Inflammation: From Discovery to Defense

Inflammation is the body’s appropriate and healthy immune response to an injury or infection.  Pull a muscle, catch a cold, or get a bee sting and your body responds with pain and swelling and a healing process begins.  But if the immune system goes awry and fails to shut off, inflammation may become chronic and cause permanent damage to the body.  Chronic inflammation refers to a maladaptive process that is believed to contribute to a variety of medical conditions including heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. This kind of inflammation may not be so readily apparent, but can be detected by high levels of certain established biomarkers like C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6) in the blood. Reducing levels of these biomarkers has been a target for a number of nutrition studies. Omega-3s, L-carnitine, lycopene, astaxanthin, folic acid, CoQ10, resveratrol, and vitamins C and D are a few nutrients that are gaining attention as natural anti-inflammatories.  Perhaps the best studied are the omega-3 fatty acids; researchers have found that increased blood levels of the omega-3s DHA and EPA were associated with reduced levels of the inflammatory biomarker CRP.

Researchers have pointed to western diets and lifestyles as major culprits in the rise of chronic inflammation. Although these may appear hackneyed, the following healthful lifestyle choices are your best defense against inflammation:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.  Excess weight can definitely induce a pro-inflammatory state.  Doctors are concerned about your waistline because studies show that visceral fat, located deep in the abdominal area, causes more inflammation than general obesity.  Lose the weight and you will gain the benefits of reducing or even eliminating inappropriate inflammation.
  • Eat a diet low in saturated fats and rich in complex carbohydrates, including fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  Avoid trans fats and sugar that promote inflammation and incorporate the healthful fats, the omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, which can boast powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Take an omega-3 supplement containing 1000 mg DHA+EPA. Increasing omega-3s DHA + EPA while maintaining low saturated and trans fats also helps all lipid parameters – lowers LDL and total cholesterol, raises HDL and decreases TG.
  • Exercise more.  While helping to maintain a healthy weight, exercise can decrease inflammation and CRP levels, as well as lower LDL, increase HDL, lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease, and on and on and on…
  • Don’t smoke or linger in smoke-filled areas.  Air pollution and, of course, smoking have been linked to an increased incidence of heart disease, asthma, and other inflammation-related conditions.
  • Reduce stress. At the very least make an effort to manage stress in all ways possible: set limits on the demands you face and give yourself regular time out, exercise, make proper sleep and nutrition a priority, seek out laughter and love.

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Understanding Homocysteine

What is Homocysteine?
Simply stated, it’s an amino acid. Our bodies are built on proteins, and the building blocks of all proteins are amino acids. Methionine, an essential amino acid derived from dietary protein, is the source of all homocysteine found in our bodies. In the liver, methionine is continuously converted to homocysteine, and back again to methionine. This reversible cycling of these two amino acids is dependent upon vitamins B12 and folic acid. Deficiencies of either of these vitamins can lead to an unhealthful accumulation of homocysteine. A second irreversible process converts homocysteine to cysteine, which can then be excreted in the urine. This process is dependent upon the help of yet another vitamin, B6. Once again, a deficit in B6 can lead to a build up of too much homocysteine.

Why Decrease Homocysteine Levels?
Research demonstrates that elevated homocysteine is associated with an increased risk of developing several devastating illnesses including heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, and osteoporotic bone fractures. The reason high homocysteine levels predispose to the development of these ailments is being carefully evaluated by our top scientists and doctors; it is felt that several mechanisms are at work. Homocysteine can directly damage our arteries’ inner linings, leading to the build up of plaque and blood clots. It can also oxidize LDL cholesterol, making this type of fat more likely to cause coronary and carotid artery disease. High homocysteine levels also block our body’s natural ability to break down clots. Thus, when clots do form in the arteries feeding our brains and hearts, high homocysteine levels make it harder for our bodies to dissolve them before they totally block the flow of oxygen to these vital organs, causing strokes and heart attacks. It has even been shown that when homocysteine levels are high DNA damage can occur in brain cells, causing their premature death.

What You Can Do
First of all, life style changes can help. Quitting smoking, decreasing caffeine consumption, exercising more, and eating less can all help lower homocysteine levels. Supplementation with vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid can also help reduce homocysteine levels to a normal range.  At times, additional supplementation with N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is indicated to help bring down homocysteine levels as well.  Currently, studies are being conducted to evaluate the long-term benefits of diminishing homocysteine levels to normal. It is hoped that normalization of these levels in patients with high blood homocysteine will help reduce the incidence of heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, and even osteoporotic fractures.

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