Scientific research over the past several decades has made it clear that systemic, low-grade chronic inflammation, a condition characterized by two- to threefold elevated levels of several pro-inflammatory mediators such as C-reactive protein, tumor necrosis factor alpha, and interleukin 6 in systemic circulation, is linked to many – if not most – of the chronic health disorders we suffer from in today’s society.
To set the stage for this article, here’s a quote from a 2013 review paper that highlights the importance of low-grade inflammation in chronic diseases:
It has become clear that most, if not all, typically Western chronic illnesses find their primary cause in an unhealthy lifestyle and that systemic low-grade inflammation is a common denominator. Resolution of the conflict between environment and our ancient genome might be the only effective manner to arrive at “healthy aging” and to achieve this objective we might have to return to the lifestyle of the Paleolithic era according to the culture of the 21st century. (1)
In other words, it’s likely that whatever disease or health problem you might be struggling with has an inflammatory component. To combat this systemic low-grade inflammation, we need to look at health through the lens of evolution and take some diet and lifestyle tips from our ancestors.
The following lifestyle-related factors are high on the list of things that can help you combat chronic low-grade inflammation.
1. Eat more fatty fish rich in omega-3
A discussion of the anti-inflammatory effects of diet isn’t complete without mentioning omega-3. There’s solid evidence to show that omega-3 fatty acids can dampen inflammation through multiple pathways (2, 3).
Even people with little or no knowledge about nutrition and health have typically heard about the importance of eating salmon, mackerel, and other foods rich in omega-3, and every year, we spend millions of dollars on supplements containing these heart-healthy essential fatty acids. But the average intake of omega-3 has still declined dramatically since our days as hunter-gatherers while the intake of omega-6 has skyrocketed. This shifting ratio may play an important role in the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune conditions (2).
2. Get more high-quality sleep
Did you wake up from a perfect, long night’s sleep this morning? if you’re like most people in the modern, industrialized world, chances are the answer to this question is no. The use of artificial lighting and blue light-emitting devices after dark, a hectic work schedule, and alarm clocks that abruptly wake the body up before it’s ready for a new day are just some of the many things that are messing with our sleep patterns in the 21st century.
Recent studies challenge the idea that people who live traditional lifestyles get a lot more sleep than we do today (4). However, we have to keep in mind that healthy people may need less sleep than unhealthy folks. In other words, a lean and fit hunter-gatherer probably require fewer hours of sleep than a chronically inflamed Westerner. Moreover, there’s little doubt that when compared to preindustrial humans – and even more so our Paleolithic ancestors – we’re getting less high-quality sleep, much due to the invention of artificial lighting and light-emitting electronic gadgets that have the potential to upset our internal biological clock.
3. Adhere to a balanced, multifaceted exercise program
We are less physically active today than we were at any other time during human evolution. This decline in physical activity levels doesn’t just negatively impact our waistlines and the amount of muscle mass we carry, but also our susceptibility to chronic, degenerative disease.
The human genome was shaped through millions of years of evolution in environments that called for a large amount of daily physical activity. When we completely abandon this natural, ancestral milieu and adopt a more sedentary lifestyle, we’re setting ourselves up for an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, and many other chronic illnesses.
Exercise is anti-inflammatory (as long as it’s not excessive) and protects against diseases associated with chronic low-grade inflammation (7, 8). An Organic Fitness program is a great choice when the goal is to lower inflammation and achieve multifaceted fitness, as it consists of a balanced proportion of strenght training, endurance exercise, sprinting, and low-intensity activities.
4. Eat more plant foods rich in prebiotic fibers
Over the past decade, it has become increasingly clear that the trillions of microorganisms that inhabit our digestive system play an essential role in controlling the inflammatory milieu in our body. Leaky gut and gut dysbiosis were once thought of by many as a bogus conditions that were diagnosed by quacks in the field of alternative medicine. However, today there are thousands of scientific papers showing that these disorders not only play a role in many health problems, but that they are at the very root of what’s causing many of the so-called diseases of civilization.
Many aspects of our modern lifestyles upset the balance between man and microbes, one of which is the lack of fermentable fiber in our diet – the types of carbohydrates that are broken down by gut bacteria in the colon. The decline in fiber intake since our days as foragers in the Paleolithic era can be attributed to the introduction of new foods into the human diet with the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution, innovations related to food production and processing, and the transition from eating nutrient-dense whole foods to eating more refined, westernized ones.
Prebiotics can strengthen the gut barrier, lower the pH in the colon, enhance the biodiversity of the gut microbiota, and allow for tighter regulation of the transport of bacterial metabolic byproducts, thereby reducing systemic inflammation (9, 10).
5. Gently cook your food
Accumulating evidence is emerging that the way we cook our food is more important than previously thought. Not only do many of us use omega-6-heavy cooking oils such as sunflower oil, as well as problematic cookware like non-stick Teflon and aluminium pans, but we also use very high temperatures and evolutionarily novel cooking methods (e.g., charcoal grilling) to prepare a lot of the food we eat, something that can generate potentially harmful compounds, such as heterocyclic amines, Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These compounds can have a range of negative effects on human health. For example, AGEs are partly absorbed in the body and are known to contribute to increased oxidant stress and inflammation (11, 12).
