Everything — the air we breathe, the food and water we consume, the beauty products we use and the stress we are under — impacts our health both now and down the road.
Our immune system is under attack every day, and most of the time we stay healthy because of the trillions of cells inside the body constantly at work to keep us safe.
But when our bodies encounter too many chemicals, our defence systems can malfunction, and this results in inflammation — one of the most serious yet overlooked factors affecting how we age and how long we will live.
It is implicated in everything from arthritis to heart disease and cancer — and, as an immunologist, I’ve seen time and again the havoc it can wreak.
When our bodies encounter too many chemicals, our defence systems can malfunction, and this results in inflammation
When any kind of threat — bacteria, toxins, trauma, even extremes of temperature — injures our tissues, they become inflamed as part of the immune response.
This is usually only temporary, and the inflammation is crucial in triggering the process by which the body protects and heals itself.
But in some situations, the inflammation can result in DNA damage because too many defence cells (white blood cells) heed the body’s call and join the fight.
Our immune system has one job: to defend our bodies.
So when we introduce problematic chemicals constantly — whether that be the hormones released during periods of excess stress, or the ingredients in ultra-processed foods — the immune system thinks it’s under attack, and will unleash an overabundance of white blood cells to try to protect us.
Sometimes these cells attack our own organs or otherwise healthy tissues and cells, causing DNA damage.
Those attacks age our tissues, eroding our overall health, and can, in some cases, lead to auto-immune conditions such as coeliac disease or multiple sclerosis. Researchers call this reaction ‘inflammaging’ (inflammation plus ageing).
When our cells face near-constant attack, inflammaging can push them into senescence, or old age, meaning they stop multiplying and growing.
Cellular senescence initiates a cascade of negative immune responses, opening the door to cancer, osteoarthritis and ageing-related diseases.
Our immune system has one job: to defend our bodies. [File image]
Did you know?
A girl born in 2019 is expected to live three years fewer than previously thought, reaching the age of 90.4, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The chances of reaching 100 have been slashed.
When our body’s inflammatory responses are so severe, our immune system may become less resilient, potentially lessening the ability to resist the effects of ageing.
In the Covid-19 pandemic, older adults, particularly those with pre-exisiting medical conditions including obesity, showed an increased risk of experiencing uncontrolled inflammatory responses called cytokine storms, which can result in multi- organ failure. Many of these people died.
So far, so grim. But the power to change this dire outcome lies in your hands. Think of your body like a car. The more you expose it to extreme wear and tear, the more damaged it will become.
But if you fill it with high-quality fuel, do preventative maintenance, and give it regular tune-ups, the better it will run and the longer it will last.
Follow the simple guidance in my exclusive new series, which starts today and continues in The Mail on Sunday tomorrow, and I can help you prevent unnecessary wear and tear.
By giving you the keys to strengthen your immune system and reduce inflammation, I can really aid you in slowing the effects of ageing, improve your health and ultimately live longer.
EAT TO NOURISH CELLS NOT SATISFY CRAVINGS
The stark truth is that today’s children may live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents.
One of the main factors behind this is what we feed them — not to mention what we feed ourselves. Over the past few decades, obesity and diabetes have risen to epidemic levels.
Overindulged on alcohol? Take aspirin or ibuprofen instead of paracetamol as it can further damage your liver.
Vitamin B complex will help metabolise the alcohol and milk thistle aids liver healing.
Unhealthy life habits which cause this excessive weight gain, such as eating sugar and carbohydrates in excess, can lead to chronic inflammation. This undermines the immune system and shortens your life.
With the explosion in availability of fast, processed foods, it’s easy to forget that what we eat is supposed to fuel the body, maintain health and prevent disease, rather than just satisfying our cravings. Food gives our cells nutrients and nourishes the body.
The quality of what you eat becomes even more important if you are recovering from an infection, pregnant or breastfeeding. Consuming the right nutrients vitally restores the balance within our bodies, lowers inflammation and boosts the immune system.
If you’re consuming the wrong foods, including sugar and alcohol, not only will you be ageing your body faster but you probably weigh more than you should.
Some studies have found that, for women, a large waistline increased the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease, even when their body mass index (BMI) was considered to be within the normal range. Fat tissue creates adipocytokines, molecules which can promote inflammation. That’s why obesity results in low-grade, chronic inflammation which can put stress on your immune system.
Why bad breath can be a sign of disease
Halitosis — the medical term for bad breath — is your body’s way of telling you something isn’t right.
A 2014 study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found people with untreated gum disease were more likely to need hospital treatment for cardiovascular disease. Estimates put the risk of gum disease affecting your heart at 20 per cent, and other research has found links between poor oral health and respiratory illnesses, osteoporosis and cancer.
Oral diseases cause inflammation — and chronic inflammation anywhere overtaxes your immune system, allowing other diseases to take hold. So brush, floss and visit your dentist regularly.
