Inflammation isn't just a health and wellness buzzword or what happens when you accidentally stub your big toe on the coffee table and hobble around cursing your girlfriend's Feng shui for the next five minutes. Chronic inflammation is increasingly linked to the cause of many non-infectious diseases.
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is your body's healthy response to injury and infection. It's what happens when you get a paper cut or a cold and your body proceeds to defend itself by sending immune cells to the site. Inflammation is responsible for the bump on your head when you misjudge the distance to the car door.
Why Should You Care About Inflammation?
Well, simply put, inflammation is preventable. And, if inflammation is preventable, it means that diseases like Alzheimer's, heart disease, and cancer (to name a few) are also, largely, preventable.
The issue is not with this incidental defense mechanism but, rather, when your body perceives that it's constantly under threat; this is when inflammation becomes chronic. Chronic inflammation causes the body to constantly produce immune cells and is detrimental to health, triggering issues such as genetic mutation and cancer.
Alzheimer's, for example, occurs when nerve cells are destroyed and memory formation and recall are consequently lost. One study showed a significant correlation between the death of nerve cells in the brain and chronic inflammation.
Another study linked interleukin-15 (IL-15), one of the body's natural hormones, with large granular lymphocytic (LGL) leukemia. IL-15 is typically used by the body to trigger the production of Natural Killer (NK) immune cells - a type of white blood cell used in fighting cancer and infection. When IL-15 is present in excess or for long periods of time, however, like if the body is chronically inflamed, it can cause certain immune cells (the large granular lymphocytes) to become cancerous.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) has also been linked to inflammation. IBD is hypothesized to be caused by GI tract immune issues, and immune issues = inflammatory response. Colon cancer, too, has ties to inflammation via the Toll-Like Receptor 4 (TLR4) gene. TLR4 is the gene responsible for letting the body know there's an infection to fight, thereby triggering an inflammatory response and effecting every stage of tumor formation from initiation to metastasis. Diabetes and depression are others closely tied to constant, low levels of inflammation in the body.
The bottom line is that inflammation is not something that should be dismissed.
What Causes Chronic Inflammation?
If it was just one thing life would be much simpler. As it is, however, persistent inflammation is caused by stress, pollution, weight, diet, gut bacteria that are out of balance, lack of exercise, and food sensitivities.
Diet, in particular, is one area in which we're able to intervene significantly. Inflammatory foods include:
- Refined carbs (think bread or pasta - or pita chips *SOB*)
- Alcohol (sorry, margarita Monday)
- Saturated animal fats - especially from red or processed meats (veganism for the WIN)
- Vegetable oils (Over-consuming vegetable oils causes the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids to be out of balance because veggie oil is high in omega-6. Go here to see why that matters.)
- Fried foods (commonly fried in veggie oil)
- Dairy (60% of adults are lactose intolerant!)
- Potentially gluten (for better or worse this article will not serve as one of the many battlegrounds for the Great Gluten Debate)
Not only are these foods linked to inflammation but they can cause weight gain which is also inflammatory.
How to Prevent Inflammation
One of the most effective and simplest ways to counteract inflammation in the body is by crowding out the bad with the good. This means more veggies and fruits, nuts, olives and olive oil, and legumes, and less from all the categories listed above.
Adding physical activity to your day is also crucial, with the small caveat that workouts that are too intense (think HIIT) can actually raise inflammation levels. So, when adding exercise to your routine, consider the line between enough and too much. If you do want to go all out, Jillian Michaels style, consider adding some adaptogens to your life to help your body handle the stress better (a pre workout containing adaptogens, for example, would help both to boost your performance and expedite recovery.
Probiotics can help, too. Site specific inflammation, like that occurring in the intestines, causes a whole body response and is linked to the damage of while blood cells and cancer. Probiotics can, therefore, be used to prevent gut inflammation, which is caused by the prevalence of bad bacteria, by resetting the microbiome and replacing the bad bacteria with the good.
Counteracting the omega 3 to omega 6 imbalance is also something to consider. EPA, one type of omega 3 fatty acid, plays a significant role in mitigating cellular inflammation. It inhibits the production of eicosanoids, which are one of the precursors in the body's signaling pathway for inflammation. Unfortunately, our bodies only convert dietary omega 3 into EPA at a rate of about 6%, so supplementation is your best bet here.
Curcumin is a natural compound high in antioxidants that also decreases inflammation. As the active ingredient in turmeric, and what gives it its signature color, curcumin has been shown to have anti-inflammatory abilities by inhibiting certain molecules that play a role in the body's inflammatory response.
WHEW. That was a lot to take in. But now that you've made it to the end (and are a certifiable expert on inflammation and how to take preventative steps in your own life) you probably (definitely) deserve a treat. This should do the trick ;)