What’s Up with Inflammation Anyway?

Inflammation has almost become a buzzword these days.  Every time you turn around, there is an article blaming it for something.  It has become something else for us to worry about.  Are we triggering something horrible by consuming a piece of pizza (made with white flour), not getting our vegetables, or watching too much TV (i.e., being sedentary)?  Can we blame it for our next cold? 

Is this something that we can do anything about?  For one thing, apparently we now live in an environment that causes our bodies to be inflamed as they combat things like pollution, toxins in our food, toxins in buildings, cooking utensils, and more.

Get this…some estimates say that diseases caused by inflammation cost the US $1.1 trillion in health care costs every year.  If this is anywhere near the true number, we need to look into this a bit more, just to get up to speed.  Frankly, this is something that is not going to go away.  We are going to be hearing more and more about it. 

Why is inflammation bad for you?

At the risk of being alarmist, here’s a list of diseases that are now considered to be linked to chronic inflammation: 

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases like ALS
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Cardiovascular disease (arteries get clogged in reaction to inflammation)
  • Stroke
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Asthma

How does this happen?  What is going on in the body that potentially gets us into trouble?  Why can’t the body deal with chronic inflammation, and how does it start anyway?

As usual, the answer is complex.  But, let’s see if I can make it simple (but not too simple), and then give you some (potentially) little known facts. 

How does chronic inflammation happen? 

In an ideal world, your body responds to things like a cut on your finger, an ankle sprain, or even a stomach virus, with an inflammation response.   It sends many substances to heal you and get your body back in balance.  Then the inflammation response shuts down when it is no longer needed.  

The problem comes when you have certain things going on that prevent the response from shutting down completely.  When that is happening, the inflammation-fighting substances, of which there are many, can throw off many other systems that would otherwise be keeping you healthy.     

Here is a specific example of what can happen.  It’s about gut bacteria.  Your gut likes bacteria.  But not all bacteria.  If you have some bacteria in there that your gut doesn’t like, it will set up an inflammatory response to fight it.  Then, your gut can be inflamed all the time, leading to bowel disease, leaky gut, and even cancer.  This is what can happen with a crappy diet.  Just for the record, a crappy diet is one that is high in processed foods, sugar, even lots of meat. Things that don’t have much fiber in them.  Your gut likes fiber, which helps promote the bacteria that it likes. 

There are some other causes of inflammation:

  • Infections from viruses, bacteria, fungi and the like
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary behavior
  • Food allergies
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep

Having said all that, inflammation is not a stand-alone Evil Meanie.  It does not always cause disease.  It requires other things like genetics and environmental factors like those mentioned above. 

An example of this would be smoking tobacco.  Tobacco has a high concentration of toxic carcinogens, but research is showing that smoking also promotes the tendency to get lung cancer by causing chronic inflammation. 

As with most things, there needs to be a lot more research on this.  Even so, there is a great deal of understanding about what can go wrong in the body once inflammation takes hold.  In fact, some scientists are suggesting that it makes sense to treat inflammation on its own in order to make a stand against it as a potential cause of disease.  In other words, try to prevent an inflammatory cascade that can lead to disease.  So far, the jury is mostly out about what that would mean, other than lifestyle adjustments. 

Fighting the good fight against inflammation

So, what can a person do on their own? 

As alluded to above, making sure what you eat is nutritious and not processed.  Mostly whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, whole grains, and low-fat protein sources. Your gut and all your cells will thank you. 

One other thing about food.  You may have noticed a lot of buzz about omega-3 and omega-6.  Too much omega-6 in relation to omega-3 is directly linked to higher levels of chronic inflammation.  The ideal ratio is between 5:1 and 2.5:1, omega-6 to omega-3.  However, the ratio in our processed food environment can be as high as 16:1!  What to do?  More fish!  Less sunflower oil, corn oil, safflower oil, and cottonseed oil, often found in processed foods.  Head on over to olive oil and avocado oils instead. 

Then, there is exercise.  To quote an article from way back in 2012: “There is growing evidence that diseases with an inflammatory component can be treated through physical exercise, rather than pharmacology.”  

Again, I will try to make it simple.  Exercise stimulates production of anti-inflammatory substances that fight against chronic inflammation.  This stuff increases the more exercise you do…to a point.  IF you happen to go at it for 90 minutes or more, hard, every day, then your anti-inflammatory response suffers.  Word has it that 45 minutes, 2-3 days a week of aerobic exercise can really reduce the level of inflammatory molecules that may be affecting your body. 

It turns out that strength training is really good too!  It needs to be done consistently (2-3 times per week), and working the major muscle groups (arms, legs, torso). Done that way, it is effective for reducing inflammation in the body. (Even though it may not feel like it. Just so you know, muscle soreness is a different thing all-together.) 

And, here’s something that I can’t resist throwing in.  Very recent research (published this year) has shown that strength training “rejuvenates aging skin by reducing circulating inflammatory factors…”  I read the research.  It looks thorough and legit.  In addition to reducing inflammation, strength training actually thickens one of the layers of skin beneath the surface.  This does not happen with endurance exercise, by the way.  Which isn’t to say that endurance exercise doesn’t have many, many, benefits. 

There you have it.  Inflammation is “a thing” for sure.  Not to be taken lightly.  And, once again, doing what we can to avoid this nasty thing is the usual:  Eat right and exercise more, don’t smoke, and maintain a healthy weight.  The evidence just keeps rolling in. 

Cheers,
Kristen

Check out my latest Podcast on behavior change with Ellen Csepe, DPT (Institute for Clinical Excellence) here.

© 2023 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
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