. Butyrate is one of the best studied microbiome-derived molecules for its broad benefits for our health.

First of all, it helps to maintain the integrity of our digestive tract and supplies most of the fuel for the cells of our gut lining. By doing so, it bolsters this barrier and helps prevent metabolites, food particles, and unwanted bacteria from crossing into the body from the intestines.

Low butyrate production and below-average levels of butyrate-producing bacteria are found in many inflammatory and metabolic diseases, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Butyrate also helps modulate the immune system by reducing the production of TNF𝛂 and IL-6, while promoting anti-inflammatory signalling. By doing so, this chemical promotes healthy and balanced microbiota, and even protects against colon cancer.

Amino acids and insulin resistance

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). This is another molecule that can't be synthesised by the human body. Two bacterial species, Prevotella copri and Bacteroides vulgatus, drive BCAA biosynthesis in disease scenarios.

Branched-chain amino acids are used to make proteins, the complex molecular machines responsible for most processes in our bodies. BCAAs can be used as an energy source, modulating the production of signalling molecules in the brain and stimulating the uptake of sugar from blood.

But while this is good in moderation, excess is not. High levels of BCAA in the blood are linked with insulin resistance, a risk factor for metabolic diseases linked to chronic inflammation, diabetes type 2 and heart disease. Insulin resistance happens when blood sugar levels are too high because our cells are less responsive to insulin.

Branched-chain amino acids and butyrate are just two examples of numerous pro- and anti-inflammatory molecules that can be produced by the gut microbiome. While these activities are important, it's essential to look at the whole microbiome to understand how it can influence your health.

Discover your gut microbiome☝with the Atlas Microbiome Test. See your butyrate and probiotic levels bacteria, disease protection status, and get food recommendations to enhance your gut microbial health.

Your diet and chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation is influenced by what we eat: diet has a strong impact on the microbiome and preventable disease risks.

Dietary fibre enables beneficial bacteria to produce butyrate, which is important to keep our gut healthy. But that’s not the only way your food choices affect chronic inflammation.

Researchers developed the Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII) to indicate how anti- or pro-inflammatory a person’s diet is. According to studies, the Standard American Diet (SAD) has a particularly high inflammatory index.

Also called the Western diet, this eating pattern is characterised by high quantities of red and processed meat, fried foods, high-fat dairy products, potatoes, and sweetened drinks. Some scientists also add pre-packaged meals to this list.

SAD is often contrasted with a healthy eating pattern, filled with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and legumes, as well as healthy fats like olive oil. Such foods have a much lower inflammatory index.

There is compelling scientific evidence from a cohort of older French adults (around 80 years old) that high adherence to the Mediterranean diet means lower chances of frailty in later life.

On the other hand, eating a pro-inflammatory diet is associated with a higher risk of heart attack. People following eating patterns with high dietary inflammatory index are also more susceptible to weight gain and obesity, as well as type II diabetes.

Some consequences of a pro-inflammatory diet may seem unexpected. For example, young adults on a Western diet are more likely to develop symptoms of depression. When coupled with low physical activity, SAD is associated with higher risk of age-related weakening of the bones: osteoporosis.

Eating habits are an important influence on our chronic inflammation levels. Your body will thank you for a balanced and diverse diet with a variety of whole, plant-based foods, fruit, and vegetables.

Be food smart☝If you decide to change your diet, always consult your GP first, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

Takeaways:

  1. Chronic inflammation can cause and accelerate many diseases.
  2. The gut microbiome has an impact on chronic preventable disease risks.
  3. Your lifestyle and diet choices can reduce chronic inflammation levels.
  4. Pro-inflammatory choices include sedentary lifestyle, obesity, smoking, high-stress living, sleep deprivation, and excessive alcohol intake.
  5. Anti-inflammatory habits include regular physical activity, stress management, and a diverse diet with a variety of whole plant-based foods.
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Artem Belov
Artem Belov Merging my Biomedical Sciences degree with love for writing and educating.

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