Only YOU Can Prevent Inflammation
[Earlier posts in this cancer prevention series: Cancer for a Fortnight, Before Early Detection, and In the Beginning: The Cancer-Inflammation Connection. See also Crap for the Cure.]
Cancer is a wound that doesn’t heal. It turns our bodies’ own immune systems against us, thriving on the inflammatory process that is intended to be acute and healing, rather than chronic and destructive. If inflammation is pro-cancer, then it stands to reason (and research) that we can combat cancer by reducing the inflammation that runs rampant in our bodies.
Perhaps surprisingly, the lifestyle changes that will reduce chronic, systemic inflammation — thereby making our bodies less hospitable to cancer cells — are relatively simple and inexpensive. Sure, some of them will take you outside the norm. Some will involve plunking down extra change at the supermarket. But compared to rounds of chemo, months of pain, and years of life lost, I reckon it’s a small price to pay.
What follows are daily choices you can make to reduce your risk of cancer development or recurrence by reducing your body’s susceptiblity to inflammation. Because this is a blog post, not a book, I’ll focus more on the what than the why. Upcoming posts will expand substantially on the scientific support for these choices. In the meantime, understand that they will work…but only if you do them.
1. Reduce carbohydrate consumption. During the digestive process, carbohydrate is broken down into glucose (sugar) and, ideally, stored in the liver to be burned as fuel in the near future. The liver’s storage capacity is limited, so any excess glucose is packaged up as triglycerides and sent into the bloodstream. If not used to provide immediate energy, it is stored as bodyfat. The storage process must occur quickly because blood sugar must be maintained within a narrow range; excessive blood sugar is toxic to the point of being fatal.
In order to facilitate the movement of glucose into our cells, the pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin. One of insulin’s primary jobs is to turn on the “storage” function, so it’s easy to see how chronically elevated insulin (resulting from chronic carbohydrate consumption) leads to obesity — a well-known risk factor for cancer. Not only that, but constant insulin release leads to insulin resistance, which means that we need more and more of it to keep our blood sugar within a safe range.
Unfortuately, all that insulin does more than make us dread bikini shopping. It also activates enzymes that result in increased blood levels of arachodonic acid, which contributes to inflammation in individuals with compromised metabolisms. Furthermore, insulin provokes the release of pro-inflammatory eicosonoids (short-lived hormones that act locally rather than systemically).
In brief, excessive dietary carbohydrate results in systemic inflammation. How much is “excessive?” For most people, about 100 total (not net) grams of carbohydrate per day is plenty. In case you’re wondering, most Americans consume 300-400 grams per day. Ouch.
2. Eliminate sugar. Sugar (and all its nasty little friends like high fructose corn syrup, honey, and agave) is a simple, high glycemic index carbohydrate. When consumed, it causes a rapid rise in blood sugar, which requires insulin release as discussed above. It also hampers white blood cell function, compromising the immune system, and subjects the body to oxidative stress, thereby rounding the turn in the vicious cycle of inflammation.
(As an astute reader pointed out in yesterday’s comments, sugar is also the finest cancer food on the planet. Tumors love the stuff — and many can be starved by eliminating it. More on that in a later post.)
3. Eliminate grains. Above and beyond their obviously problematic status as high carbohydrate foods that are little more than slow-digesting sugar, grains bring with them a host of additional problems.
Several of the most common grains in our food supply (wheat, oats, barley, and rye) contain a protein called gluten. Gluten irritates the gut lining to the point of breaching its defenses (yes, even in non-celiac individuals), allowing whole, foreign proteins direct access to the bloodstream.
The result is a chronically leaky gut, which necessitates constant immune response, which we know by now is undesirable. Worse, the immune system learns quickly to attack these foreign proteins on sight — and some of them look very much like our bodies’ own tissues. So, we attack ourselves. Voila! More inflammation.
Legumes, by the way, have very similar effects as grains and should also be avoided.
4. Eliminate dairy. Many people have observed that the consumption of dairy worsens conditions such as arthritis, asthma, and acne. Why does this happen? Because dairy, too, is inflammatory. Similar to grains, dairy proteins cause microperforations in the gut, provoking immune response and eventual auto-immune disorders. Dairy is also responsible for an insulin release above and beyond what can be accounted for by its carbohydrate content alone. And we all know about insulin by now, don’t we?
5. Balance essential fatty acids. Most people are aware that our diets tend to be too high in Omega-6 fatty acids and too low in Omega-3’s. This is the result of a diet packed with vegetable fats and grain-fed meats, both of which tip our fatty acid ratio drastically in favor of Omega-6. Unfortunately for our cancer risk, Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, while Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory.
The obvious solution is to simultaneously decrease Omega-6 intake and increase Omega-3 intake. How? Switch to grass-fed, grass-finished meats and wild-caught fish. Eliminate vegetable oils (including corn, soy, canola, safflower, and sunflower) in favor of animal fats, palm, and coconut oils. Supplement with high-quality fish oil such as Carlson’s or Nordic Naturals. If you insist on eating dairy, make sure it’s from pastured cows. Finally, look for eggs from chickens that are pastured and/or fed flax in favor of grain.
6. Sleep more. In 2006, researchers at UCLA demonstrated that “even a modest loss of sleep for a single night increases inflammation.” Inadequate sleep causes our white blood cells to increase their release of immune-enhancing substances…which sounds good until you remember that an excessive immune response causes damage not only to invaders, but also to healthy cells. What constitutes “adequate” sleep? Nine or more hours per night, especially during the winter months.
