Lesson #1: Inflammation

Do you suffer from arthritis?  Psoriasis?  Irritable Bowel Syndrome?  Fibromyalgia?  Do you have allergies?

If you do, you may get relief from fixing just one thing: systemic inflammation.

Two types of inflammation

There are two types of inflammation: (1) acute (short-term or classical) and (2) low level chronic (long-term) inflammation.

Acute Inflammation is designed to protect you

We are all familiar with acute inflammation, whether we know it by that name or not.    Inflammation is the body's defense in action as it protects us against pathogens.

For example, when you get a cut, germs from the outside world are now all of a sudden inside our body, via the cut, an opening in your body's protective coating (your skin, BTW, is the largest organ of your body).  Alarm bells go off!  Intruders, intruders!  The immune system rushes into action!  The initial germs are killed and cleared out so the body can begin repair.  (Acute inflammation can also happen when internal tissue is damaged, like when you twist your ankle.)

You definitely notice the immune system response, which includes heat, redness, swelling, pain, and loss of function.  Modern medicine offers many tools to help us control this type of inflammation if it goes on for too long.

In this example, the cause of the inflammation and the target of the inflammation are the same.

What exactly is going on in there?

Inflammation markers are particles your body releases that prompt an immune response.  The immune system responds by releasing substances that rid the body of intruders.  They do this in several ways, including creating blood clots to trap intruders, creating enzymes to dissolve intruders, and making it hard for intruders to get food and substances that they need.  This response is called inflammation.

What if our immune system finds intruders deep inside the body?

The same thing: inflammation.  But you can't see it.  It can cause diseases and disorders who's names end in "-itis" (appendicitis, arthritis, dermatitis, meningitis, tonsillitis)

The other kind of Inflammation - Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is an immune response similar to acute inflammation but not nearly as intense and without the typical hallmarks of acute inflammation. There’s no heat, redness, swelling, pain, or loss of function.  Acute inflammation increases inflammatory markers over a hundred-fold, while chronic inflammation increases inflammatory markers two to four-fold; chronic inflammation is 25 - 50 times LESS INTENSE.

Instead of a short, vicious, site-specific burst of fighting as in acute inflammation, chronic inflammation involves a long, relatively mild, systemic grind.  It’s like the difference between an explosion and a smoldering fire.

What Causes Chronic Inflammation?

The short answer is our Intake and Surroundings.  When you ingest (eat, drink, breathe in, absorb through your skin) something toxic, the immune system goes after the toxic particles as intruders.  You may be thinking, "I don't smoke, don't drink drain cleaner, don't eat lead paint chips, or smear engine oil on my skin, this doesn't apply to me."  Unfortunately, it is not that clear cut or obvious.

Many skin products contain artificial fragrance, for example, which can be toxic.

And remember the lesson on Food Sensitivity?  When you eat foods that have ingredients that your body doesn’t recognize, like artificial colors, flavors, sweetener, or preservatives, your body sees these as intruders.  Processed foods become toxic when they are broken down during digestion.

In fact, many things cause inflammation:

  • smoking
  • outdoor and indoor air pollution
  • endocrine disruptors and environmental chemicals
  • less daily activity
  • sleep deprivation and artificial lighting
  • shift work
  • chronic stress
  • too many omega-6 fats, not enough omega-3s
  • fast foods
  • obesity

These days, faced with so many threats from our environment, our immune systems are always on red alert.

(Sometimes the immune system doesn't recognize the body's own cells and think they are intruders and attack them.  This is called an auto-immune disease.)

What does my waist size have to do with it?

Belly fat, aka visceral fat, the fat around your internal organs, plays a huge role in chronic inflammation.  Much inflammation is an autoimmune response triggered by fat cells, whereby immune cells may mistake fatty deposits for intruders.  Your immune system responds to distress calls from fat cells and cells in your liver, brain, and muscle.

Here’s how this works:

  • Excess fat from the fat cells oozes out, triggering an immune response.
  • Fat cells undergo mechanical stress (stretched from being too full of fat), triggering an immune response.

Waist circumference correlates significantly with systemic inflammatory response.

Meals high in saturated fat, as well as meals high in calories have been associated with increases in inflammatory markers.  The inflammatory responses may become chronic if the overeating is chronic.

The important point is that chronic inflammation isn’t just another a side effect of obesity. Instead, it appears to be the link between obesity and disease.

Interestingly, fat elsewhere in your body, subcutaneous fat (the fat under your skin), does not have this same effect.  This is why a "pear shape" (bigger butt and legs than belly) is a healthier shape that an "apple shape" (bigger belly than butt and legs).

However, not having a huge belly doesn't get you off the hook entirely.  Pro-inflammatory factors such as stress, lack of sleep, and pollution can also be linked to disease – even in the absence of obesity.

Why Chronic Inflammation is bad

Chronic inflammation is also called Systemic Inflammation, or Silent Inflammation.

When inflammation increases, as our bodies age, as we ingest toxins, or eat high-fat foods and decrease our intake of healthy fruits and vegetables, the inflammation can begin attacking the body in unfavorable ways.

One of the things inflammation does is trigger attacks on our endothelial cells.  What are these?  Endothelial cells make up the lining of many of our tissues such as blood vessels and the digestive tract.  (I think of them as the skin for the insides of our bodies, lining the inside and outside of organs as well as "duct work", blood vessels, digestive tract, etc.). When this happens, this lining is attacked and damaged, which causes the organ it is protecting to be damaged.

When you realize these endothelial cells are in all of our organs and "duct work", it is easy to see how degenerative diseases such as heart disease, cancers, accelerated aging, and many others begin to smolder in our body.

Systemic inflammation is often very silent and is occurring without your knowledge.  Scientists and doctors are beginning to suspect that systemic inflammation is at the start of many, many diseases and conditions.  It is involved in the following diseases: Allergies, Alzheimer's, Anemia, Ankylosing Spondylitis, Aortic Valve Stenosis, Arthritis, Cancer, Congestive Heart Failure, Diabetes, Fibromyalgia, Fibrosis, Hypertension, Heart Attack, Irritable Bowel, Kidney Disease, Lupus, Metabolic Syndrome, Osteoporosis, Parkinson's Disease, Psoriasis, Stroke

It Is Not Too Late!!

It's not too late!  You can protect yourself from inflammation and/or reduce inflammation!

  1. Eat a healthy diet - Include plenty of vegetables and fruit, legumes, lean meats, and fish in your daily diet.  Avoid simple carbohydrates, sweets, fried food, fatty meats.
  2. Reduce your insulin load.  Insulin promotes inflammation, so look for foods that are low in the glycemic index.
  3. Get rid of your belly fat!
  4. Exercise.
  5. Reduce stress.
  6. Get enough quality sleep.
  7. Eat spices. Many spices (e.g.cinnamon, ginger, turmeric) and fresh herbs (e.g. basil, oregano, garlic) are anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and immune-boosting. Spices such as cinnamon can also help to regulate insulin.

Several studies show that markers of inflammation are reduced following longer-term behavioral changes involving both reduced energy intake and a regular program of increased physical activity.  Exercising to decrease chronic inflammation is strongly supported by current research, as an inactive lifestyle is strongly associated with the development and progression of multiple inflammatory diseases.


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