Have you ever noticed how red and irritated, swollen and tingly you get if you’ve sprained your ankle or bruised your skin? That swelling/redness/tingly sensation is called acute inflammation and without it, we would not be alive. That inflammation, for instance when you cut your finger, is what summons microscopic warriors to rid the body of foreign invaders like bacteria, fungi and viruses which can cause infections, diseases and even death. Once the invaders have been eradicated or contained, inflammation subsides and the healing process begins.
So what happens when health promoting acute inflammation cross over to the dark side and become chronic inflammation?
Chronic inflammation happens when low doses of pro-inflammatory substances are continuously released into the body for an extended period of time which sends signals to the body that it needs protection against foreign invaders. Since there is no actual imminent threat against the body healthy cells, blood vessels and tissues are attacked instead of being protected. The problem with chronic inflammation is it is often a silent killer. It does not produce immediate symptoms, no pain, no swelling, nothing, until, over time, the damage becomes so great that not only symptoms but full-blown illness and disease appear. Like a slow poison, overzealous inflammatory cells and hormones destroy our body gradually as we continue to go on about our daily lives assuming we are in good health.
If you are wondering which diseases are caused by inflammation the list might shock you; heart disease, stroke, some cancers (e.g. colon cancer), Type II Diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases (e.g. IBS, Chron’s Disease), neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia), autoimmune diseases (these are biggies) such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Polymyositis, and many other illnesses such as asthma, allergies, Fibromyalgia, and migraines. This is, by far, not a complete list either.
Some symptoms of inflammation include:
- Premature aging such as wrinkles, arthritis and other degenerative conditions.
- Susceptibility to infections.
- Food allergies and sensitivities (Gluten, for instance causes inflammation which can trigger intolerance, which causes more inflammation.)
- Acid reflux (GERD)
- Psoriasis, Eczema and/or acne
- Arthritis (all types but especially RA)
- Unexplained chronic pain
- Unexplained Infertility
- Urinary tract infections
- Obesity (or even being overweight and unable to lose)
- Fungal infections such as candida
- Back and neck pain
There are many more symptoms but these are some of the bigger ones.
What causes chronic inflammation?
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is one of the prime culprits as consumption of refined sugar, refined flours, dairy, artificial sweeteners, refined and processed foods, trans fats, saturated fats and preservatives create inflammation throughout the body. Add to this the fact that we consume industrial Omega-6 rich oils such as sunflower, safflower, soybean, cottonseed and corn which convert to arachidonic acid by the body. And arachidonic acid is in turn used to generate pro-inflammatory cells and hormones. (To make matters worse, we often heat those already unhealthy oils to dangerous temperatures which chemically alter the structure causing an insane number of free radicals to be released into the body.)
Foods that spike our blood sugar levels quickly, like white breads, cakes, cookies and sodas, prompt our body to produce more insulin to normalize our glucose levels. Excess insulin also elevates the levels of arachidonic acid in our blood, increasing the production of cells and hormones that are pro-inflammatory.
Our SAD also creates an imbalance on a massive scale of Omega 6 (and Omega 9) to Omega-3 fatty acids (the anti-inflammatory fatty acid in wild salmon, grass-fed beef, and wild game). The ultimate balance is 3:1 Omega-3 to Omega-6. Right now, on the SAD our ratios are between 11:1 to 60:1 depending on just how many refined goodies we eat. Commercially raised cattle, poultry, and pigs are grain-fed on industrial grain rich in Omega-6 which further tips the scale in the favor of chronic inflammation as the meat of the animals eaten have high levels of Omega-6 (stored in the fat cells).
Speaking of fat cells….Scientists found that fat cells are not just dormant ‘trash cans’ of excess fat. These fats actually secrete arachidonic acid which eventually turn into runaway pro-inflammatory substances that circulate throughout our body. So the more fat cells you have, the more inflammation you are brewing inside.
Environmental toxins. What we put on or around our bodies is just as important as what we put in our bodies. Our beauty and personal care products contain many harmful chemicals that have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and even infertility. The cleaners we use in our laundry or around our home are breathed in and absorbed into the skin. The very air that we breathe whether it be full of second-hand smoke, pesticides, coal-dust (or fracking chemicals), or other chemical irritants get trapped in our lungs and other organs which trigger an inflammatory response as the body attempts to detoxify itself from those chemicals. Eventually the toxic overload is too much and disease begins. Although we will go into how to decrease inflammation in the body tomorrow, the easiest way to avoid inflammation due to toxic chemicals is to make smart choices in which personal care, beauty, or home products you use.
Food sensitivity. Food intolerance is much more subtle than an outright food allergy. It does not cause an immediate visible reaction. Instead, it brews quietly in your gut and churns out low-grade chronic inflammation for years. Most people with food intolerance are often unaware of their problem and continue to take the very food that is giving them headaches, fatigue or arthritis, turning their immune system upside down. Hint: Is there a food you absolutely can’t go without? Bread, for instance? Wheat is notoriously inflammation causing and because the modern wheat strains contain a heartier gluten many people are just now being diagnosed with wheat and/or gluten sensitivity or even Celiac’s Disease making wheat a chronic poison.
Stress. It is no great shock that stress can increase the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body. Stress can create an instant reaction such as chest and abdominal pain, heart palpitations, and headaches. Long term stress puts a stress on our adrenal glands which leads to adrenal insufficiency, fatigue or outright exhaustion which lead to a whole host of other issues. But that’s not all. Studies also found that mental and emotional stress can cause changes to our immune defense systems, making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases and slows down healing by decreasing the production of pro-inflammatory hormones in places where they are needed most.
Lack of sleep wreaks havoc on the immune system which triggers more inflammation in the body as most detox and healing takes place when the body is asleep. Since the body is not able to rejuvenate during those sleep hours, it views this as a threat to the body. What’s more surprising is that even a few hours of lost sleep can prompt your immune system to turn against you.
Microorganisms. Bacteria, viruses and parasites or even an imbalance of friendly bacteria in the gut have been known to stimulate chronic inflammation which manifests into a number of common physical ailments. If left unchecked, infections caused by these microorganisms can lead to cancer. For instance, the bacteria Helicobacter pylori which infect our stomach, can induce inflammation, ulcers, and even stomach cancer.
There are many ways to balance inflammation levels in the body dramatically improving health and wellness and even improving symptoms of preexisting conditions you may have. Join us tomorrow for the next installment “10 Superstar Foods that Fight Inflammation“.