One of the a-ha moments I often have with clients is when they finally understand what inflammation is. I mean, we hear this word thrown around all the time… “this food causes inflammation”, “this disease is the result of inflammation”, “you should eat an anti-inflammatory diet.” But we often don’t know what those things really mean!
So, here is what you need to know to understand what inflammation is, what causes it, what it causes and how to get rid of it…
What is inflammation?
If you Google the definition of inflammation, you will get this: a localized physical condition in which part of the body becomes reddened, swollen, hot, and often painful, especially as a reaction to injury or infection. The problem with this definition is that it’s primarily describing the symptoms associated with inflammation and not what it actually is.
If you look in a textbook about pathology (i.e., the causes and effects of disease), you will see something like: a protective response involving host cells, blood vessels, and proteins and other mediators that is intended to eliminate the initial cause of cell injury, as well as the necrotic cells and tissues resulting from the original insult, and to initiate the process of repair. Uh, okay, but what is it?!?
At its simplest, inflammation is a reaction by 1) the immune system to eliminate an invader or injury, and 2) blood proteins to repair damaged tissues.
In other words, inflammation is a response by your body (especially your immune cells) to solve a problem; no more, no less.
This is really important because being inflamed describes a reaction to something and not a cause! And this brings us to the next point…
What causes inflammation?
Because inflammation is a reaction to an invader or injury, the potential root causes of being inflamed are numerous! I mean, there are way more than I can list (or probably even know!). That being said, a good starting point is differentiating between acute inflammation and chronic inflammation.
Acute inflammation sets in quickly (often in minutes or hours) and is resolved quickly (usually within a few days). Causes of acute inflammation include:
- Physical injury, including cuts, bruises, burns and tattoos
- Infections from bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites (You will recognize these in, for example, seasonal colds and traveler’s diarrhea.)
- Tissue death such as may be caused by a loss of oxygen (ex: heart attack), chemicals (ex: sulfuric acid) or radiation
- Foreign objects such as splinters, dirt, sutures or a piercing anywhere in the body
- Hypersensitivity reactions such as seasonal allergies, IgE mediated food allergies and some food sensitivities (Note that only some food sensitivities will show up as an acute reaction, others won’t.)
Note: acute inflammation is good because it is the body’s normal response to a problem in order to return our body to a healthy state.
Chronic inflammation is often harder to identify because its onset is slow (may take weeks or even years) and the signs may be more subtle (i.e., without the redness and swelling that we easily associate with physical injuries or the fever and sore throat that comes with a cold or flu). Causes of chronic inflammation include:
- Unresolved acute inflammation, due to the injurious agent persisting or because the healing process was somehow prevented from completing
- Persistent infections when a problematic microbe isn’t killed and removed from the body (ex: Borrelia burgdorferi which causes Lyme disease, Epstein-Barr virus, Blastocystis hominis which is a yeast-like organism that can live in the intestine, and “hidden” infections in the mouth) or helpful microbes aren’t kept in check which leads to dysbiosis
- Immune-mediated inflammatory diseases including autoimmunity (ex: rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and IBD) and allergic diseases (ex: asthma)
- Prolonged exposure to toxins such as heavy metals and pesticides
- Oxidative stress caused by reactive oxygen and nitrogen species
- Lifestyle factors such as smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, stress, obesity and under- or over-exercising
- Food choices such as gluten (due to zonulin’s effect on the instestine), sugar / sweeteners, rancid and hydrogenated fats, and foods to which you are sensitive (more on this later on)
- Chronic medication use such as oral contraceptives, oral hormone replacement therapy, statins and NSAIDs (e.g., aspirin)
The problem with chronic inflammation is that it is much harder to identify and resolve. Plus, the longer the inflammation persists, the more damage occurs. Wait, what?!?
Yes, that’s right. The body’s process of resolving inflammation may cause cellular damage as some healthy cells get caught in the cross-fire. So long as the initial problem is resolved, this isn’t a big deal as the body is normally quite capable of cleaning up afterward. But, if the original problem persists or if the body’s healing mechanisms are compromised, the inflammation keeps going.
Bottom line: The body’s normal response to injury and invasion is acute inflammation. If the problem can’t be resolved or your healing capacity is reduced, it can become chronic inflammation.
What are the side effects of inflammation?
The most obvious physical signs of inflammation are heat (localized or as a fever), redness, swelling and pain. These are a result of the body rushing blood and immune cells into the injured area or the place where the dangerous substance is in order to resolve the problem. This is why a turned ankle swells up or the skin around a cut turns red (and gets redder if an infection occurs along with the physical injury). You may also feel tired or generally uncomfortable.
