You’ve probably heard the word “inflammation” in the health news lately. And, if you’re reading this, you’re probably looking to lose some excess body fat.
When it comes to weight loss, it’s no longer as simple as “calories in versus calories out”.
Successful long-term weight loss depends on how balanced your hormones are.
And inflammation is one health issue that will make your hormones unhappy. And your weight seem almost impossible to drop no matter how “good” your diet and exercise are.
What is Inflammation
Inflammation has been getting a lot of bad press lately, but it’s not always a bad thing. As in most areas of health, it’s the balance that’s important.
Inflammation is a natural process that our body uses to protect against infections, irritants, and damage. Inflammation helps our bodies eliminate damaged cells and tissues and helps them to repair. It also helps to reduce the cause of the damage, for example, by fighting the infection.
The word inflammation comes from the Latin word “inflammo,” meaning “I set alight, I ignite.”
Inflammation is a natural process to protect and heal our bodies. However, it can become self-perpetuating and stick around way longer than necessary. This long-term (chronic) inflammation is often associated with several health conditions, including excess body weight.
Type 2 diabetes is also linked with chronic inflammation. This lifestyle disease stems from an insulin imbalance, first showing up as cravings for sweets and excessive hunger.
Types of inflammation – Acute vs. Chronic
When inflammation happens in a big way, for a short time, this is known as “acute” inflammation. Signs of acute inflammation include redness, heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function.
These short durations of strong inflammation can help the body to heal injuries and infections.
On the other hand, when inflammation sticks around longer than necessary, it’s called “chronic” inflammation. Chronic inflammation can damage the body over time, without many signs or symptoms at all.
In fact, chronic inflammation affects everything in your body – your brain, joints, muscles, digestion, hormones, nervous system, skin, and more.
What Inflammation Does Inside Your Body
Inflammation stems from the immune system’s response, and also involves our blood vessels (arteries and veins) and other molecules.
One of these molecules is the infamous “free radical.” These highly reactive molecules (oxidants) help to fight infectious agents, and also help cells to communicate. But, when they are in overdrive, and they aren’t counteracted with many antioxidants, they can tip the balance and cause damage to healthy cells.
One common blood test for inflammatory markers is C-reactive protein (CRP). When found in a blood test at high levels, indicate that there is inflammation in the body.
CRP and other inflammatory markers can now be used to help predict whether someone is going to end up with an inflammatory disease. (Knowing this early on can help you make some dietary and lifestyle changes to reduce inflammation and lower your chances of getting sick.)
Connection Between Chronic Inflammation and Stress
Cortisol, your main stress hormone, acts as an anti-inflammatory in times of acute stress (i.e. stress that lasts for only a short period of time).
However, with prolonged stress, this anti-inflammatory response deregulates, causing inflammation to go haywire.
This is because our cells become less sensitive to the effects of cortisol for inflammation.
While chronic stress is related to a variety of stressors in our lives, it is also tightly knit with certain dietary and lifestyle factors. Things like poor nutrition, too much pro-inflammatory food, caffeine, alcohol, over-exercising, and not enough self-care are behind chronic stress problems.
Chronic Inflammation and Insulin Imbalances
Prolonged insulin imbalances lead to Type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes is a complex condition of metabolism where our bodies don’t manage blood sugar levels very well.
Blood sugar levels naturally go up and down throughout the day. Up after we eat; and down when we’re hungry. In a person with good blood sugar control, when blood sugar levels get high, insulin is released. This tells our cells to absorb sugar out of the blood to level it out.
Blood sugar level is a tightly controlled system.
But when the control of the blood sugar levels isn’t as good, for example they stay too high for too long (i.e. because of insulin issues), this can lead to diabetes. And having diabetes can have many long-term serious health consequences like amputation, blindness, and kidney disease.
About 95% of diabetes is type 2 diabetes (T2DM), formerly known as “adult-onset” diabetes. This is because there are a whole host of nutrition and lifestyle habits, when done for years and decades, contribute to this diagnosis.
These nutrition and lifestyle habits can promote excess body fat and inflammation, and lead to an imbalance between insulin need and insulin production.
Inflammation is thought to be a key factor when it comes to diabetes. It can negatively affect insulin-producing cells. It’s also one of the causes of insulin resistance. In fact, some researchers argue that virtually all of the factors that promote diabetes are linked with inflammation.
Inflammation & Excess Body Fat
Excess body fat is linked with both diabetes and chronic stress. And in 2003, researchers found that it’s also linked with inflammation.
Body fat itself can promote activation of immune cells. Fat cells themselves can become little inflammation factories too, especially fat stored around the belly, liver and heart.
Excess body fat also increases the body’s need for insulin, and negatively affects insulin-producing cells.
Excess body fat is also linked with the same nutrition and lifestyle factors as diabetes and chronic stress.
Losing weight (i.e. excess body fat) reduces inflammation in belly fat as well as the rest of the body, and can also reduce the risk of many chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes.
Nutrition and Lifestyle Upgrades
There is a lot of evidence that improving nutrition and lifestyle can help reduce inflammation.
In fact, according to the NIH:
“People with insulin resistance and prediabetes can decrease their risk for diabetes by eating a healthy diet and reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, increasing physical activity, not smoking, and taking medication.”
Here are several ways you can upgrade your nutrition and lifestyle.
One diet has a lot of science supporting its health promoting, emotional well-being improving, and life extending properties. This is the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet includes a lot of vegetables, fruits, and legumes; some fish, whole grains, tree nuts, and dairy*; and small amounts of olive oil, tea, cocoa, red wine, herbs, and spices. It also has low levels of red meat and salt, and a low glycemic index (it doesn’t raise blood sugar very high).
