By Mark Pettus, MD

The human body is beautifully designed, through our ancient DNA, to adapt to changes in our environment. Our species has evolved and survived largely because of our genetic ability to adjust. Central to that biological survival instinct has been a natural defense system called inflammation – the body’s physiological response to threats, whether it was fleeing from a predator on the African savanna or fighting sickness that invades our bodies.

But we as a species are beginning to realize the serious limits of this system. A combination of modern lifestyle and environmental factors has put our inflammation response into overdrive. What was once a survival mechanism is having the reverse effect, triggering an all-out epidemic of chronic complex diseases, including obesity, depression, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, attention deficit disorders, and post-traumatic stress. We may be living longer, but we’re the sickest generation ever.

I list below some of the leading contributors to this over-abundance of inflammation, along with ways we can readily reverse this phenomenon in our everyday lives.

Inflammatory Foods. One of the hottest fires in our 21st-century lives is the food we eat. Diets packed with sugar, refined flours, other highly processed ingredients, and artificial preservatives wreak havoc with our immune systems. They fan the flames that burn our resistance and lead to chronic complex diseases. Avoiding those foods can quickly and dramatically contain, even douse the inflammation. Choose anti-inflammatory fat sources like fish, nuts, butter, egg yolks, avocados, and olive oil.
Physical Inactivity. Our increasingly sedentary lifestyles – spending far more time indoors in front of computers than playing or working outdoors – is another major contributor to inflammation. That lack of movement weakens our immunity to serious health conditions. Even the simplest forms of exercise, like a daily walk around the neighborhood, can begin to reverse that effect.

Modern-Day Stress. Our ancient physiology was designed to trigger the fight-or-flight response in the face of threats – like running for our lives on the savanna. But today’s stresses – financial, personal, or work-related – put us in an almost constant state of fight-or-flight, as if we’re being forever chased. Adopting a more mindful approach to stress, taking slow, deep breaths, pausing to relax, meditate or exercise can dramatically ease this effect.

Sleep Deprivation. Back in our days on the savanna, we may have had to stay awake and alert all night to survive. Today’s worries can have the same effect, causing chronic sleeplessness, and with it, an immune system that’s on fire. Managing sleep disorders through professional intervention can put those problems to sleep.

Environmental Toxins. We’re constantly exposed today to chemicals our immune system doesn’t recognize. Whether it’s pesticide residues on food, toxins in our household cleaning agents, the ingredients in our health and beauty products, or the flame-retardant upholstery on our couch, we’re surrounded. Conscious, safer choices around what we eat, put on our skin, and use in our houses can greatly mitigate this exposure.

Lack of Full-Spectrum Light. The natural circadian rhythm of our lives – the 24-hour cycle of sunrise and sunset – has been disrupted. Just a few generations ago, we were spending far more time outdoors in natural sunlight. Today we’re bathed in the “junk light” of indoor fluorescence, and our systems suffer. Spending more time – safely – in the light of day, or using “lightboxes” and other incandescent and halogen sources that mimic natural light, can provide the Vitamin D our immune systems need.

Loneliness. We have physiologically evolved as social beings. Our survival as a species depends on it. And yet, so many of us today find ourselves socially isolated, lacking the human interaction that can sustain us. Actively seeking ways to socialize and address life’s challenges together creates a powerful group dynamic, one that literally makes us happier and healthier.


Mark Pettus, MD, is the Medical Director of Wellness and Population Health at Berkshire Health Systems. He is an Associate Professor of Medicine at The University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is the author of The Savvy Patient: The Ultimate Advocate for Quality Health Care and It’s All in Your Head: Change Your Mind, Change Your Health. His podcast, The Health Edge is popular nationwide.