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When you think of immune health, the illnesses that come to mind are cold and flu, bacterial infections, or even autoimmune conditions like type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. But you might be surprised to learn that immune health plays a role in many more conditions than you realize. Read on to learn about four conditions related to immune health you had no idea were connected.

Heart Disease

While there are a range of conditions that fall under the umbrella term heart disease, in most cases it refers to the most common one—atherosclerosis, which is the accumulation of plaque in the lining of arteries that leads to heart attacks and strokes. For decades, scientists blamed a high-fat diet for the plaque buildup, but we now know that’s not true. The real trigger of atherosclerosis is inflammation, which is an immune response that, in heart disease, damages the artery lining, leading to the buildup of plaque. (A high-sugar, high-carbohydrate diet rich in omega-6 vegetable oils like sunflower, corn and soybean oils, and low in probiotic foods is the main cause of that inflammation.)

An anti-inflammatory diet high in non-starchy fruits and vegetables, healthy proteins, beneficial fats, and living foods that contain probiotics is the best way to reduce inflammation and protect your heart. In addition, a heart-healthy supplement like REDD Remedies’ Heart Strong supports the cardiovascular system.*

Depression

Depression is assumed to be a disorder of the mind. Somehow, the mind has always been viewed as operating separate from the body. “It’s all in your head,” many doctors have said about conditions that seemed only mental in nature. But the truth is that inflammation also plays a powerful role in mental disorders, depression in particular. In one study, people with an increased level of inflammation, measured by the amount of C-reactive protein (CRP) in their blood, were more likely to be hospitalized for depression than those people with no inflammation. Some researchers have even postulated that depression be considered an infectious disease.

An anti-inflammatory diet, as for heart disease, is recommended to help prevent depression. In fact, a study I blogged about in the past found that women who eat a diet high in inflammatory foods are up to 41 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression. I also recommend a good quality fish oil supplement, which provides beneficial omega-3 fats, and a supplement to support mood and emotional health.*

Autism

As they do for depression, people tend to think of autism as strictly a mental disorder. But research over the past 15 years has shown otherwise. Once again, inflammation plays a major role in this disorder. In particular, children with autism are more likely to experience gut inflammation that shows up as a range of digestive disorders from reflux and stomach pain to diarrhea and constipation. The gut bacteria in children with autism differ from those in healthy children. In children with autism, the gut bacteria are not as diverse, which is considered to be less-than-ideal. These children have major gut imbalances, which trigger inflammation that damages the intestinal lining, enters systemic circulation, and affects brain function.

Addressing digestive conditions in these children—in any children for that matter—is key. Diet plays a major role here. One of the first steps a functional medicine doctor will take is to address diet and gut imbalance. Many autistic children also experience inflammation in response to a gluten- and/or dairy-containing diet. Removing gluten and dairy and rebalancing the gut are a good place to start when considering the nutritional needs of children with autism.

Obesity

The last thing you might think of when you look down at your belly fat is your immune system, but after you read this, I want you to think of it first. Belly fat is directly related to an increase in silent inflammation, a chronic form of inflammation that often goes undetected. That means that simply having a spare tire around your waist increases the inflammation within your body. Knowing that, it’s no wonder that one of the main risk factors for heart disease is obesity (and belly fat in particular). And where does that belly fat come from? The same high-sugar, high-carbohydrate diet rich in omega-6 fats and low in foods that promote gut bacteria balance.

By now, you might have guessed that inflammation is the common thread in all of these chronic diseases—and so many more! Inflammation is the immune system’s first response to what it perceives a foreign substance. An immune system that is out of balance will be more prone to mounting an inflammatory response. In the conditions mentioned here, the inflammation is silent and chronic, in contrast to acute inflammation associated with cuts, burns, and swelling. I wrote about this topic extensively in my book, Heart of Perfect Health.