Chronic Inflammation: Reduce It to Protect Your Health

Inflammation is linked to diabetes, depression, heart disease, and cancer; what you can do about it.

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Having a large waist measurement—at or above 35 inches for a woman and 40 inches for a man—means you're likely to have excess inflammation. Other red flags: having high blood pressure (a measurement at or above 130/85 millimeters of mercury), high levels of glucose (at or above 100 milligrams per deciliter after fasting), and high triglycerides (150 mg/dL or above, measured by a cholesterol blood test). According to the American Heart Association, these all point to an inflammatory condition called metabolic syndrome, a common precursor of diabetes and heart disease. The best way to reduce belly fat? Eat less and move more.

  • Go Mediterranean. Consuming a Mediterranean-style diet—rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and fish—is known to protect the heart, and that's probably because it lowers the level of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body. The diet may also protect against depression by increasing levels of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants used by the body to manufacture anti-inflammatory chemicals that increase blood flow to the brain. A study released in October that followed 10,000 Spaniards for more than four years found that those who reported eating a Mediterranean diet had a 30 percent lower risk of developing depression than those who didn't. "This diet fills the bill perfectly, because it contains few of the fats that drive inflammation, like saturated fat in red meat and trans fats in margarine and processed foods," explains nutritionist and family physician Ann Kulze, author of Dr. Ann's 10-Step Diet, "while at the same time being rich in nuts, berries, and dark vegetables that have anti-inflammatory effects."
    • Get active, but don't overdo it. There's no question that physically fit folks produce less inflammation than couch potatoes, since regular exercise protects against metabolic syndrome. But research also suggests that superlong workouts can cause inflammation levels to spike for a day or two afterward. David Nieman, a professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., conducted studies that found sky-high blood levels of inflammatory chemicals in ultramarathon runners who had just completed 100-mile races. The key is to get enough exercise but not too much. "Being active for 60 minutes at a time will give you all the health benefits you need without raising your levels of inflammation," says Nieman. For those who go beyond that, he recommends taking a fish-oil supplement and a sports drink that contains quercetin (a plant chemical found in apple peels and berries) and green tea extract, like FRS Plus. His new research indicates that those three ingredients together lower levels of inflammation in high-endurance athletes.
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      • Reduce stress and get adequate sleep. Shively's research has demonstrated that monkeys that were the most subordinate in their social groups—which means they got less grooming from their peers and were often the target of aggression—also put on more belly fat when fed a Western-style diet high in fat and cholesterol compared with monkeys that were at the top of the pecking order. Anything that stresses the body, from too little sleep to too much tension, can cause belly fat to accumulate, she says. Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep per night and simple stress reducers. Shively recommends cutting back on multitasking, which she says "can be very anxiety-provoking."
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        • Floss and brush twice every day. The link between gum disease and heart disease has been well established, and researchers now think they've pinpointed the possible culprit: The very same bacteria that cause inflammation and swelling in the gums appear to be a source of inflammation and thickening of the arteries. Previous studies have shown that those who get their gum disease treated wind up with lower levels of inflammation, though it's still too early, Desvarieux says, to firmly conclude that gum disease causes clogged arteries. "Still," he adds, "it's hard to be against good oral hygiene."