In a medical version of the
“unified field” theory in physics, many scientists now believe that most—or
perhaps all—chronic diseases may have the same trigger: inflammation. This
fiery process has been linked to everything from heart attacks and strokes to
type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and even cancer.
Chronic, low-grade systemic
inflammation—fueled by such disorders as excessive belly fat, poor diet, lack
of exercise, smoking, and gum disease—may explain why lifestyle-linked diseases
have reached epidemic levels in Western countries, while remaining rare in
the developing world.
“There are clear indications that
inflammation explains why plaque builds up in the arteries in patients with
atherosclerosis,” says Philip Schauer, MD, director of the Bariatric and
Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. “Chronic inflammation also plays a
direct role in diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, asthma and many
The Missing Puzzle Piece
Two groundbreaking new studies published
in Lancetsuggest that fire inside the artery walls could be the missing puzzle
piece to solve the mystery of why many people with normal or even optimal
cholesterol levels suffer heart attacks or strokes, while others with very high
cholesterol never develop heart disease.
The studies were the first to show
a cause-and-effect relationship between a specific inflammatory marker
(interleukin 6, also known as IL-6) and heart disease risk—a discovery that
could lead to revolutionary new therapies to treat or prevent the leading
killer of Americans.
The researchers pooled data from
nearly 135,000 people and found that those with a gene variant linked to a lower-than-normal number of IL-6 receptors were much less likely to develop heart
disease, even though they had the same rates of smoking, diabetes, high
cholesterol, and other risk factors as people without this variant.
The findings suggest that medication
to block IL-6 receptors—currently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis (also an
inflammatory disease)—could be a new weapon against heart disease.
Is Your Body on Fire?
Most of the time, inflammation protects
health. If you stepped on a nail, your body would mobilize immune system troops
to battle the invading bacteria by releasing signaling molecules, such as
IL-6, to launch the inflammatory cascade. The immune system reaction involves more than 20 proteins that blast the
invaders with chemicals to kill them, along with an assortment of odd-looking white
blood cell components that resemble characters from Creepshow2.
The result of this immune system
response is the familiar feeling of redness and warmth around the wound as it
starts to heal. Chronic inflammation,
however, harms rather than heals, because the immune system attack never stops.
It’s like being shot by “friendly fire” during a perpetual war raging inside
the body, says Dr. Schauer.
The #1 Warning Sign of Chronic Inflammation
The easiest way to tell if your
body—and arteries—might be on fire is to measure your waist. A circumference above 35 inches for a woman
or 40 inches for a man means you could be at risk for a variety of
dangerous diseases linked to chronic inflammation, even if your weight is
“Excessive visceral fat is very
different than fat in other parts of the body,” says Dr. Schauer. “Abdominal
fat cells are much more biologically active than subcutaneous fat cells,
releasing several hormones and cytokines [chemical messengers involved in
immune system and inflammatory responses]. There is also a genetic component to
both chronic inflammation and obesity—it’s not just an unhealthy lifestyle that
leads to these problems.”
A big belly is also the leading
indicator of metabolic syndrome, a gang of five metabolic thugs that quintuple
risk for type 2 diabetes and triple it for heart attack. Fifty million
Americans, many of whom are undiagnosed, suffer from this dangerous disorder.
If you have three or more of the
following disorders, you have metabolic syndrome:
A large waistline. This also is called "an apple
High triglycerides: a level of this blood fat above 150 mg/dL
Low HDL (less than 50 mg/dL for women and less than 40 mg/dL for
men). HDL is the good cholesterol that keeps the heart and brain healthy.
High blood pressure: 130/85 mmHg or higher (or you’re on blood
High fasting blood sugar: 100 mg/dL or above (or you're on
medicine to treat high blood sugar).
Can Targeting Inflammation Improve
Many studies have
linked Alzheimer’s disease—also called “type 3 diabetes”—to chronic
inflammation. A new study
published in Nature Medicine reports
that in mice with the memory-robbing disorder, levels of pro-inflammatory
cytokines called IL-12 and IL-23 soar.
When the animals’
brains were treated with antibodies that target IL-12 and Il-23, their memory
deficits were actually “reversed,” the researchers report, suggesting that
anti-inflammatory therapies may help combat the disease’s progression.
Another new study
found that statins—which are known to have potent anti-inflammatory effects in
people—boosted memory in mice in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The statin
used in the study was simvastin (Zocor).
medication isn’t the only fire-fighter; research also shows that regular
exercise helps keep both the body and brain healthy. Interval training, in
particular, is one of the best ways to slim your waist—and put out the fire in