Words by Kylie Bailey.
Did you know making lifestyle choices about what we eat, the way we move, how we breathe and the quality of our sleep can assist us in the prevention of chronic disease?
Studies published by the World Health Organization have proven that if risk factors for chronic disease are eliminated, then at least 80 per cent of heart disease, stroke and type-2 diabetes can be prevented and more than 40 per cent of cancer can be eliminated.
This is because much of today’s chronic disease is a result of the body’s cells experiencing systemic inflammation.
When our cells are over-run with inflammation they struggle to effectively carry out a process called apoptosis.
Apoptosis is the way our bodies naturally eliminate cells that have been damaged beyond repair.
In chronic diseases, such as cancer, the loss of apoptosis allows cancer cells to survive longer, making them more likely to mutate and increase the invasiveness of a tumour.
What science shows us is that cellular inflammation is exacerbated by eating processed foods, consuming toxic high-heat extracted oils, not moving our bodies enough and not breathing efficiently to modulate our stress response.
Add other risk factors, such as smoking, the increasing air pollution in our growing cities, and today’s world is ripe with a perfect toxicity storm for overloading cells.
Understanding how cellular inflammation impacts our physical and mental health is one of the first things actress Claire Chitham and I learnt when we were unwell.
It’s also why throughout our new book, Good For You – A Guide For Good Guts and Feeling Good Inside and Out, we not only discuss our health challenges but we also look deeply at the science behind inflammation.
That’s because for both of us, getting our inflammatory response in check through nutrition, exercise, breathing, sleeping well and connecting to nature has been vital for our recoveries.
Claire was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the age of 13.
Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract that results from a combination of predisposing genetic and environmental factors.
When Claire was playing Waverley on TV2’s Shortland Street in the early 2000s, off-camera she was dealing with the fall-out of not keeping her Crohn’s in check.
That included the possibility of having sections of her bowel removed.
“There was no cure, no real cause, no dietary advice,” she explains in Good For You. “None of the messages were great, but the message I heard loud and clear this time around was: ‘You will have this disease for the rest of your life’. To this day, I can still hear the certainty of the voice in my head that yelled: ‘I will not, thank you!’”
It’s why for the last 20 years, she’s been on a journey to figure out how to create better balance by making healthier lifestyle choices.
It’s this passion for practical health that first saw Claire and I orbit each other’s worlds five years ago.
I was two years out of a long career in the fast-paced world of weekly magazine publishing and on my own road to recovery.
Unlike Claire, my condition wasn’t solely physical.
It was mental. Since the age of five, I’ve experienced anxiety chronically.
Anxiety is an emotion characterised by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes, such as increased blood pressure.
Making healthier lifestyle choices, practising yoga and investigating and writing about the science of human health is a mission I’ve been on for the last 10 years and how Claire and I came together to collaborate and create Good For You.
What I know to be true from my research and my practice is that systemic inflammation not only impacts us physically.
When our cells experience inflammation it leads to oxidative stress.
This is where an imbalance is caused between the antioxidants and free radicals in our bodies.
Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons and they cause large-chain chemical reactions in the body.
These can be both beneficial or harmful.
In the case of ongoing, prolonged emotional stress, such as anxiety or depression, oxidative damage in the brain causes nervous system impairment.
Claire and I are pretty stubborn, which is why (before we’d ever met each other) we’d embarked on our individual paths to practise how we could actively reduce the inflammation in our bodies and brains and live more engaged, healthier lives.
The first thing we did to take control of systemic inflammation was to look at what we were eating.
You see, food can be medicine or poison, depending on what you put in your body.
That’s why today, we’re both still acutely aware of the power of our food choices to either support or deplete us.
We choose to eat natural wholefoods that are as unprocessed as possible and reduce the amount of sugary and starchy carbohydrates in our meals.
This is because sugar and starch convert to glucose in the body and if we eat too many of these foods, it kicks off the inflammatory response in our cells.
For me, I don’t eat gluten or dairy, consume lots of organic veges and choose healthy proteins, such as sustainably sourced fish.
I also drink a cup of fish broth each morning with a teaspoon of turmeric spice (because its known for its anti-inflammatory properties).
To see what Claire does to reduce inflammation, check out the box opposite.
What we’ve learnt along the way is the way we move, breathe and process stress and emotions are also important for keeping inflammation in check.
It’s why for the last 10 years I’ve practiced yoga and yogic breathwork (known as prānāyāmā).
This is because in the early stages of dealing with anxiety, I realised that the better I could breathe, the easier it was to cope.
This has led me to become a yoga teacher and open a studio at Piha called West Coast Yoga.
Through my own practice, I know that breathwork and meditation improve my emotional and mental health.
Science backs this up.
A study published in the BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine journal discovered that just 20 minutes of yoga breathing was enough to lower stress-related inflammation markers in the salvia.
Along with eating well, moving and breathing effectively, getting good-quality sleep for at least eight to nine hours a night is vital.
If we lose sleep often, our body’s cells become more prone to inflammation.
Studies have found that ongoing sleep loss can result in the development of metabolic conditions, such as type-2 diabetes, in healthy individuals.
Better sleep is enhanced by spending time away from our digital devices and in nature.
Whenever I can, I go barefoot on the sand, swim in the ocean, go for a fish or spend time outdoors.
Science shows us that whatever we can do in our lifetime to reduce inflammation at a cellular level has benefits to our health and Claire and I know this to be true from our own experiences.
Of course, the road to better health isn’t always paved with organic broccoli.
Eating well, moving right, breathing effectively and getting enough sleep are practices.
It’s not realistic to expect that you’ll make good choices every day. We don’t. We’re human.
When we fall off the wagon, we encourage each other to get back on.
Good health – it’s always a balancing act, right?