Friend or Foe?

Is inflammation good or bad?

Inflammation’s arsenal is packed with powerful weapons.

“Inflammation is the body’s response to microbial, autoimmune, metabolic or physical insults, including burns and physical trauma”, said Hawiger, Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Louise B. McGavock Professor.

White blood cells, including granulocytes and macrophages, are the “first responders” to sites of infection and injury. They emit waves of chemicals that can kill germs outright, and protein messengers called cytokines to carry out a bewilderingly wide array of duties.   When these weapons misfire, however, they can wreak havoc. They can even kill.

Quote Extracted from Vanderbilt Medicine Magazine – Article written by William Snyder  

What is Inflammation and How Does it Work?

Inflammation is your body’s way of dealing with an outside threat like stress, an infection, a toxic chemical, or even unhealthy food.  It’s a completely natural response that’s designed to protect your body.  Contrary to what most people are led to believe, inflammation isn’t all bad. It has a bad reputation because most information out there only focuses on the negative aspects of inflammation.

When body tissues (such as the skin) are injured or infected, the damaged cells release a cocktail of chemicals including histamine, bradykinin, and prostaglandins.  These chemicals activate proteins that take action to protect the body and begin the healing process.

The result is inflammation which can be experienced in number of ways:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Heat
  • Pain

The most important point you should get from this is that inflammation starts the healing process and helps the body remove damaged cells, irritants, and dangerous pathogens.  Unfortunately, we are trained to immediately reduce inflammation when it shows up.

  • Rolled your ankle? We immediately are told to ice it.
  • Have a mild fever? We’re told to take medication to reduce it.

But Reducing Inflammation Isn’t Always The Best Choice.  For example, let’s say you closed your fingers in the door. Ouch!  At this point most, people will immediately reach for an anti-inflammatory drug such as Ibuprofen to reduce the inflammation and pain.  In truth, when you reduce short-term (acute) inflammation, it may actually slow down the healing process.

Although Ibuprofen or aspirin might make your fingers “feel” better, it can increase the amount of time it takes for the injury to heal.  The same goes for fevers. A fever is one of the many ways your body naturally fights off infection. So when you reduce a mild fever, you could actually make your illness last longer.

You and your healthcare practitioner must be sure to not undermine the body’s natural healing process – unless inflammation is a threat to your health (such as an extreme fever or throat swelling), you may want to reconsider taking an anti-inflammatory drug for common injuries and illnesses.  This aspect of inflammation is overlooked all too often. So as you can see, it’s important to understand inflammation.  But now you’re faced with difficult question: how can you tell the difference between inflammation that is helpful versus harmful to your health?

What Are the Common Signs of Chronic Inflammation?

Unfortunately, the most indicative signs of chronic inflammation are disease itself.  There are some less severe signs of chronic inflammation (before it causes disease), but many people don’t notice or associate them with inflammation until it develops into disease.

Besides disease, common indicators of inflammation can include:

  • Swelling around the wrists or ankles
  • Problems with bloating, constipation, and gas
  • Fatigue
  • Itchy ears or eyes
  • Joint pain or stiffness
  • Constantly experience throat tickle or irritation
  • Stuffy nose, sinus trouble, & excessive mucous
  • Flushed (rosy) & puffy skin

I find that the best way to truly understand a concept is to provide real-life examples. So here’s an example of two completely different people that are at risk of developing an inflammatory disease:

Case 1:

Ben is a stressed out CEO of a shipping company, he works 80 hours a week, and a busy life outside of work. The past couple years he has gained 30 pounds and his doctor says his blood pressure is too high. Ben loves to indulge in cheeseburgers and a glass of whiskey at night to unwind from his long days at work. During his last doctor visit, he complained of ongoing pain in his joints and muscles.

Case 2:

Annie is recently had newborn baby who she routinely gets up in the night to feed. She considers herself to eat healthy sometimes but can’t break her habit of drinking soda. She also rarely gets the opportunity to exercise but assumes that is fine because she is at a healthy weight. The past month she has been getting skin rashes and constant diarrhea.

Both of these people live radically different lifestyles but both show strong indicators of chronic inflammation. Ben’s pain in his joints just might develop into rheumatoid arthritis if he does not change his lifestyle. Annie’s diarrhea may indicate a food sensitivity or development of a gut-related disease such as Crohn’s.

What Makes Chronic Inflammation Harmful?

“In a healthy situation, inflammation serves as a good friend to our body,” says Mansour Mohamadzadeh, PhD, director of the Center for Inflammation and Mucosal Immunology. “But if immune cells start to overreact, that inflammation can be totally directed against us.”

Inflammation is harmful when it becomes a long-term (chronic) reaction rather than a healthy temporary defense mechanism.  In other words, when inflammation persists longer than the body intended (usually anything longer than ~1 month), it begins to harm your body, sabotage your sleep, make weight loss more difficult, damage your gut, increase your risk of getting cancer and much more.  Simply put, it wreaks havoc on your body.

