The pain of acute inflammation in your joints will grab your attention, but you probably won't notice the chronic inflammation in your vascular system, where it's doing incalculable damage every day. This silent inflammation reduces your odds of long life just as effectively—and as silently—as breathing an invisible, odorless poison gas. No wonder Time magazine presciently entitled a cover article "Inflammation: The Silent Killer."
Imagine that you have two factories in your body: one that produces inflammatory chemicals and another that produces anti-inflammatory chemicals. We're fueling the first one just fine—in fact we're overfueling it—and we're underfueling the second. The result? Chronic, low-level inflammation, which is now recognized to be a major part of every single degenerative disease from obesity to diabetes to cancer to Alzheimer's.
A Hidden Health Threat
This kind of inflammation flies beneath the radar. It's happening right now in your body, but you're unaware of it. Inflammatory chemicals are everywhere. Nearly everything that's an irritant to the system—the air pollution we breathe, the tobacco smoke we inhale directly or indirectly, the some 80,000 chemicals we're exposed to in our environment—have the potential to produce inflammation. The food we eat can produce an inflammatory reaction (and frequently does; think of food allergies or sensitivities). The standard American diet, ironically referred to as SAD, causes inflammation due to its excess levels of sugars, grains, omega-6 fatty acids, and low levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Some foods have the effect of turbo-charging our inflammatory production pathways, while other foods have precisely the opposite effect. And here's where it gets really interesting.
Our bodies make both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory compounds—which are called eicosanoids—from raw materials that come from one source only: essential fatty acids. The type of fat you consume has a profound effect on eicosanoid production. Omega-6 fatty acids (in vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, and sunflower oils) are the precursors for the inflammatory chemicals in the body, while omega-3 fatty acids (in flax, fish, and fish oil) are the exact opposite. They're the fuel for our bodies' inner anti-inflammatory factory.
Most researchers agree that the ideal relationship of omega-6s (proinflammatory fatty acids) to omega-3s (anti-inflammatory fatty acids) is about 1:1—the exact ratio you find in the diets of hunter-gatherer societies, which were so remarkably free of the diseases of aging. This ratio keeps the eicosanoid production factories in harmony, with the body producing a nice balance of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory chemicals. The ratio of proinflammatory fats to anti-inflammatory fats in the typical Western diet is 15:1.
Think it doesn't matter? Think again. The importance of this balance to health and antiaging can't be overstated. "A high omega-6/omega-3 ratio promotes the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases," says Artemis P. Simopoulos, MD, of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington. "A lower ratio of omega-6/omega-3 fatty acids is needed for the prevention and management of chronic diseases."
In other words, inflammation is killing us. It is arguably the most significant engine driving premature aging.
Extinguish the Fire Within
Fortunately, a great deal of inflammation is under our control. If you can put out the "fire within," or at least stop it from spreading, you'll be well ahead of the game when it comes to extending life, as well as improving the quality of the years you have. Here are some of the superstars of the food kingdom when it comes to containing these natural anti-inflammatories:
It's hardly coincidental that many of these healthful foods are found in the diets of the longest-lived peoples on the planet.
In addition to eating more anti-inflammatory foods, you can also use supplements to help calm chronic vascular inflammation. A few to consider: