Inflammation: The Biggest Health Crisis No One is Talking About
If you have read health sites or have followed influencers you have probably heard the term "inflammation." Perhaps you have even heard of the trending anti-inflammatory diet. Many people are familiar with inflammation in terms of external signs and symptoms like bruising and swelling.
However, uncontrolled inflammation plays a role in almost every major disease, including cancers, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and depression. The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks chronic diseases as the greatest threat to human health. The prevalence of chronic inflammation diseases is anticipated to increase persistently for the next 30 years in the United States.
In 2014, nearly 60% of Americans had at least one chronic condition, 42% had more than one and 12% of adults had 5 or more chronic conditions. Worldwide, 3 out of 5 people die from chronic inflammatory diseases like stroke, chronic respiratory disease, heart disorders, cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc.
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is your body's first line of defense against toxins, infections and injuries. If something damages your cells, your body releases chemicals that trigger a response from your immune system. The immune systems sends its first responders, inflammatory cells, to stop the offender and heal the tissue. This response includes releasing antibodies and proteins and increased blood flow to the area, causing swelling, redness and pain. This whole process can last a couple hours or days and is called acute inflammation.
Chronic inflammation however happens when this response lingers and leaves your body in a constant state of alert. Over time, inflammation can have a negative impact on your body, tissues, and organs. The shift in the inflammatory response from short to long lived can cause your immune tolerance to break down, which increases the risk for various diseases in both young and older people.
For example, when inflammatory cells remain too long in blood vessels, they promote the buildup of dangerous plaque. The body sees the plaque as foreign and sends more first responders, inflammatory cells, to fight it. Then the plaque continues to build, the arteries can thicken making a heart attack or stroke more likely to occur.
What does chronic inflammation do to the body?
Early signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation can be vague, and sometimes can go undetected for long periods. You may feel fatigued or even normal. As inflammation progresses, it begins to damage arteries, organs and joints. Left unchecked, it can contribute to chronic diseases like heart disease, blood vessel disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, Alzheimer's, and more.
For example, people with chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as ulcerative colitis (UC) or Crohn's disease (CD), have an increased risk of colon cancer.
Some common symptoms of chronic inflammation:
-body pain or aches
-chronic fatigue and insomnia
-depression, anxiety and mood disorders
-gastrointestinal issues like constipation, diarrhea or acid reflux
-weight gain or loss
-frequent infections or rashes
Unfortunately, there is currently no highly effective laboratory measure to assess patients for chronic inflammation and diagnosis in undertaken in association with other medical conditions.
When inflammation is present in the body, there will be higher levels of substances known as biomarkers. For example C-reactive protein (CRP) is a biomarker which tests inflammation and tends to be higher with people who have cancer and obesity. Additionally, measuring blood sugar, testing HbA1C, can assess inflammation via the damage to red blood cells.
There are several risk factors that can lead to chronic inflammation, these are:
Age: the older we get the more elevated our inflammatory molecules become. This can be attributed to cell dysfunction or exposure to free radicals over time or other age related factors like increasing weight gain.
Obesity: Many studies have reported that fat tissue is an endocrine organ which releases inflammatory molecules. So the more weight we have, the more inflammatory cells are released.
Diet: Diets high in saturated fats, trans-fats, or refined sugars are associated with a higher production of pro-inflammatory molecules in the body, especially in people with diabetes or who are overweight.
Smoking: Cigarette smoking is associated with lowering anti-inflammatory molecules and inducing inflammation.
Stress and Sleep: Physical and emotional stress is associated with inflammation, and stress alone can cause sleep disorders. Individuals with irregular sleep schedules are more likely to have chronic inflammation.
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation can be triggered by:
Sensitivity: Inflammation happens when the body senses something that should not be there, hypersensitivity to an external trigger can result in an allergy.
Exposure: Long term, low level exposure to an irritant, such as an industrial chemical, can result in chronic inflammation.
Autoimmune disorders: the immune system mistakenly attacks normal healthy tissue and creates diseases, for example rheumatoid arthritis.
Autoinflammatory diseases: a defect in inflammatory cells which creates persistent inflammation in the body.
Persistent acute inflammation: when someone does not fully recover from acute inflammation, this can lead to chronic inflammation.
What you can do now
Lifestyle choices to reduce your risk on chronic inflammation is your best option. Many lifestyle factors have been shown to play a part in cellular inflammation. The most effective is weight loss. For example, patients with psoriatic arthritis (chronic inflammatory arthritis), weight loss alone was shown to be independently associated with significant improvements in disease symptoms and inflammation.
Management methods include:
Physical exercise: In clinical trials, the energy expended through exercise helped lower multiple pro-inflammatory molecules, independent of weight loss. Additionally, exercising to maintain or lower to an optimum weight can help with inflammation as exercise reduces stress and decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease, strengthens the heart, muscles and bones.
Low-glycemic diet: the glycemic index was created to measure how specific foods increase blood sugar levels. Several factors influence the glycemic index of food, including nutrient composition, cooking method, ripeness, and processing. Eating a low glycemic diet may manage blood sugar levels, reduce cholesterol and boost weight loss. Read more about it here.Generally, this diet limits inflammatory producing foods like sodas, refined carbohydrates, or sugars.
Reduce your intake of total, saturated fats and trans fats: some saturated fats and synthetic trans-fats aggravate inflammation, while omega 3 polyunsaturated fats (which can be found in fish and flax seed) have been shown to be anti-inflammatory. Limit your intake of processed packaged foods that contain trans fats like processed seed and vegetable oils, plus baked goods which contain soybean and corn oil.
Limit antibiotics and NSAIDs: Using antibiotics, antacids, and NSAIDs should be avoided since it can harm the microbiome in the gut which causes inflammation in intestinal walls, known as leaky gut, this triggers the release of toxins and triggers chronic, body wide inflammation.
Adequate Sleep and Limit Stress: Sleeping approximately 7-8 hours is healthy for the average adult. A lack of sleep can lead to stress and a weakened immune system. Chronic stress leads to a greater risk of depression, heart disease, and the body loses its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. Yoga and meditation are great methods to help regulate and calm the body and mind. Read more about the long term effects of stress here
Fruits & Vegetables: Fruits & vegetables are high in natural antioxidants, polyphenols, and other anti-inflammatory compounds that can protect against inflammation. In particular, blueberries, apples, brussel sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower are higher in anti inflammatory antioxidants.
Fiber: Increasing your intake of dietary soluble and insoluble fiber reduces inflammation. Added high fiber foods to your diet like basil seeds, berries, avocados, whole grains, etc.
Nuts: Nuts like almonds are associated with lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Curcumin: Curcumin is a constituent of turmeric and has been shown to be associated with a significant improvement in several inflammatory disease improvement studies.
Mung bean: Mung bean is rich in flavonoids - vitexin and isovitexin- which is known for it's anti-inflammatory effects. Mung bean has also been used for centuries as an herbal medicine for inflammation.
Fish Oil: Fish oil has the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids which is associated with lowering levels of inflammation in the body.
Micronutrients: Micronutrients like magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc and selenium are beneficial to fight inflammation and act as antioxidants in the body.
Chronic inflammation has been proven to cause long term health issues and can create multiple inflammatory issues. It is always best to consult a doctor if you believe you are suffering from inflammation. Generally, making lifestyle improvements will help your inflammation and general wellbeing.
What are methods you have used to help with chronic inflammation? What is your experience with inflammation?