This excess weight, and the accompanying inflammation, can put you at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, among other illnesses.
So if your doctor tells you that you need to lose weight, follow that advice. (My three steps to easy weight loss can help you — see overleaf).
But whether you need to lose weight or not, most of us could do with a crash course in nutrition, to know what eating healthily really means. So read on . . .
DON’T SWALLOW SUPPLEMENT HYPE
According to a 2017 survey of 3,500 people aged 60 or older published in the Journal of Nutrition, 70 per cent of those polled took a daily supplement (a multivitamin or an individual micronutrient), 54 per cent took one or two supplements, and 29 per cent took four or more. In the UK alone, over-the-counter supplements generate an annual revenue of around £520 million.
So are they worth it, or are they a waste of money?
Not all supplements are created equal, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for individual needs.
Most manufacturers combine good ingredients with harmful additives or oils, so it’s important to know what you are buying. Oils derived from plants such as corn, oil palms, soybeans, and sunflowers often go into industrial lubricants. Supplement manufacturers use them to extend shelf life. Your heart, arteries, and other organ systems don’t need them, and consuming them can disrupt the mechanisms that keep you healthy.
Supplements aren’t a substitute for a healthy, well-balanced diet, nor are they a cure-all, but specific supplements can help with certain conditions. Adults with osteoporosis, for example, may require more vitamin D and calcium than they can obtain from their diets.
According to some studies, a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, zinc and copper can slow the course of age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision loss in the elderly.
People with inflammatory bowel conditions such as Crohn’s disease, which makes it difficult to absorb certain nutrients, may also benefit from supplements.
A vitamin B12 deficiency, common for many people, almost always necessitates supplementation, too.
Dangers of just one sweet drink
Just one sugary drink can impact your immune system for hours after you drink it.
Sugar damages your innate immune system, and too much sugar inside you allows bacteria and viruses to thrive. That’s why people with diabetes are at greater risk for infections and gangrene.
Sugar damages your innate immune system, and too much sugar inside you allows bacteria and viruses to thrive. [File image]
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that it took only 75 grams of sugar to weaken the immune system. One sugary drink and one chocolate bar, together, have that sugar content.
After you consume them, it takes your system several hours to recover — assuming you don’t ingest more sugar. Even if you do everything right — sleeping eight hours a night, exercising often, eating well — it is guaranteed that your immune system will be compromised.
AVOID ALL OF THE TRICKSY SUBSTITUTES
MANY forms of sugar are natural, meaning grown and not manufactured, so ‘all-natural’ products can contain tons of sugar — and it all has the same effect.
Anything in an ingredient list that ends in ‘-ose’ is a kind of sugar. Food firms sometimes sneak in multiple -oses, including dextrose, fructose, galactose, glucose and maltose. All sugar.
Common substitutes and synonyms for sugar include agave nectar, brown sugar, caramel, carob syrup, caster sugar, coconut sugar, confectioners’ sugar, dextrin, fruit juice, golden syrup, maltodextrin and maple syrup. Watch out for them all.
Avoid processed food at all costs – even if it’s vegan
It’s not just injury, infection or stress that can cause inflammation. One seemingly innocuous thing that we encounter every day is a culprit: ultra-processed foods.
They are teeming with sugars, stabilisers, preservatives, emulsifiers and artificial flavours, and combining those chemicals with ultra-processed seed oils and other kinds of sugar can create even more inflammation.
Heavily processed foods include store-bought bread, biscuits, protein bars, plant-based processed food and frozen dinners.
Heavily processed foods include store-bought bread, biscuits, protein bars, plant-based processed food and frozen dinners
Cutting out these culprits from my diet improved my health and, even though I’m 40, my body feels like that of a 25-year-old. These chemicals are great for jet fuel — but not for your arteries.
Many vegan or plant-based products contain artificial colours and sweeteners, emulsifiers, mould inhibitors and other chemicals that aren’t particularly healthy.
Eat enough of those foods regularly and you will put yourself at serious risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease.
In addition to causing inflammation and accelerated ageing, consuming ultra-processed foods correlates with increased risks of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, kidney disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. Researchers are examining the long-term implications of consuming chronically ultra-processed food.
The inflammation created by this kind of diet can have an impact on the whole body. If you eat something every day, that counts as a habit, and bad habits have significant consequences.
BE SURE TO FOLLOW THE TEN-INGREDIENT RULE
Food companies often use a trick in advertising, claiming that their products are ‘made from plants’ or ‘whole’ to make you think the product is organic, natural or healthy. Look at the label, though. If you can’t pronounce an ingredient, it probably came from a laboratory, not a farm.
If a product has more than ten ingredients, make sure that at least seven of them are natural and organic.
A good rule is: if nature did not make it then don’t eat it. Avoid plant- based alternatives made in a factory to help prevent inflammation.