We imagine that Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s are all separate and different diseases. In fact, they are all similar in one, significant way: they are all the end-product of chronic inflammation.
70% of all deaths in America are related to chronic diseases and yet, 70% of these diseases could be eradicated through pathways that could reduce the chronic inflammation that is the root of many of them. (1,2) Unfortunately, many people are unaware of what inflammation is and how it impacts our bodies and our health. So let’s discuss what inflammation is, how it occurs, what it does in regards to elevating risk of developing diseases, and what we can do to prevent it.
WHAT IS INFLAMMATION?
When we think of inflammation, we typically think of the redness and swelling that accompanies a cut, bruise, break, or strain. This type of inflammation, also known as acute inflammation, is actually a welcomed response as it functions to “eliminate the initial cause of cell injury” as well as “initiate the process of repair.” (3) In fact, without our natural inflammatory response, even small cuts could lead to big, life-threatening infections. Chronic inflammation, however, is the immune response gone wild.
It often lasts for months and even years. During this time, it can cause serious damage and even death to tissues the response was supposed to protect. Dr. Paul DiCorleto, Chair of the Lerner Research Institute at Cleveland Clinic, describes chronic inflammation as a state where the body is “on high alert all the time,” and this “prolonged state of emergency can cause lasting damage to [the] heart, brain and other organs.” (4)
HOW DOES CHRONIC INFLAMMATION OCCUR?
As noted, our body typically utilizes the inflammatory response to help us fight infection and disease. Yet, when our bodies are constantly exposed to certain “irritants” such as environmental pollutants, stress, and poor nutrition, it continues its attempt to fight off these invading substances.
Problem is, our body is usually fighting an uphill battle since we either purposely allow the irritants to affect us (poor nutrition and stress), or the irritants are thrust upon us (pollution and pesticides on food). As a result, our white blood cells (in particular, the helper T-cells and macrophages), release a steady supply of pro-inflammatory cytokines. (5) Elevated levels of these cytokines result in a “low-grade acute-phase response,” which can eventually destroy healthy tissue, kill healthy tissue, or cause healthy connective tissue to thicken and scar (called fibrosis). (6)
WHAT ARE THE RAMIFICATIONS OF CHRONIC INFLAMMATION?
Probably the best example of how chronic inflammation can have a disastrous outcome lies with the number one cause of death in the United States: heart disease. Initially, heart attacks were believed to be solely the consequence of a diet too high in fat and cholesterol.
After years and years worth of fatty deposits building up in the arteries, it was assumed that the buildup eventually became so great that they’d restrict the blood flow to the heart and thus causing a heart attack. However, what researchers eventually found was that 50% of the people who suffered from a heart attack had normal cholesterol levels. (7) They also discovered that many of the clots that had caused the heart attacks weren’t as large as once believed.
So what was going on? Dr. Paul Ridker, a cardiologist at Bringham’s and Women’s Hospital, believed that something was causing the sites of the clots to burst, and he hypothesized that it was “some sort of inflammation” that was the culprit. (7) In order to discover whether those who seemed healthy, yet had suffered a heart attack, were inflamed, Ridker and his colleagues decided to use C-Reactive Protein (CRP)1 levels in the blood as their guide. (7) Their findings were quite significant.
In a study spanning six years, the group of researchers discovered that those healthy, middle aged men who tested high for CRP were three times as likely to suffer from a heart attack than those men with the lowest CRP levels. (7) While not exactly sure how inflammation could cause a plaque to break free, the researches deduced that chronic inflammation somehow caused existing plaques to become unstable, and the end result was the increased likelihood of those plaques to rupture. (7)
It is considered one of the main indicators of severe infection and inflammation. Researchers deduced that chronic inflammation somehow caused existing plaques to become unstable, and the end result was the increased likelihood of those plaques rupture. (7)
HOW DO WE PREVENT INFLAMMATION?
Hopefully by now, you are convinced that an inflammatory state is a bad one! But what can we do to prevent it? There are actual several pathways that can lead to a inflammation-free (or at least, a reduced inflammatory state) life. By taking on what Wendy Kohatsu, MD defines as an “anti-inflammatory lifestyle.” (1)
Fat cells produce several pro-inflammatory cytokines that strongly promote the acute-phase response, such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α) and interleukin-1 (IL-1). (8) The more fat calls you have and the larger they are, the more pro-inflammatory cytokines you produce. It is for this reason that obesity is so strongly linked to many of the diseases associated with chronic inflammation such as diabetes, heart disease, and the metabolic syndrome.
Exercise helps promote the use of fat as fuel and over a period of time, can make these cells shrink. Smaller fat cells can equate to a reduced production of cytokines and a reduced production of cytokines can equate to a reduction of inflammation.
So at least, get in the currently recommended 30 minutes a day of moderate activity per week. To make it easy, pick an activity you really love so you know you will stick with it. I personally love to lift, so nothing gets in the way of my gym time. But I sometimes will incorporate tennis, rollerblading, or simply walking to keep my activities varied and fun!
The number one purpose of our body’s “fight or flight” response is to help keep us alive when we are threatened by outside stressors.
For example, the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are released in order to stimulate our heart muscle, enhance the release of energy stores, and increase our alertness so we can fight or flee from the impending threat All of these responses are great…if we need them. But today’s sad reality is that a majority of our “fight or flight” response is being wasted as we sit behind our desks at work, sit in our cars during rush hour, or deal with the daily household grind.
