Aging is associated with low-grade chronic inflammatory state referred to “inflamm-ageing” or inflammaging.
Inflammaging is abnormal and unhealthy. It is associated with a chronically increased level of inflammatory chemicals within the blood stream called cytokines, and looks as if there is a chronic infection within the body but none exists.
Inflammaging accompanies virtually all aging related disorders (cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, degenerative arthritis, etc.), and the concentration of blood markers of inflammation (CRP and IL-6) positively correlate with the risk of developing these conditions over time.
Inflammaging is not just a phenomenon that accompanies the onset of these disorders, it is believed to be the primary process that is responsible for triggering them. In other words, without inflammaging people would not develop these conditions as they age.
Inflammation has various forms that can be both helpful and harmful, and may be regulated or unregulated. Determining what form of inflammation is going on in a person’s body depends upon the context of the situation.
Inflammation is a normal healthy response required to repair tissue or fight infection, and is regulated within the body in a process known as homeostasis. Homeostasis keeps the inflammatory system in balance but in many people the balance is being disrupted by environmental factors.
For example, a healthy increase in inflammation occurs for a short period of time after an individual sprains their ankle. The inflammation is a healthy response that is required to repair the damaged tissue, and once repaired the inflammation subsides. But if the inflammation persists after the injury is healed, the once healthy inflammatory response now becomes harmful.
Chronic inflammation has the ability to inappropriately activate genes within our DNA. The genes for potential illnesses (cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, etc.) we acquire from our parents at birth will remain dormant and harmless unless activated by inflammation.
Inflammation and Cancer
Most people do not realize that chronic inflammation and cancer go hand-in-hand, for example. The older we get, the more inflammation develops in our body, the greater the risk of developing cancer.
Ninety percent of all cancers are felt to be the consequence of inflammaging, and this even includes skin cancer which is commonly believed to occur from the sun. But the sun’s radiation only creates a genetic mutation for cancer which is harmless unless the mutated gene is activated by inflammation.
Breast cancer is another example for the strong connection between inflammation and malignancy. High levels of inflammation (as measured by the cytokine IL-6) correlates not only increases the risk of development of breast cancer but also increases the risk of progression and metastasis, decreases the response to therapy, and correlates with a poor prognosis.
The inflammation accompanying aging is the single most significant risk factor for cancer development, with the majority of cancer cases being diagnosed after the age of 65. There is a dramatic increase in the development of invasive breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancer (3.5, 36, 28 and 12-fold increase respectively) after the age 70 compared to before the age of 50.
Alterations in our food supply, exposure to medical therapies, and other environmental factors are believed to be major sources of the inflammaging that fuels the risk of cancer as well as other age-associated disorders.
Sources of Inflammation
One important source of inflammation occurred with the industrialization of the global food supply. Eating grain-fed meat (corn-fed beef and pork, farm-raised fish) and the wide use of vegetable oils (soy/soybean, corn, safflower and sunflower oils) have resulted in an inflammation-producing imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in our diets.
The grains involved in feeding livestock and producing these oils contain large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids which are highly pro-inflammatory. At the same time our intake of omega-6 fatty acids have increased, our intake of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids have declined.
Diets with high amounts of saturated fatty acids such as palmitic acid (common in processed foods) are also associated with obesity, cardiovascular disease, and inflammaging. To make matters worse, the excessive adipose tissue that accumulates with obesity also is an additional source of the chronic inflammation.
The imbalance of omega fatty acids and increase in saturated fatty acids are common in the diet of most people worldwide and are felt by many experts to be the major trigger of global obesity and diabetes due to their inflammation-promoting characteristics.
The food supply additionally produces inflammation from the use of high temperatures in industrial, retail, and at-home cooking. High temperatures result in the creation of abnormal inflammatory molecules known as advanced glycation end products or AGE’s. Ingestion of AGE’s is linked to chronic inflammation and the development of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, cataracts, and hearing loss.
A major and common source of inflammation is the disruption of bacteria within the intestinal tract that can also contribute to inflammaging. The presence of pesticides, herbicides and preservatives in the food supply over many decades, as well as the use of common broad-spectrum antibiotics, have resulted the extinction of an estimated 15-30% of different bacterial species within the human intestinal tract.
