Cut your finger slicing onions and the area will swell, redden, and heat up. This type of acute inflammatory response is the body's reaction to trauma, and it's an essential part of the healing process. But chronic inflammation caused by more subtle forms of trauma can undermine your health every day.
Long-term ailments, highly processed foods, and ongoing exposure to environmental toxins can result in the kind of persistent, low-grade inflammation researchers are linking to premature aging, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer.
Many foods in the standard American diet aggravate inflammation, including refined white flour and sugar, red meat, dairy products, fast food, and food additives. "For someone on such a diet, the body can become like a dry field of grass that is waiting for a match," says Jack Challem, author of The Inflammation Syndrome. "Once the match lights, it's hard to put out the fire."
And it's not just your health that gets singed. Chronic inflammation can make you look old before your time. "Low-grade, systemic inflammation drives aging," says Ronald E. Hunninghake, M.D., author of User's Guide to Inflammation, Arthritis, and Aging. "'Inflamaging' is a term coined by Italian researchers to highlight this association."
The good news is that changing your diet can help prevent or even reverse the process. "Our daily diet and the foods we eat are the most effective--and safest--means of preventing inflammation," says Challem. "The body is quite capable of making its own anti-inflammatory compounds as long as we eat the right foods."