7. Reduce toxin exposure. In our modern world of plastics and pesticides, we are all exposed to chemicals whose ill effects are myriad, cumulative, and alarming. For example, certain toxins (such as phthalates in cosmetics, bisphenol A [BPA] in hard plastics, and tributyltin in disinfectants and fungicides) all mimic hormones, resulting in bodyfat gain. Research shows that these toxins can even increase the number of fat cells in a developing fetus. Excessive bodyfat leads to excessive levels of C-reactive protein and interleukin-6. Remember those? They’re inflammatory factors!
Inflammation is only one of the reasons to seek out organic produce and meats, BPA-free canned goods, and safe body care products whose ingredients you’d be willing to eat. Be mindful of obvious poisons, too, such as cigarette smoke, lawn fertilizer, and household cleaners.
8. Reduce stress. We all know that stress results in excessive production of the hormone cortisol. (For the record, so does lack of sleep.) Ironically, cortisol is supposed to be a natural anti-inflammatory that helps your body deal with acute stressors. Unfortunately, most of us experience more chronic stressors than acute ones. Chronic stressors result in incessant cortisol release from the adrenal glands, which leads to adrenal burnout.
In the meantime, all that excess cortisol messes up our other hormones and treats us to complimentary helpings of brain fog, low sex drive, bodyfat accumulation, and mood swings — not to mention mineral imbalances that disrupt heart function. Hormonal imbalance also results in insulin resistance, which is directly linked to cancer development.
Advice to reduce stress is so common as to be cliché, but it can take some serious effort to actually accomplish. Consider weeding your activities down to only the most necessary for income, relationships, and personal satisfaction. Work fewer hours, if you can, and be sure to take a good look at the huge body of evidence supporting the health benefits of yoga, meditation, and similar forms of focused relaxation.
9. Exercise. Anyone who has experienced soreness after a workout knows that, where inflammation is concerned, exercise is a mixed bag. Unaccustomed physical effort results in minor (hopefully!) muscle damage that leads, upon repair, to increased strength. On the other hand, physical effort is well-documented to relieve stress and improve insulin sensitivity, both of which result in decreased inflammation.
Regular, moderate exercise is associated with lower CRP levels, while excessive exercise increases cortisol. So, use your body — but use your brain, too. Favor strength training and high-intensity interval training over long, cortisol-inducing cardio sessions. Engage in plenty of low-level physical activity. Play. And for goodness sake, throw in some rest days!
10. Understand specific foods. Some foods are pro-inflammatory, while others are anti-inflammatory. Knowing which is which enables you to make the best choices for you, as an individual.
As discussed above, sugar, dairy, legumes and grains are inflammatory for just about everyone. MSG and other food additives also negatively affect most people. Some individuals are sensitive to additional foods; common offenders include nightshades (potatoes, eggplant, sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, etc.), eggs, soy, and nuts. Note that you may be unaware of your sensitivity to a particular food until you try going without i for a month, then reintroducing it to see what happens.
Make a conscious effort to include plenty of anti-inflammatory foods such as coconut, olive oil, sea vegetables, salmon, turmeric, Japanese green tea, shiitake and other mushrooms, berries, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.), and alluims (garlic, onions, leeks, shallots etc.).
There’s more to each of these factors than simply controlling inflammation. They also impact angiogenesis and hormonal balance, both of which contribute to cancer development or prevention. We’ll explore those topics in upcoming posts.
Bonus round (Is anybody still reading?): Inflammation is also the major, causative factor in other diseases of modern civilization, most notably coronary heart disease, type II diabetes, and stroke. Worse, it’s a two-way street. Inflammation fuels the above conditions, which incite additional inflammation, which fuels the conditions…
Making lifestyle changes to cool inflammation will dramatically lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes — plus, you’ll likely vanquish other ailments ranging from acne to arthritis to Chrohn’s disease to irritable bowel syndrome to Alzheimer’s to allergies. Why? They’re all about inflammation.
Low-Carb Diet Reduces Inflammation, Science Daily, 2007
The Definitive Guide to Sugar, Mark’s Daily Apple
The Definitive Guide to Grains, Mark’s Daily Apple
The Dairy Manifesto, Whole 9 Blog
Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Products, Eat Wild
Lack of Sleep Causes Inflammation, Immune Response, FuturePundit, 2006
Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival by T.S. Wiley
Environmental Toxins Cause Inflammation and Weight Gain, Life Extension Blog
My Food, My Medicine: black coffee, duck eggs fried in coconut oil with potassium salt; steamed veggies: Brussels sprouts, carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower with olive oil, dried garlic, and thyme; sausage sautéed with leeks, yellow onion, and mushrooms; jasmine green tea; salad: spinach, red leaf lettuce, red cabbage, carrot, red onion, celery, apple, poached cod, pecans, and dressing of fish and olive oils, apple cider vinegar, turmeric, curry powder, cinnamon, black pepper, and salt; lamb meatballs in marinara: lamb, egg, tomatoes, herbs, onions, garlic; baked spaghetti squash, olive oil, salt, ginger tea
Workout: Primal Blueprint Fitness bodyweight progression (pushups, pullups, chinups, squats, handstands, planks)