The extinction of intestinal bacteria species as well as an imbalance of intestine bacteria (a condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or SIBO) further worsens inflammaging through a variety of mechanisms (bacterial translocation, altered parasympathetic Autonomic Nervous System function, altered immune system homeostasis).
Medical interventions such as the prescription of potent antacids and antibiotics, colonoscopies, abdominal surgery, vaccinations, and general anesthesia are thought to increase the likelihood of developing inflammaging from SIBO.
The Cumulative Sources of Inflammation
Many Americans are affected by the combined inflammatory effects of all of these factors. Our inflammaging rises out of the foods we eat, our unbalanced intestinal bacteria, the excessive abdominal fat we have added over the years, and many of the medical procedures we have had to undergo or that we have elected to undergo.
And it all adds up. The variety of things we have done as a civilization to improve and prolong life have inadvertently triggered the chronic inflammatory process responsible for triggering illnesses associated with aging, and possibly with the recent declines in longevity noted in men within the U.S.
Advances in agricultural, food production, and medicine have greatly lessened the risk death from starvation and disease but they have had the unintended consequence of inflammaging. In spite all of our technological advances, we are getting sick faster and at much younger ages.
Fortunately, much can be done to lessen inflammaging and the risk of developing the diseases of aging such as cancer. This is where we begin to make the kitchen more powerful than the operating room and we begin by altering our omega fatty acids back into a chemically healthier ratio that lessens our inflammation.
People can start by reading food labels and eliminating excessive omega-6 vegetable oils (soy/soybean, corn, safflower and sunflower oils), shortening, and margarine from their diet.
People also can supplement their diet with a broad array of omega-3 fatty acids such as the EPA and DHA component most easily found in fish oil, and the ALA component that is found in nuts, flax, or ground chia seeds.
To help block and reverse the negative effects of omega-6 that people cannot avoid in their food, cooking with and consuming authentic (California sourced) extra virgin olive oil can help a great deal to block the chemical conversions.
People can also refine their cooking methods and use techniques that cook slowly and at lower temperatures in order to reduce the formation of AGE’s. These include cooking by crock pot, steaming, boiling, and by a technique called “sous vide” that can significantly lower inflammation from AGE exposure. Personally, my wife and I now cook almost all of our meat and vegetables in crockpots or by the “sous vide” method to lower our exposure to AGE’s.
Limiting the use of antibiotics and medical procedures to the minimum necessary will help reduce further worsening of intestinal bacteria disturbances. Bring common sense back into the equation and explore the least invasive or less potent option.
The questions to ask your physician is not can you have it, but should you have it, are there less invasive or disruptive alternatives, and will it make a meaningful difference for your health.
Seeking treatment for the overgrowth of intestinal bacteria can also go a long way towards lessening inflammaging. In some people, an OTC pre-biotic fiber called inulin that is found in many foods such as onions and garlic may help control the overgrowth, while others will require treatment with targeted short-term prescriptions.
Helping the Brain Control Inflammation
The Autonomic Nervous System is the brain’s master control mechanism and communicates with every organ in the body such as the heart, bladder, stomach, intestines and kidneys. It is how the brain regulates inflammation, the immune system, blood pressure, blood sugar, sleep cycles, and hormones.
The Autonomic Nervous System is composed of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. These two opposite branches should work together in balance but people with unresolved autonomic injury very often have symptoms from both parasympathetic and sympathetic dysfunction.
The Autonomic Nervous Systems is increasingly prone to injury and dysfunction because of a wide-array of stressors such as poor nutrition, vegetable oils in our foods, childbirth, intestinal infections, metabolic or inflammatory events, medications, adverse or excessive reactions to vaccinations, and both physical and emotional concussions and traumas.
Information from the parasympathetic branch is carried through the vagus nerve and normally controls and maintains homeostasis of inflammation throughout our body.
When the parasympathetic branch is damaged and weakened, it is unable to fully control the immune system and leads to chronic inflammatory conditions, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain syndromes. Weakened parasympathetic function also results in abnormal motility of the intestinal tract causing heartburn, GERD, IBS, or constipation.