Check out this list of diseases that are caused by inflammation to see for yourself:

AllergiesAll sensitives cause inflammation which result in the symptoms (Ex: throat closing up)
Alzheimer’s DiseaseChronic inflammation destroys brain cells
AutismInflammatory cells cause autoimmune reactions in the brain which delays the development of the right hemisphere
Carpal Tunnel SyndromeChronic inflammation causes excessive muscle tension—shortens tendons in the forearm
Celiac diseaseChronic immune inflammation damages intestines
EczemaChronic inflammation of the gut & liver with poor detoxification
FibromyalgiaInflamed connective tissue that is often food allergy-related. Worsened by nutritional imbalances as well as poor oxygenation of cells.
Heart attackChronic inflammation contributes to the thickening of artery walls

So when people are talk about inflammation in a negative way, they are usually referring to chronic inflammation. 

What Causes Chronic Inflammation?

So we know that chronic inflammation is a threat to our health. Now that we know which kind of inflammation is “the bad guy,” we can explore what causes it so we can prevent it. An unhealthy diet, pesticides, stress, and food sensitivities are among the most common causes of chronic inflammation.  Processed foods, for example, contain substances that increase inflammation. So if you eat these foods on a normal basis, it will cause your body to become constantly inflamed.

To give you a better idea, here’s some common pro-inflammatory substances:

  • Trans fats
  • Sugar
  • White bread
  • Red Meat (if it’s conventional corn-fed animal meats)
  • Alcohol
  • Foods containing omega-6 fatty acids (such as vegetable oils)
  • Milk (for the 60% of adults who can’t digest dairy)
  • Foods with MSG (such as most take-out Chinese food)
  • Foods that you are sensitive to
  • Foods that contain toxins

As you can see, some are surprising and others are not. If you already have chronic inflammation (or a disease caused by it) you really should consider eliminating these foods from your diet.

Natural Ways You Can Reduce Inflammation

Whether you think you have been living a pro-inflammatory lifestyle or already have an inflammatory-related disease, it is possible to turn your life around.  Here are 7 ways you can naturally reduce chronic inflammation:

1. Eat a Diet rich in Whole Foods

Whole foods are unprocessed foods—think brown rice versus white rice. When you switch to a whole-food diet, your diet becomes inherently anti-inflammatory. Whole foods are higher in fibre, typically contain fewer toxins, contain less sugar, and are packed with healthy anti-inflammatory chemicals called phytonutrients.

2. Eat Healthy Fats, not bad fats

Consume foods with healthy fats found in high quality cold-pressed organic olive oils, avocados, coconuts, and foods with omega-3s.  

3. Exercise Regularly

There is a large body of evidence out there that suggests regular exercise reduces inflammation. Exercise is the key to optimal health: it improves your mood, melts stress, strengthens your cardiovascular system, and improves immune function. The benefits are endless. Reducing inflammation is one of the many reasons why you should exercise daily whether it’s walking, lifting, yoga, or cycling.

4. Remember to Relax

Learning how to actively relax your mind and body on demand is an art as well as a critical skill to live a healthy life. Since stress promotes inflammation, it would make sense that relaxing is an anti-inflammatory behavior right?

Studies have shown that relaxation actually reduces inflammation. Just like daily exercise, you should find a way to relax on a normal basis. Whether you choose to try yoga, meditation, take a few minutes to just breathe deeply or even a hot herbal bath, pick a healthy practice that helps you relax and unwind after a long day.

5. Avoid Foods You’re Sensitive To

If you haven’t already been tested, you should find out what foods you are sensitive to and stop eating those foods as soon as possible. If you experience gas, diarrhea, constipation, or cramping, you could be unknowingly sensitive to something you are eating.  Food sensitivities can cause a wide range of unpleasant side effects. But the take home point is that you need to figure out which foods you’re allergic to because if eaten over a long period of time, they can cause serious damage to your body and cause inflammation.

If you are not sure what foods you may be allergic to, go to your doctor and get a  IgG food allergy test done or you can check out the dietary elimination challenge diet that is suggested by many naturopaths.

6. Heal Your Gut

Ever hear the saying that a healthy gut is the key to a healthy body and mind? Well it doesn’t get more accurate than that.  Without a healthy gut, you cannot absorb nutrients properly, your immune system will be compromised, and you might develop new food allergies.  A healthy gut will allow your body to control inflammation and have a much

7. Supplements

DBM are against indiscriminate use of random supplements, there are foods that you can use in the PLACE of a tablet/supplement to reduce inflammation.  Omega 3s, for example, have been shown to significantly reduce inflammation. Follow the link to our Healthy Fats page

So if you want to avoid or reduce chronic inflammation, you can consider changing your diet and ensuring that you include health fats.

Other supplements that have been scientifically shown to reduce inflammation include turmeric – follow the link to see how to easily include turmeric as part of your anti-inflammatory regimen WHILE you change your diet.  

Ask Your Doctor to Test for Inflammatory Markers

If you want more concrete evidence of whether you have or are at risk for developing chronic inflammation, you can ask your doctor to test for inflammatory markers.  When you get your tests done, you doctor will be able to figure out whether or not you have a problem with inflammation. But sometimes these tests can give you false negatives. Meaning the test says you don’t have an issue with chronic inflammation, when it reality you do.  That’s why it’s best to play it safe and take measures to live an anti-inflammatory life.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, inflammation can be both helpful and harmful to your body. By understanding inflammation, you can make the distinction between when inflammation is beneficial and when inflammation is a red flag for disease.  Chronic, or long-term, inflammation should be avoided with a healthy diet and anti-inflammatory supplemental foods where necessary.

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