The formation of these types of compounds can be reduced by cooking with moist heat, using shorter cooking times, cooking at lower temperatures, and using acidic ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar (11).
6. Manage your stress levels
Our ancient mechanisms for dealing with stressful events evolved because they improved our ancestors’ ability to survive and reproduce in environments that were very different from the ones we live in today. For our preagricultural ancestors, alarm clocks, tight work schedules, a constantly buzzing mobile phone, and many of the other things we associate with a modern, stressful lifestyle were nonexistent. Rather than chronic stress, acute stress – such as an attack from a dangerous animal – was the main form of stress our ancient ancestors faced.
While the human body is well adapted to handle short bursts of acute stress, the repeatedly or continuously activated stress response that often accompanies life in the 21st century is another thing entirely. Chronic psychological stress, which is a persistent presence of sources of frustration and anxiety, induces a long-term activation of the fight-or-flight response, and may induce a chronic inflammatory process (13, 14).
7. Reduce or eliminate your consumption of calorie-dense, highly rewarding foods
Processed, calorie-dense foods such as pastries, pizza, and ice cream are hyper-rewarding in the sense that they contain a potent combination of sugar, salt, starch, fat, glutamate, and/or other food ingredients that in combination overwhelm the reward center in our brain (15, 16). Food manufacturers know how to use our evolved taste preferences to their advantage and hire scientists to design products that we essentially become addicted to (17).
These types of foods are obviously novel introductions to the human diet, and can initiate a vicious cycle that includes the following key elements: Overeating, increased intestinal permeability, inflammation, metabolic dysfunction, fat gain, and food cravings. Hunter-gatherer and traditional, non-westernized populations eat primarily simple, whole foods, which is one of the major reasons why obesity, metabolic disease, and autoimmune conditions are so rare in these societies.
It’s important to note that it’s not just the obvious offenders like chocolate and soda that are problematic. A high intake of calorie-dense, highly palatable foods such as nut butters, cheese, cream, and bacon can also promote excessive energy consumption and inflammation-driven health disorders.
8. When buying animal source food, opt for organic, grass-fed, and/or wild-caught varieties
It seems like rarely a week goes by when the media don’t publish new reports stating that meat causes cancer or that high-protein diets are dangerous. More often than not, these articles are based on observational studies and/or other sources of data that don’t prove a causal relationship between diet and disease risk. Moreover, the articles are usually written by journalists who don’t understand the scientific process and haven’t taken the time to look at the data as a whole.
That said, there are some protential health concerns associated with the consumption of red meat and protein-heavy diets. As I’ve pointed out before here on the blog, the problem isn’t so much the animal source foods themselves, but rather how we today produce and prepare our food. Just like humans, animals get sick and accumulate fat when they live in an environment they’re not well adapted for.
When compared to the grass-fed meats that traditional societies consumed, today’s conventionally produced animal products are typically much higher in saturated fats and lower in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. As for fatty fish and seafood, wild-caught varieties tend to be markedly higher in omega-3 and lower in omega-6. If that wasn’t enough, conventionally produced meats and fish sometimes also contain antibiotic- and hormone-residues.
These things can contribute to raising the inflammatory tone in the body, for example by adversely affecting the serum lipid profile, thereby increasing the risk of developing atherosclerotic plaques, or by increasing the translocation of bacterial endotoxins from the gut into systemic circulation.
9. Lose excess body fat
When people lose weight their health usually improves as well. Clearly, this health improvement can largely be attributed to positive changes related to diet, physical activity, and other lifestyle components that triggered the reduction in weight. That said, the actual fat loss is also a contributing factor.
It was long believed that adipose tissue (body fat) was an “inert” energy store, but research over the last couple of decades has made it clear that this is not the case. Adipose tissue is actually a major endocrine gland that expresses and secretes many hormones (e.g., leptin), inflammatory mediators (e.g., the pro-inflammatory cytokine TNF-α), and immune system effectors (18).
It’s well established that obesity is characterized by a state of chronic low-grade inflammation and that pro-inflammatory mediators released by fat tissue can initiate the development of chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, and atherosclerosis (18). In other words, having a lot of fat mass isn’t just impractical and unaesthetic, it also negatively impacts hormone levels and immune status.
10. The bottom line: Lead an anti-inflammatory lifestyle
Besides these nine elements, reducing your intake of trans fats, salt, refined carbohydrates, and simple sugars; getting adequate sun exposure/ensuring optimal vitamin D status; taking better care of your microbiome; avoiding excessive alcohol consumption; and reducing your exposure to pollutants are some other potential strategies you can use to prevent and combat low-grade chronic inflammation. In other words, lead an anti-inflammatory lifestyle.