Lower Inflammation Improves Autonomic Function
The Autonomic Nervous System may be tested by several methods but some tests only produce a normal or an abnormal result and they are not able to be easily repeated to monitor whether treatment is resulting in renewed autonomic function.
I prefer two testing methods in combination. The first method is HRV testing which measures the influence of autonomic signals on the precise time interval between every pair of heartbeats. The second method is spectral analysis of the autonomic signaling to the heart.
Spectral analysis provides information about sympathetic and parasympathetic strength and balance, and can be easily repeated over time to monitor recovery of autonomic function.
When performed at rest, heart rate variability (HRV) is primarily a reflection of parasympathetic activity and will fluctuate based on the health of the parasympathetic branch.
Chronic inflammation results in a decline in parasympathetic function and HRV while the reduction in chronic inflammation improves HRV as well parasympathetic strength on spectral analysis.
Advanced autonomic dysfunction results in progressively lower and lower HRV. People may silently slip into very weak parasympathetic function and they will not even realize it. I have seen a number of patients who were young, athletic, ate “clean” diets, and considered themselves to be healthy with absolutely no idea that their parasympathetic brain function was damaged.
The weakest pattern of parasympathetic function is also referred to as Cardiac Autonomic Neuropathy (CAN) which has a 50% mortality rate in 5 years if it is left untreated. Fortunately, it can often be stabilized with medication and I have seen it reverse and recover even in elderly patients.
Although autonomic injuries and dysfunction seem to be becoming more common in the general population, they are easily detectable and fortunately autonomic dysfunction is now reversible or capable of improvement without long term medications.
Stimulating the Vagus Nerve to Lower Inflammation
A potent method to lowering chronic inflammation is to increase parasympathetic function by stimulating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve carries information from the parasympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous System, and operates as the regulator of inflammation throughout the entire body in a process referred to as the vagus-inflammatory reflex.
The signal carried by the vagus nerve operates much like your foot on the brakes of your car. The stronger the parasympathetic impulse, the more inflammation slows and eventually comes to a stop.
Groundbreaking bioelectrical research is demonstrating that stimulation of the vagus nerve with a mild electrical current is capable of lowering inflammation throughout the body. In other words, electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve mimics the normal anti-inflammatory signal of parasympathetic autonomic branch.
The ability to lower inflammation via the vagus nerve is thought to be so important that it promises to make many medications obsolete in our lifetimes and it gives us a whole new understanding of stopping disease pathways.
Vagus nerve stimulation is doctor-prescribed medical treatment. Implanted devices to stimulate the vagus nerve have been performed in approximately 100,000 individuals over the last 20 years.
In order to avoid the risk and costs associated with surgery, a less invasive and less expensive transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulator (tVNS) can be used. By applying a mild current to the skin just above a specific location at the ear where a branch of the vagus nerve is located, we are able to generate similar anti-inflammatory responses as the seen with the implantable device.
Vagus Nerve stimulation is a complex treatment method and different settings are used for different people depending on their individual health, and are used at varying lengths of time for different conditions. Vagus stimulation with electricity should not be tried without the guidance of experienced physician because permanent neurological injury may occur if the proper electrical settings are not used.
Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulator is an important tool for inflammation control and a core aspect of my multifaceted autonomic recovery program, The Nemechek Protocol™ for Autonomic Recovery (Patent Pending). The Nemechek Protocol™ is capable of reversing chronic autonomic damage and symptoms even if they have persisted for decades.
It is also capable of eliminating some of the symptoms of other chronic inflammation disorders such as depression, PTSD, post-concussion syndrome, autoimmune disorders and even improve Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
I believe that the key to restoring our natural inflammation control mechanisms is through a reduction of inflammation throughout the brain and body by using every scientific, nutritional, and bioelectric tool available.
I am an internal medicine physician (D.O.) from UCLA and my Internal Medicine and Autonomic practice is in the Phoenix, Arizona area. For additional information, call my office 623-208-4226 or go to AutonomicMed.com.
This post is provided as an information resource only and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. This information is not intended to be patient education, and it does not create any patient-physician relationship.
© 2018. Nemechek Consultative Medicine. All Rights Reserved. Patent Pending.