They say you are what you eat, and now medical science is increasingly proving what your grandma, your great-grandma, and her grandmother have always known. When it comes to your body, you’re pretty much going to get out of it what you put into it.
For millennia, in fact, traditional societies the world over have used food not just as nourishment but as medicine. And, now more than ever, we are understanding why. In fact, when it comes to good health and overall longevity, the answer may well already be in your food pantry. This article explores the many ways that the dietary choices you make today can impact your wellness and quality of life for decades to come.
Eating to Control Inflammation
Inflammation in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, inflammation is one of the many tools that the body uses to protect and heal itself. In lower quantities and for short periods of time, inflammation works to restore tissue that has been damaged due to infection, injury, or disease.
The problems start, though, when inflammation levels become excessive or persistent. When that happens, the very same processes that once helped to heal bodily tissues begin to break them down. The result is not only an acceleration of the aging process but also an increased risk for a range of inflammatory diseases, from rheumatoid arthritis to inflammatory bowel diseases to various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s (1, 2, 3, 4). Persistent inflammation, even at low levels, has even been linked to a higher risk of developing organ damage, heart disease, and cancer (5, 6, 7, 8).
But, as scary as the long-term effects of inflammation may be on your body, there’s actually good news because there’s a lot you can do to reduce your inflammation levels–often significantly. In fact, it’s all about lifestyle. Managing your stress, getting consistent, quality sleep, and keeping active have all been shown to help decrease inflammation levels and even to prevent or manage inflammatory diseases (9, 10).
Perhaps your greatest weapon in the fight against inflammation, though, is in your diet. There is a lot of evidence that a well-balanced diet can produce profound anti-inflammatory effects. For example, anthocyanins (found in red, blue, and purple fruits and vegetables) have been shown to significantly reduce inflammation levels while protecting against inflammation-related heart disease, pulmonary disease, and cancer (11). And the great news is that these agents come in a variety of food forms, meaning there’s something to suit every taste. These little inflammation-fighting superstars can be found in foods such as red cabbage, blueberries, cherries, blackberries, mulberries, chokeberries, black currants, black soybeans, and black elderberries (11).
In addition, specific well-balanced dietary regimens, such as the Mediterranean eating pattern, have also been associated with a large reduction in inflammation levels. This includes reducing systemic inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis and reduced neuroinflammation in those at risk for Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases (12, 13).
What is so distinctive about these regimens is how nutritionally balanced they are, including an abundance of essential nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, polyphenols, antioxidants, and polyunsaturated fats (12, 13).
The Gut-Brain Axis and the Gut Microbiome
While research into the long-term effects of inflammation and the role of diet in managing inflammation has been going on for decades now, a relatively newer, but deeply promising, area of research is in the role that gut health plays in overall wellbeing.
The concept of the gut-brain axis, for example, reflects the growing appreciation of the deep connections between the functioning of the gastrointestinal system and whole-body health. In fact, the gut-brain axis speaks to the direct connection between the central nervous system and the enteric (or gut) nervous system. When you think about it, it’s not hard to understand how related they are.
Think about how your body responds to stressful situations, such as when you’re getting ready to deliver a big presentation or sit for an important exam. Your palms sweat, your heart races, and you get queasy. You may even throw up. And think about those happiest moments in your life: the butterflies you get when you’re about to see your significant other for the first time after a long absence, the leap in your heart and belly alike when you receive a joyous surprise.
The body is a profoundly interconnected thing, and medical science is increasingly able to prove it. This is why the gut-brain axis is so critical to your physical health, both in the short and long term. It’s also why what you eat is such an important factor in your wellness and longevity.
Studies have shown that maintaining the gut’s microbiome is central to maintaining your gut health. This refers to the multiplication and balancing of “good” bacteria in the gut. Research has shown that gut microbiota plays a central role in the functioning of both the gut nervous system and the central nervous system (14). And this has important implications for your overall physical and mental health.
The evidence suggests that, through the gut-brain axis, the microbiome can influence mental functioning and physical health from the cellular level to metabolism and organ health system-wide. But that’s not all (14, 15, 16, 17), because the microbiome has also been shown to have effects that help determine emotional regulation and general mental health (14, 18).
And just as eating healthily can be profoundly effective in reducing inflammation, a nutritious diet can also support the microbiome and enhance the functioning of the gut-brain axis (19, 20). Studies have shown, for instance, that the Mediterranean eating pattern can help reduce frailty and improve overall health in older adults (21).
What this suggests, is that a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet that includes healthy fats, dietary fibers, phytonutrients, and essential vitamins and minerals, is critical to maintaining the health of the microbiome. For example, eating foods rich in dietary fiber has been shown to support healthy gut flora and, in turn, increase the production of metabolites, such as short-chain fatty acids, that help the body to break down food, absorb nutrients, and nourish cells (22). The result, the evidence suggests, is a decrease in inflammation and oxidative stress, as well as a reduction in the risk of cancer, metabolic disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, and a host of other chronic illnesses.
Reducing Oxidative Stress
Chances are, you’ve heard a lot about antioxidants over the decades, but maybe you’re not quite clear on what they are or how they work. In a nutshell, antioxidants are protective enzymes that help to reduce the amount of free radicals circulating in the body. Free radicals, simply put, are the destructive by-products of the cells’ response to oxygen. When the body is out of balance, and the proportion of free radicals outweighs the proportion of antioxidants, the result of oxidative stress, and it can wreak havoc throughout the body (22).
In fact, the tissue damage resulting from oxidative stress can not only speed the aging process and decrease longevity, but it can also leave you vulnerable to a wide array of serious and potentially life-threatening diseases, including cancer, dementia, heart and lung diseases, diabetes, renal and liver failure, and even retinal eye disease (23, 24, 25, 26).
Once again, many of the same foods that have been shown to reduce inflammation and support the gut microbiome have also been shown to reduce or prevent oxidative stress (17, 27). In addition to dietary fiber, polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, phytonutrients, and polyphenols, you will also want to eat a diet rich in antioxidants, including potatoes, berries, and pomegranates (28, 29).
How AFT Coaching Can Help
At AFT Coaching, our team can support you in meeting your unique health goals. This includes providing nutritional education and support customized to your particular dietary needs and overall health and fitness goals. We can assist you in designing the eating plan that best suits your lifestyle and supports your vitality, quality of life, and longevity. Contact us today to discuss how AFT Coaching can help you become the healthy, fit, and strong person you were always meant to be!
Our parent company, AF Training Solutions, was founded in 2008. Since then, we’ve grown into one of the largest personal training and coaching organizations in the country. Currently, we operate the fitness departments for about 100 health clubs across the United States. As an organization, we have always had two main areas of focus; the customer experience and company culture. Over the years, we have invested heavily in people, process, and technology to ensure that our customer experience is second to none.
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