Betcha Haven't Heard These: An MD & PhD Offer 3 Sneaky Triggers For Inflammation
At this point, we have discussed at length all the ways chronic inflammation can silently wreak havoc on your immunity and overall health. But here's the thing: Inflammation is a nebulous term, and it casts a rather large net. Meaning, it can crop up in seemingly endless ways, some more sinister than others.
In fact, internal medicine physician Rupa Marya, M.D., and political economist and New York Times bestselling author Raj Patel, Ph.D., co-authors of the (aptly titled) Inflamed, offer three underrated (yet significant) triggers for inflammation on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. Check out the below—you might not immediately associate them with an inflammatory response, but both Marya and Patel declare they make quite an impact:
The health of your community.
According to Marya and Patel, it actually isn't good for your health to solely focus on yourself: On the contrary, being connected to your community has been associated with a lower mortality risk1. "No one can be healthy when so many people are sick," says Marya. (Just take the COVID-19 pandemic as a glaring example.)
She uses a gardening metaphor: When a tree is covered in pests, spraying it with pesticides might treat that single tree for a time—but nourishing the soil and the surrounding area with compost will also help treat that tree, as well as uplift the living organisms that coexist around it.
"Our pharmaceutical approach to health is to say if something's missing, let me give you the [remedy] to fix it, as opposed to saying, something's missing, let me create the conditions around it for not just the body, but the whole community to thrive," Marya adds.
In other words: We are all connected. And just like your own body needs to be in balance, our community at large needs to function optimally for us to truly thrive. Says Marya, "Understanding our immunity is completely dependent on supporting the other and getting out of the individualistic mindset."
The health of the planet.
Marya and Patel aren't the only ones who believe our personal immunity is connected to the planet's: You see, we humans are a microcosm of a much larger microbiome—in fact, the entire world has a biome, and we're just one of the billion little bugs residing inside of it. For example, you can build immune resilience by getting your fill of supportive nutrients—but in order to do so, we need to restore healthy ecosystems so that they can offer us the most nutrients possible.
The health of the planet is intimately connected to your own—just take a look at the research: "People who are chronically exposed to PM2.5 [fine particulate matter that's inhalable] have a much harder run of COVID when they get it2 and a higher likelihood of getting COVID," says Marya. It's a similar story from the wildfires raging in the West: A study has shown that exposure to wildfire smoke is associated with more severe cases of COVID3. "We need to stop the world from burning," says Marya—for the sake of the planet (first and foremost) and for the sake of your own health. "Our lack of understanding of how we damage ecosystems ends up having an inflammatory response," she adds, for both those systems and for our own bodies.
The solution, of course, isn't so simple, but let's try to manage what we can control: According to Marya, legislation around public smoking, for example, has been associated with a lower risk of hospitalization and death from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. "We saw rates of fatal heart attacks and strokes drop in ways that no medicine devised in modern times has cut those rates," she says. Making substantial shifts in climate change takes collective work, but it's a place to start.
These days, it's difficult to have a conversation about health and longevity without mentioning telomeres. Telomeres are the "caps" on the end of DNA strands that help cells do their job and protect them from degradation. "How much length you have on the end of your telomere is kind of a biological clock," Marya explains. (Longer telomeres, the theory states, longer lifespan.)
"What we know now is that telomeres can be shortened through stress, through trauma, and through environmental damage and exposure," she adds. Get ready for some science-speak: "When telomeres are shortened in that way, those cells enter senescence [a fancy word for when cells stop dividing], and they are more likely to develop a pro-inflammatory phenotype called the senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP)... This SASP is an inflammation factory, a generator of pro-inflammatory molecules in the body4."
But back to the trauma point: Apparently, even traumatic events during childhood can shorten telomeres (and, thus, jump-start the development of SASPs): According to one study analyzing DNA samples from 4,598 people aged 50 and older, those who experienced stressful events during childhood had an increased risk of shorter telomeres5; in fact, each significant stressful event in a person's childhood appeared to increase those odds by 11%.
It's not all doom and gloom, though: "The thing about telomeres is not only can they be shortened by stress, but they can be elongated by things that are regenerative and nourishing," says Marya. Things like meditation and the right nutrients have both been associated with longer telomeres.
All the ways to tackle chronic inflammation to support overall health can become overwhelming. However, according to Marya and Patel, it's important to pay attention to the sneakiest ways it can crop up. And at the end of the day, prioritizing the health of the community at large has some noteworthy benefits.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.