Beyond these outward signs, other changes happen inside the body as well. Some of these changes happen only with acute inflammation and others happen only with chronic inflammation, but most happen with both. These inward changes include:
- Acute phase proteins in the blood, such as albumin, C-reactive protein (CRP) and HDL, increase or decrease in numbers
- Blood glucose and insulin increase to be sure cells are getting the energy they need to fight
- Different white blood cells increase or decrease in number depending on the fight that is required (Think of this like the Navy responding to a sea attack while the Army responds to an air attack. Sometimes your neutrophils will increase and other times your lymphocytes will.)
- Prostaglandins, cytokines and other inflammatory mediators are produced
- Blood levels of calcium increase
- Cortisol increases
- Thyroid function decreases
- Connective tissues are weakened or degraded
- Free radical production is increased
(By the way, I don’t expect you to remember any of those things. Rather, I want you to be aware that there is a whole cascade of events happening and these events leave signs in the body that inflammation is present. When reviewed by a trained healthcare practitioner, your blood work and other tests may identify the causes and locations of inflammation so that you can fix the real problem. It’s definitely one of the things I look for when reviewing my clients blood results.)
Once these physiological changes start happening, they have far reaching effects. In fact, all of the following conditions have been linked, at least in part, to on-going inflammation:
- Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
- Arterial disease
- Autoimmune disease (celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.)
- Bone resorption which can lead to osteopenia and osteoporosis
- Degenerative disc disease
- Endothelial dysfunction which can contribute to high blood pressure / hypertension and increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Food and chemical sensitivities
- Heart attack (i.e., myocardial infarction or MI)
- Kidney disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Periodontal disease
Bottom line: chronic inflammation has far reaching effects in all parts of the body and may be one of the contributing factors to the on-set of many diseases and conditions.
How can I reduce inflammation?
The two ways to reduce inflammation are:
- Remove the problem.
- Provide your body what it needs to support your immune system and heal
Unfortunately, it’s impossible for me to tell you in one blog post how to remove every single problem. After all, the steps to eliminate heavy metals from your body are very different from how to get rid of a chronic Epstein-Barr infection.
That being said, there are plenty of ways that you can support your body such that your healing capability isn’t compromised. These include:
- Consume enough, but not too many calories. (Excessive caloric intake can promote inflammation.)
- Eat enough protein for your body to rebuild any torn or damaged tissues.
- Keep your blood sugar levels balanced.
- Reduce your intake of sugar and other sweeteners. (Sugar and other highly refined foods carbohydrates cause an increase in cytokine production. In other words, they cause inflammation all on their own!)
- Support your body’s detoxification capabilities, including avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and increasing your fiber intake.
- Get enough of the nutrients that reduce inflammation or may prevent it from starting:
- Avoid or significantly reduce bad fats such as trans fats and those in fried foods (because the fat in most fryers is rancid).
- Consume spices that contain anti-inflammatory compounds such as cayenne, clove, ginger, oregano, nutmeg, rosemary and turmeric.
- Stay hydrated.
- Identify food sensitivities and remove the offending food(s) from your diet.
- Heal your leaky gut, if you have one.
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight. (Adipose tissue [i.e., fat cells] secretes inflammatory mediators and hormones that can increase inflammation. Of course, this is a vicious cycle because other conditions, such as toxicity, can cause us to store more fat! This is one of the reasons all of these steps should be considered.)
- Reduce your stress and support your adrenal glands, including balancing work and play.
- Get plenty of sleep… and rest when you need it. (If you have or suspect you have sleep apnea, find a way to resolve it as it can cause inflammation due to its impact to the body’s hormones and oxygen levels.)
- Exercise, but don’t do too much. (Unfortunately, endurance events and intense exercise for extended periods of time cause inflammation.)
- Stop smoking.
Bottom line: To eliminate inflammation, the root cause must be resolved and the body’s healing processes supported through diet and lifestyle.
If you think you are struggling with chronic inflammation and aren’t sure where to start, contact me. Together we can identify and work to resolve root causes while giving your body all the resources it needs to get back to optimal function. After all, you deserve to thrive!
— Allen S. Six Core Centers of Health: Imbalances of Chronic Disease. Recorded webinar. Watched on May 6, 2015.
— Geyer C. Cardiometabolic Disease, Inflammation and Insulin Dysregulation. Recorded webinar. Watched on Feb 1, 2016.
— Harvard Medical School. What you eat can fuel or cool inflammation, a key driver of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. In The Family Health Guide. Updated Feb 2007. Accessed on 11 Oct 16.
— Kumar V, Abbas AK, Aster JC. Robbins Basic Pathology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013.
— UW Integrative Medicine Department of Family Medicine. The Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Reviewed 11 Jun 07.