However, the Mediterranean Diet may still cause hormonal imbalances and belly fat because whole grains and dairy have been proven to be pro-inflammatory for many women. On top of this, dairy, being high in estrogen, can cause a condition called “estrogen dominance” in women with hormonal issues, again leading to more belly fat.
While the Mediterranean diet can lower risk of diabetes and adverse effects of obesity, even without weight loss, the most hormone-friendly anti-inflammatory diet is one without whole grains and dairy most of the time.
Foods common in the Mediterranean diet contain substances that are both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Substances like polyphenols, flavonoids, pigments, unsaturated fats (including omega-3s), and anti-inflammatory vitamins and minerals like vitamin E and selenium. These foods may also help to improve insulin sensitivity, quality of blood lipids, and the gut microbiota.
FUN FACT: Most people get the highest amounts of dietary polyphenols from coffee and/or tea (but I don’t recommend any cream and sugar).
Many anti-inflammatory effects of these foods have been demonstrated in a lab or in animals. Extra-virgin olive oil, tree nuts, and cocoa have been associated with anti-inflammatory effects, like reducing blood levels of CRP, in people.
Even when we look at individual components in a food, we should keep in mind that it’s the whole diet, with all foods and lifestyle components that help to promote health. One or two individual aspects don’t have the same effect as a holistic approach to improving overall nutrition and lifestyle.
Why to Avoid Sugar and Starch
Excess sugars and starches put stress on our blood sugar levels and increase our risk of chronic diseases. They also promote inflammation in the body.
Animals who eat sweets and white bread, and drink a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages have higher levels of inflammatory markers like CRP. Studies in people also show that diets low in sugar and starch have lower than average levels of CRP.
One possible reason is that more sugar and starch may increase production of inflammatory molecules and free radicals by giving immune cells more fuel and increase their activity.
You can upgrade your nutrition in this area by eating fewer sugars (especially “added” sugars) and starches (especially “refined” starches).
Inflammation & Dietary Fat
Some lab and animal studies show that increased levels of certain saturated fats can increase production of inflammatory markers and free radicals. Meals with unsaturated fats seem to reduce the inflammatory response after the meal.
Unsaturated fats like omega-3’s from fish seem to be particularly healthful. People who eat more fish tend to have lower levels of inflammation overall.
Fish-based omega-3 unsaturated fats reduce inflammation in several ways. They reduce the source of inflammation, as well as increase the amount of anti-inflammatory molecules.
Tree nuts are another good source of unsaturated fats and anti-inflammatory polyphenols. While nuts do contain a fair amount of fat, many studies show that people who regularly eat nuts do not tend to have a higher BMI (body mass index) or more body fat.
Even adding nuts to the diet doesn’t seem to promote weight gain compared to the amount of calories they contain. And that is if there even is any weight gain at all, because many studies show no weight gain after adding nuts to the diet.
Why don’t fat-containing nuts promote weight gain?
Several studies show an increase in the resting metabolic rate in people who eat nuts – they seem to burn more calories even when they’re not active. This may be because of the type of fat (unsaturated), protein, fibre and/or the polyphenol content in the nuts.
You can upgrade your dietary fats by eating more fish and nuts. Fish and nuts contain unsaturated fats that have anti-inflammatory effects. They can also improve insulin sensitivity and even improve the health of insulin-producing cells.
When it comes to fish oil supplements, many studies show reduction in risk factors for heart disease by improving the way our bodies metabolize fats and its ability to “thin” the blood.
However, fish oil supplements have mixed reviews when it comes to reducing inflammation. They can be helpful for some, but you’ll get more benefits from eating the fish itself.
Inflammation & Dietary Fibre
People who eat more fibre, fruits, and vegetables tend to have lower levels of CRP.
In fact, animal studies show that eating fibre reduces the levels of inflammatory markers and also reduces excess body fat.
This effect can be because fibre slows down absorption of food from the body, reducing blood sugar spikes. It can also be because of its interaction with the friendly microbes in our gut.
Foods that are high in fibre include whole grains, legumes (i.e. beans and lentils), cocoa, seeds (e.g. sesame), tree nuts (e.g. almonds), avocados, raspberries, and squash.
Inflammation & Exercise
Regular exercise within your energy levels helps with many chronic diseases, as well as helping to reduce inflammation.
Levels of inflammatory markers are lower in people who exercise regularly, than those who do not. Plus, the people who exercise at a higher intensity tend to have even lower levels of CRP.
In fact, adding regular moderate exercise to a nutritious anti-inflammatory diet has benefits beyond the dietary benefits, like even lower levels of inflammatory markers in the blood (i.e. like CRP).
On a cautionary note, though, over-exercising or pushing yourself too hard will cause a prolonged stress response, leading to more inflammation.
I encourage you to reduce the amount of time you are sedentary, and take active breaks.
Inflammation & Sleep
Both acute and chronic sleep deprivation cause an increase in inflammatory markers in the blood.
In fact, sleep loss is a risk factor for insulin resistance and diabetes. When healthy volunteers have restricted sleep, this causes decreased insulin sensitivity.
Upgrade your sleep by making it more of a priority.
A diet high in healthy fats along with good quality protein and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables will help promote sleep best.
Diabetes and prolonged chronic stress are serious conditions. They have a few things in common, namely excess body fat and increased levels of inflammation.
There are a lot of nutrition and lifestyle issues that can contribute to chronic diseases. There are several ways they can do this; inflammation is just one of them.
The good news is that there are several nutrition and lifestyle factors you can improve. These include eating less sugars and starches, eating more fish, nuts and dietary fibre, and getting regular exercise and quality sleep.
My hormonal fat loss system, the 40 or Less Method, is designed with reduced inflammation and balanced stress and insulin in mind.
NOTE: None of these are a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have any of these conditions, make sure you’re being monitored regularly by a licensed healthcare professional.
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