This is one of the biggest risks to your health
Normal inflammation is a healthy immune response to injury or bacteria. If you bang your finger, it will swell and turn red. That reaction occurs because the immune system is providing chemicals called oxidants that heal the injury and fight infection.
But chronic inflammation is a much more sinister problem. It has been implicated in an assortment of serious illnesses like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, autoimmune disorders and dementia.
Some people take anti-oxidant vitamins to counter that process, but internal medicine physician Miguel Prieto, MD, with Emerald Physicians in Bourne said people should concentrate on lifestyle changes that prevent the chemicals from being released in the first place because the oxidants cause collateral damage to other cells.
Eat a Healthy Diet
“We’re committing suicide with our forks,” he cautioned. “We’ve got to change our diet.”
An important step in reducing inflammation is to decrease the amount of foods that cause an excess of insulin to be secreted. The combination of processed starches and fat creates an environment where the body produces a lot of insulin, he said. Insulin is a pro-inflammatory factor that also causes weight gain.
Numerous studies on a wide variety of creatures from insects to humans show that those who consume fewer calories live much longer, Dr. Prieto said.
“In the DNA itself, there are these coils called chromosomes, and the end portion are called telomeres,” he said. “The length of the telomeres gets shorter every time the cell divides. So if you don’t need to divide the cells to replace them because of inflammation, you are basically prolonging life.”
A normal body repairs about 300 million cells every minute. To do so, the body has to uncoil the whole six feet of DNA in the chromosome to copy it, he said. That is the basic human metabolic rate. When you add inflammation, there are a lot more cells to repair, resulting in an accumulation of small changes that create flawed copies of the cells.
It’s a little like making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, Dr. Prieto explained. By the time you get to the 300th photocopy, it is not going to look as good as the original. In the body those cells are called mutations and they lead to disease.
“Medical studies have shown that physical activity helps delay the effects of aging in our bodies,” Dr. Prieto said. “Multiple studies have shown the magical number being 150 minutes a week at about 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Your maximum heartrate is about the number 220 minus your age.”
When you exercise, you bypass the need for insulin to get sugar inside your cell. Less insulin means less inflammation, he said. While all exercise is good, “weekend warriors” don’t see the same benefits as someone who exercises at least 20 minutes every day, because regular exercise leads to a constant lower inflammatory level in your body.
It is never too late to start exercising, Dr. Prieto said. It may take longer for an older person to build up muscle mass, but eventually they do.
The benefits are enormous. Exercise cuts the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by 50 percent, he said. Elderly people who regularly exercise are also less apt to suffer from a disability and if they do get injured, they recover faster.
“It’s not just because your muscles are stronger,” he said. “You recover better because when your inflammatory levels are lower, your body devotes less energy to repairing inflammation and has more energy to repair the injury.”
It Doesn’t Take a Gym
A big mistake that Dr. Prieto sees patients make is that they usually associate exercise with going to a gym. There are plenty of other forms of exercise that are just as healthy such as:
- Cycling (with a three-wheeler, if elderly)
- Pedaling arm bikes for those whose legs don’t work well
- Dancing (especially good for those with Parkinson’s disease)
- Walking on the golf course instead of taking a cart
- Bowling or curling
Even though federal guidelines recommend 150 minutes of exercise a week for optimal health, those with arthritis or other painful conditions may find it difficult to achieve that amount. New research shows people with arthritis can see benefits in physical functioning from even just 45 minutes of exercise a week.
“Our bodies are not machines,” Dr. Prieto said. “Our bodies are better than machines because they have the capacity to regenerate with stem cells. The less you change your cells with inflammation, the longer that ability lasts.”
Note: As of 5/1/2019, Emerald Physicians joined Medical Affiliates of Cape Cod (MACC), a division of primary and specialty care physicians from Cape Cod Healthcare.