So what does this mean for us internally? Like an infection, a prolonged state of stress signals to the body that there is a problem and so goes into movement the inflammatory response and it lingers, attempting to fight an invader that doesn’t exist. By reducing or eliminating the stress in your life, you can greatly decrease your risk of inflammation.
How you chose to reduce stress is up to you, just pick a method that won’t promote inflammation through other channels (drinking and eating, for example). I actually enjoy playing a mindless video game like Bakery Story on my I-Pad. There is no thinking involved, and the monotony of the game (bake, pick up tips, and deliver tips) relaxes my mind from the worries of the day.
Ann Wigmore, the holistic health practitioner who created the “Living Foods Lifestyle,” once stated, “The food you eat can either be the safest and most powerful form of medicine, or the slowest form of poison.” What’s disturbing is that many people seem to opt for the second choice, albeit unintentionally.
Unfortunately, the food industry continues to downplay the harmful effects things like pesticides, preservatives, and added fructose can have on our bodies. As a result, people continue to rely on fast food and overly processed packaged foods for a majority of their nutrition. The truth is that many of the chemicals sprayed on or added to our foods in an attempt to ward off pests or to maintain a longer shelf life are a primary source of oxidative stress and chronic inflammation in our bodies. (8)
Similar to how a consistent barrage of stress can keep us in a constant state of inflammation, so can be said for the constant barrage of foods loaded with chemicals our bodies can’t make heads or tails of.
So what to do? First, try to consume foods that are minimally processed. For example, skip the frozen food aisle because I promise, you will be hard-pressed to find one “healthy” or “lean” frozen meal that is not going to contain high amounts of sodium or some other form of chemical preservative.
Secondly, if your finances allow it, choose organic products as opposed to those labeled “conventional.”
In order to be labeled organic by the USDA, the food must be grown in soil free from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; it must be free from artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives; and animals that are used for meat products cannot be fed antibiotics or hormones (among other restrictions). (10) By doing so, you are at least taking an active step towards eliminating the introduction of possible inflammatory substances into your system and thereby reducing your risk for inflammation.
Finally, make whole grains, brightly colored fruits and vegetables, legumes, healthful fats, and lean meats the foundations of your diet. These foods contain the fiber, phytochemicals, quality protein, and essential fats our body needs in order to function properly. They also help keep our blood sugar levels stable, and persistent, elevated blood sugar is strongly associated with not just the onset of diabetes but with—you guessed it—inflammation.
Keith Klein, CN, CCN likes to ask, “If you could sell your health, what kind of price tag would you attach to it?” (11) Right now, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Well no price, of course!” However, America’s health care costs continue to rise, and about 75% of these costs are direct result of the rise in diseases that stem from chronic inflammation. (1) In order to ensure that you’re not selling your health, do your very best to battle the silent killer: inflammation.
Find it within yourself to make the lifestyle changes you need to in order to maintain your body’s health from the inside out, and you’ll be putting into place your building blocks for longevity!
Kohatsu, Wendy MD. The anti-inflammatory diet. In: Rakel, David MD. Integrative Medicine, 3rd Ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier, 2012. p. 795-802. 2. Houston, Mark PhD. Vimeo.com [Internet]. [cited 2016 September 2]. Available from: https://vimeo.com/136044207 3. Beck, Sarah DVM. Acute and chronic inflammation. [Internet]. [cited 2016 September 5]. Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/mcp/education/300.713%20lectures/300.713% 202013/beck_08.26.2013.pdf 4. DiCorleto, Paul M PhD. Why you should pay attention to chronic inflammation: the connection between inflammation and disease [Internet]. Cleveland (OH): Cleveland Clinic; [cited 2016 September 06]. Available from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2014/10/why-you-should-pay-attention-to-chronic-inflammation/ 5. Zhang, Jun-Ming, MSc, MD and An, Jianxiong, MSc, MD. Cytokines, inflammation, and pain. Int Anesthesiol Clin. 2007 Spring; 45(2):27-37. [Internet]. [cited 2016 Sept 15]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2785020/ 6. Nordqvist, Christian. Inflammation: chronic and acute. Medical News Today. [Internet]. [cited 2016 Sept 15]. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/248423.php?page=2 7. Gorman, Christine, Park, Alice, and Dell, Kristina. Cellular inflammation: the secret killer. Inflammation Research Foundation. [Internet]. [cited 2016 September 14]. Available from: https://www.inflammationresearchfoundation.org/inflammation-science/inflammation-details time-cellular-inflammation-article/ 8. Nahas, Richard, MD. Type 2 diabetes. In: Rakel, David MD. Integrative Medicine, 3rd Ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier, 2012. p. 297-311. 9. Ann Wigmore Natural Health Institute. [Internet]. Available from: https://annwigmore.org/about/dr-ann-wigmore/ 10. McEvoy, Miles. Orgainic 101: what the USDA organic label means. United States Department of Agriculture. [Internet]. [cited 2016 Sept 17]. Available from: https://blogs.usda.gov/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-the-usda-organic-label-means/ 11. Institute of Eating Management. [Internet]. Your health. [cited 2016 Sept 18]. Available from: http://www.eatingmanagement.com/your-health.html
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