‘Infla what’ I hear you say? Inflammaging at menopause? Something else to worry about?
But if someone saw fit to give a word the ‘RomCom’ and ‘Brunch’ treatment it must rate highly in the ‘need to know more’ stakes.
Inflammaging meaning….in simple terms!
‘Inflammaging’ is indeed the meshing together of two words – inflammation and ageing…..alas- it just became a lot less sexy than KimYe. So, which bright spark thought that was a good idea? A very bright one it turns out. Inflammaging is a term coined in 2000 by Italian researcher Claudio Franceschi. Yep- an actual research scientist, not a fella with a book to sell.
We are probably all aware that inflammation is generally considered a bad thing and has been linked to a number of common chronic conditions. However, Franceschi and his colleagues demonstrated that inflammation at a cellular level is a natural and unavoidable component in the ageing process. It only becomes a problem when inflammation is excessive and / or uncontrolled. In this instance, the ageing process is accelerated. So, inflammaging skin ladies? Not ideal, but before you rush out for the next anti-ageing miracle product..what about internal inflammaging?
Not great for living a long, healthy and active life.
Inflammation in the body
Disclaimer time – inflammation is a normal and necessary process designed to help keep us alive and kicking (1). If you injure yourself, bring on the inflammation. It is part of the body’s complex and brilliant immune response that helps heal the affected area.
If you’re fighting off a nasty bug – again, a bit of strategic inflammation – yes please. Even just going about its day-to-day business your body is like a giant factory, which creates waste products and debris as it is working to keep you alive. And inflammation is a natural part of the clean-up process. So in a nutshell – inflammation = helpful.
However…..(why is it when it comes to wellness there is ALWAYS a however?), inflammation should be short term. And it should be easily switched on and off like a light switch. If it isn’t and it’s left on (even at a low level) or it becomes excessive in one or more areas, trouble can start. Ongoing inflammation leads to the breakdown of healthy, normal tissues and cells and the production of excess free radicals. These are very reactive molecules that can quickly cause carnage in your cells – think toy shop full of sugar fueled 5-year-olds level carnage).
Your body must then clean up the mess, which creates more inflammation in the area…..and repeat. You get the picture. Not good.
Inflammation and ageing
In our younger years we tend to be able to balance damage in the body with the resources and energy for effective clean-up and repair. As you age the recurrent damage and subsequent inflammatory responses start to outweigh the body’s repair mechanisms, and therefore the balance shifts. In healthy individuals, this tipping point is believed to be at around 50 years of age. Pop quiz – does that age ring bells as being around the average age for the onset of anything else??.
So are there specific inflammaging causes? Well, if we’ve ‘lived’ a little….and perhaps still are….(yes – I’m looking at you there) things might catch up with you sooner. It’s been a ride right? But the bits in your twenties you don’t remember, and then maybe those years of sleepless nights with babies, and toddlers….and snoring husbands… And the work stress whilst juggling family life….and the wine….you get the picture. I won’t go on. It’s life – and I certainly wouldn’t take my 20s back for anyone (from what I remember anyway) but they don’t come without a bit of payback.
The inflammaging theory suggests that the chronic inflammation associated with modern Western living is a big contributor to premature ageing. Inflammaging symptoms are wide spread and varied. It increases the risk of chronic conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, dementia and even cancer. Inflammation readily attacks collagen, a protein fibre found in connective tissue that basically helps hold us together in the form of skin, cartilage, joints, bones and tendons. Potentially, leading to reduced quality and length of life . There was no nice way of putting that – sorry!
Inflammation and women’s hormones
The worst bit?
Yep – sorry – there is an even bigger sting in the tail. Women might live longer than men but we age quicker….of course we do. Why? Those blinking hormones again! It’s a maaannnnnnns world!!!
Declining oestrogen and progesterone have a role in immunity, and oestrogen in particular is a potent anti-inflammatory. Then there’s the whole sleep thing (well, the lack of sleep thing) associated with menopause. The body does a lot of repair work whilst we’re asleep. Not so much when we’re lying awake staring at the ceiling or whilst we’re melting into a puddle of hormone-induced sweat.
So women in the menopausal transition and beyond have a greater susceptibility to low-grade chronic inflammation. Which helps explain some common menopausal symptoms such as joint pain and increased susceptibility to allergies. But also the high incidences of chronic health concerns that rise steeply in post-menopause.
For more information on what to expect at menopause read my blog ‘Menopause: What You Need to Know’.
So do we just put up and shut up?
We most certainly do not. Yes – our hormones are going to decline but the body is designed to adapt and survive. Oestrogen is not the body’s only anti-inflammatory. Having it at very reduced levels does mean the the immune system’s army is a woman down, so giving it the resources it needs to most efficiently do it’s job becomes vital during midlife and beyond.
Luckily – Mother Nature hands us everything we need, as many foods contain incredibly potent anti-inflammatory compounds. And recent research indicates pretty definitively that regular healthy lifestyle choices (2) can slow the progression of, and maybe even reverse, many chronic inflammatory conditions. Unfortunately, the Western diet and lifestyle loves to dangle plenty of more questionable foods and habits at us on a daily basis so the struggle is real if we’re not prioritising our health and well-being.
Can inflammation be reversed?
It’s important to be realistic when it comes to nutrition and lifestyle – not many people have all their ducks in a row. And you need to have fun even if that does look a little inflammatory at times. Also, your job and family commitments may not allow for a constant state of zen! But you do need to acknowledge that if you want to offset the damage being done at these times you need to pile in the anti-inflammatory foods and lifestyle choices as often as possible.
Below is a handy infographic of the top anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory foods and lifestyle habits. By focusing on a few key areas you can keep inflammaging at bay.
Top anti-inflammatory and inflammatory foods and lifestyle habits
Inflammaging: key takeaway points
- Eating a rainbow of anti-inflammatory whole foods daily is vital to keeping the immune system healthy. Try to include some of the following in your diet every day: fresh fruits and vegetables (particularly berries and green leafy veggies), nuts and seeds, fermented foods (such as live natural; yoghurt, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut), oily fish, high-quality oils, herbs and spices (go heavy!), mushrooms and even a bit of chocolate (the darker the better).
- Regular exercise is a potent anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing pastime. Outdoor exercise offers even more potential for relaxation, stress reduction and vitamin D dosing (hugely important for the immune system). In addition, researchers have found (3) that it is never too late to get active. Just 3 months of moderate exercise can lower inflammation in previously sedentary older adults.
- Whilst it can be hard to fit it into our busy lives with multiple responsibilities vying for our time, sleep is also essential for modulating inflammation. Remember – the rest and repair of many key systems and organs in your body happens at night.
So if you’re wanting to keep a spring in your step (and your skin!), for many more years then reducing inflammaging is a must. It is also relatively simple with just a few dietary and lifestyle changes. Remember – chocolate is on the list of anti-inflammatory foods after all. Trust me, your body will thank you. It’s worth it (and so are you).
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If you like what you’ve read and would like more practical information and tips on nutrition, lifestyle and mindset for midlife women then I’d love it if you followed me at motherflushingmidlife at the social links below. And if anyone you know might benefit from my content, let them know where to find me xx
- Cleveland Clinic (n.d.). inflammation. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/21660-inflammation
- Cleveland HeartLab, Inc. (2017). Lifestyle approaches that calm inflammation. https://www.clevelandheartlab.com/blog/lifestyle-approaches-calm-inflammation/
- Woods JA, Wilund KR, Martin SA, Kistler BM. (2012) Exercise, inflammation and aging. Aging Dis.:130-40. PMID: 22500274; PMCID: PMC3320801.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3320801/