Inflammaging: The Hidden Cause of Aging and Disease

Inflammaging: The Hidden Cause of Aging and Disease

Inflammation is a crucial function of our immune system that exists for a reason: to enable the body to protect itself against everything from physical injuries to infectious bacteria and viruses. Without it, the body wouldn’t be able to deal with a splinter, much less the threat of proliferating cancer cells.

The problem is that inflammation didn’t evolve with our modern lifestyles and food systems that are overloaded with inflammatory triggers like toxins and heavy metals, chronic stress, and ultra-processed foods (to name just a few!) and lacking in the factors that keep inflammation in check, like sleep, exercise, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.

Instead of living in a state of balance, where inflammation is an acute response to a threat and subsides once that threat is eliminated (like a sore throat), this constant exposure to threats keeps us in a state of systemic, low-grade inflammation that spreads throughout the body.

This is known as inflammaging (a portmanteau of “inflammation” and “aging”), and it’s the main driver of aging and age-related disease.

How Inflammaging Impacts Longevity

So, why is inflammaging so bad for us?

As we age, our immune system gradually declines in function through a process called immunosenescence, diminishing the body’s ability to protect itself, identify and eliminate pathogens, and destroy cancer cells. In fact, the thymus gland, responsible for teaching our T-cells how to fight infections, shrinks about three percent a year up until age forty and one percent a year thereafter.

This, alone, increases our susceptibility to infections and age-related diseases such as cancer—which explains why the risks of dying from cancer and infections increase dramatically as we get older. It’s also why older populations had the highest risks of death and hospitalizations from COVID-19, accounting for approximately sixty percent of hospitalizations and nearly ninety percent of deaths.

But inflammaging amplifies all of this, creating a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle where the factors that contribute to immune dysfunction are exacerbated by the inflammation they produce.

What essentially happens is that as the body loses its ability to defend itself, it opens the window for cellular damage, creating a state of low-grade, systemic inflammation that results in further immune dysfunction—which, in turn, leads to more inflammation, then more immune dysfunction, and so on and so on.

This is why we often talk about inflammation being the root cause of disease. It’s not our body’s acute inflammatory response that’s the problem, but the chronic, low-grade inflammation—inflammaging—that cascades throughout the body, leading to atherosclerosis, endothelial damage, plaque formation, neuroinflammation, insulin resistance, and, ultimately, diseases like heart disease, dementia, diabetes, and cancer.

Strategies to Reduce Inflammaging 1. Remove inflammatory triggers. Our modern lifestyles and food systems contribute heavily to inflammation. To restore balance, the first step is to remove inflammatory triggers that promote chronic, low-grade inflammation, such as ultra-processed foods, starches and sugars, gluten, conventional dairy, alcohol, refined oils, and excess calories from snacking (which can lead to metabolic disruption and increased inflammatory adipose tissue).

These ingredients—in addition to environmental toxins like chemicals and heavy metals—add fuel to the fire of inflammation by triggering inflammatory pathways, contributing to insulin resistance, disrupting the gut barrier and microbiome, and promoting the production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids and cytokines.

2. Follow an anti-inflammatory diet.

Whole, low-glycemic foods are a powerful source of anti-inflammatory compounds, particularly red, green, yellow, orange, and purple plant foods like turmeric, ginger, mushrooms, broccoli, peppers, avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, green tea, and berries. These colorful foods contain potent compounds like sulforaphane, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) , ellagic acid, resveratrol, and ergothioneine that reduce and fight inflammation.

Omega 3 fats found in wild fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and Alaskan cod; flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds; and pasture-raised eggs can also help reduce inflammation.

3. Stay active.

Exercise can lower inflammation in the body through several mechanisms such as increasing the production of NAD (a potent anti-aging molecule); upregulating the production of antioxidants like glutathione; and boosting nitric oxide production, which enhances blood flow. In addition, exercise also helps fight inflammation by reducing stress, modulating the immune system, and helping to regulate blood sugar levels.

Aim for a regular, balanced exercise routine that encompasses a mixture of strength, aerobic, and flexibility programs such as resistance training with weights or bands, yoga or tai chi, and a combination of moderate-intensity cardio (like brisk walking or cycling) and high-intensity interval training (short bursts of intense exercise followed by rest or low-intensity periods).

4. Know your numbers.

There are numerous biomarkers for detecting and measuring inflammation and inflammaging, such as high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), white blood cell count, antinuclear and rheumatoid antibodies, omega-6-to-omega-3 ratios, food allergy profiles, and inflammatory age tests. Together and tracked over time, these tests, all available through Function Health, a company I co-founded, can provide valuable insight as to the state of inflammation in the body as well as the presence of triggers and dysfunction behind it.

5. Take care of your gut.

Our gut is home to three trillion bacteria and sixty percent of our immune system. When in balance, these bacteria help keep inflammation in balance. Yet when out of balance, bad bacteria can grow like weeds, creating a toxic environment that drives chronic inflammation. Prebiotics and probiotics in the form of foods and supplements can keep the gut in balance by encouraging the growth of good bacteria and discouraging the growth of bad bacteria.

6. Supplement with senolytics.

Senescent (“zombie”) cells are a key factor in inflammaging, secreting a variety of pro-inflammatory cytokines, chemokines, growth factors, and proteases that can alter the tissue microenvironment, inducing inflammation both locally and systemically. But plant compounds such as quercetin , fisetin , and curcumin can target and kill these zombie cells, cutting off a key source of inflammation at its root. In addition, certain phytochemicals from Himalayan tartary buckwheat are immuno-rejuvenating.

The key isn’t to shut down inflammation or the inflammatory response with drugs, steroids, or NSAIDS, but to empower the immune system to fight inflammation naturally by uncovering and clearing away the underlying causes of inflammation and nurturing the body’s inherent ability to heal and protect itself.

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