About 20 years ago, I advised a patient who was having a heart attack to take an aspirin, before sending him to hospital. His wife was clearly not impressed. ‘He’s having a heart attack and you’re giving him aspirin?’ she said. These days most people realise that aspirin can be a life-saving drug by thinning the blood, in turn reducing the risk of a clot forming and doing further damage to the heart. But what may come as a bigger surprise is that taking low doses of aspirin on a regular basis can significantly reduce your risk of some common cancers, such as bowel cancer. It does that by reducing inflammation.
In your body, inflammation is a double-edged sword – injure yourself or catch an infection and it will mobilise your immune system to fight back, causing temporary swelling, pain and heat. However, in contrast, chronic inflammation is a major problem. Not only does it play a major role in common ailments such as heart disease, diabetes and dementia, it also drives the development of many cancers.
As many as one in five cancers are now thought to be influenced by ongoing low-grade inflammation damaging DNA and stimulating rapid growth of cells, which leads to increased tumour growth.
What causes chronic inflammation in the first place? Smoking and inhaled pollutants are major villains, but the biggest and fastest-growing drivers are lifestyle factors such as obesity, diet, stress and inactivity. Being overweight or obese is known to increase the risk of getting at least 13 cancers, including oesophageal, liver, colon, uterus, breast, ovary and prostate. It may also promote recurrence and cut your chance of survival.
The encouraging news, though, is that these risks can be reduced or even reversed. Researchers are not only developing new medication to tackle inflammation and reduce the body’s overactive response, but also exploring the anti-inflammatory impact of drugs such as aspirin. Two large studies of more than 130,000 people showed that those who took regular low doses of aspirin for at least six years had a significantly lower risk for overall cancer, especially tumours of the gastrointestinal tract.
But before you start low-dose aspirin, as with all medication, usage has to be balanced against possible side effects – in this case, increased risk of bleeds, particularly in the intestine – and should always be discussed with your doctor.
For many of us, it makes sense to address the source of inflammation by making lifestyle changes. The earlier this can be done the better, in order to bring down general inflammation. The more sedentary you are and the worse your diet is, the more inflammation you will be generating.
The World Cancer Research Fund estimates that those who don’t smoke, who maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet, are physically active and limit alcohol are ten to 20 per cent less likely to be diagnosed with cancer.
Seven ways to reduce chronic inflammation
- Even small improvements in weight or activity levels reduce the risks.
- Don’t sit for longer than 30-60 minutes – get up and move around.
- Cut back on sugar, starchy and processed foods.
- Eat plenty of non-starchy veg and some fruit with meals.
- Include lentils, beans and whole grains instead of refined foods.
- Reduce red and processed meat and limit alcohol. Include natural, mostly plant-based fats such as olive oil. Avoid low-fat products and enjoy fermented dairy, such as yogurt and cheese, in moderation.
Say cheers to this Aussie elixir!
Travelling around Australia last month, on tour with my husband has given me a taste for Australian shiraz, with its rich, fruity, peppery flavours.
And I can justify my consumption thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, as it is rich in antioxidants such as resveratrol and polyphenols. Drunk in moderation, it may even increase longevity.
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