Inflammation. It’s a buzzword we keep hearing. From seasonal allergies to indigestion to autoimmune conditions—even cancer—inflammation in the body is often blamed as the culprit. But what is inflammation, really? And, moreover, where does it come from?
Inflammation is defined as a localized, physical condition in which part of the body becomes reddened, swollen, hot and often painful, especially as a reaction to injury or infection. In layman’s terms, inflammation is a protective response to an infection or a stressor. When our body is threatened by a “trigger,” such as food poisoning, the flu, a twisted ankle, sunburn, stress, exercise, poor sleep or poor nutrition, our body calls upon white blood cells (disease-destroying cells) and plasma proteins for the inflammatory response. This response eliminates the initial cause of injury (bacteria, toxins, stressors), removes harmful cells and tissue, and begins the process of repair and healing.
Inflammation is classified as either acute or chronic. Acute inflammation is the body’s initial response to harmful input and typically subsides within minutes or a few days. Think about stubbing your toe, for instance. You feel pain within seconds, as blood rushes to the area and you hop on the opposite foot, gripping your toe in pain. One or two minutes later, though, your pain has subsided and all is well again. Acute inflammation is a positive force in our bodies.
Chronic inflammation, however, is characterized as prolonged or ongoing and is harmful to our health. If an inflammatory trigger persists, it leads to ongoing destruction and impaired healing of tissue. Unfortunately, this type of inflammation is not always obvious and can silently affect every cell in our body until a disease or chronic condition has developed.
What causes chronic inflammation? Well, it starts in the gut. Since 80 percent of our body’s health and immunity is housed there, our gut health is crucial to maintaining a low level of inflammation in the body. When our gut is not healthy (or it is continuously bombarded with stressors), our body has a difficult time eradicating inflammation. The foods and lifestyle factors that can cause disorder in the gut are poor digestive practices (e.g., eating too fast, eating on the go); dehydration/lack of water; low stomach acid and inability to fully digest foods; fad diets and disordered eating habits; harsh antibiotics and other medications; irritating foods (sugar, processed foods, refined grains, pasteurized dairy products, meats from factory-farm animals, farm-raised fish, grains that are not properly soaked and vegetable oils such as canola and corn); and environmental stressors (chemicals and toxins in our hygiene and cleaning products, mold, etc.). The best approach for preventing or decreasing inflammation in the body is to heal the gut. Even if you have a so-called “iron stomach” or you don’t suffer from frequent constipation or gas, it’s vital to keep the gut flora healthy in order to avoid future breakdowns down the road.
“The gut is the gateway to inflammation,” says Dr. Amy Myers, author of the New York Times best-seller, “The Autoimmune Solution,” as well as the soon-to-launch “The Thyroid Connection.” Dr. Myers takes a “4-R” approach to healing the gut. First, remove inflammatory foods (such as sugar, corn, nightshades and caffeine) and infections (caused by parasites, yeast or bacteria); replace what is missing (such as hydrochloric acid, or HCL, to promote increased stomach acid) and digestive enzymes to break down food; re-inoculate the gut with strains of good bacteria; and repair the gut using resources such as L-Glutamine and aloe. “Gut cells turn over every twenty-four to forty-eight hours,” says Dr. Myers. “The gut is constantly repairing itself, so by supporting it through this approach, you move your healing along.” She also notes that healing the gut can take anywhere from three to six months.
A healthy gut also promotes a healthy mind and decreases stress and anxiety. “As much as ninety-five percent of the neurotransmitters in your body originate in the GI tract,” says functional nutritionist and chiropractor, Dr. Robin Mayfield. “Keeping your digestive tract healthy is job number one for those also experiencing mood disorders. Depression and anxiety are often a result of inflammation in the intestines from food allergies, candida (yeast) infection, IBS or leaky-gut syndrome.”
Experts agree that food is the primary medicine for addressing and reversing inflammation in the gut. Aim for a variety of fresh food choices, raw nuts, organic meats, wild-caught fish and healthy oils such as coconut, avocado and olive, and minimize your consumption of processed foods and fast food. Incorporate probiotics or fermented foods (sauerkraut, kombucha, fermented yogurt) into your diet. And drink half your body weight in ounces of water every day. In addition, Dr. Alejandra Carrasco of Nourish Medicine encourages clients to figure out if they have food sensitivities, which can also cause inflammation. “Eliminating foods that you are reacting to can make a world of difference in your health journey,” she says.
Of course, as Dr. Phil Sledz of Fundamental Health Solutions points out, “Diet alone is not enough to sustain a truly healthy metabolism—supplementation is a must. Brand and quality assurance mean everything; not all products are created equally when it comes to supplementation, which is why third-party testing [double-blind testing, pharmaceutically tested, ‘standardized extracts,’ certified GMP, etc.] really seems to produce the best results both on lab tests and from a patient perspective.” While it’s generally best to consult with a knowledgeable health care practitioner before taking supplements, essential fatty acids (especially Omega-3’s found in krill oil and cod liver oil) and probiotics are two that are commonly used and that most people tolerate and benefit from.
In addition to what we consume, movement and blood flow are also part of preventing and healing inflammation. Mild aerobic exercise—even simply walking (more frequently) tops the list, along with plenty of stretching, yoga and other movement disciplines such as qi gong and tai chi. And while exercise is good, it’s important to note that too much of a good thing is not always good. If we overdo it, we actually perpetuate inflammation, as we can provoke a stress, or inflammatory, response to continuous pounding and wear and tear on our joints, tissue and cardiovascular system. Instead, move with intention for 40 to 60 minutes most days of the week. Of course, sleep is important, as well—especially since our body repairs and heals when we are asleep. A few restless nights not only make you feel terrible, but they also exacerbate underlying symptoms of inflammation. Aim for at least six to nine hours a night.
And then there’s stress. When we’re stressed (physically, emotionally, mentally), our bodies release a hormone known as cortisol (the fight-or-flight response hormone). While cortisol is necessary to fight inflammation and stress (in the short term), the longer it lingers, the more chronic inflammation accumulates in our system.
Finally, a study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that the average person has over 91 toxic chemicals in their body. Many of these are attributed not only to the foods we eat, but to the water we drink, the hygiene products we use on our bodies and the household cleaning supplies we use at home. Environmental toxins are linked to metabolism dysfunction, oxidative stress, hormonal imbalances and inflammation. Reduce your exposure to chemicals at home as much as possible by choosing nontoxic household cleaning, bath, beauty and hygiene products.
by Dr. Lauryn Lax
Common Diseases Associated With Chronic InflammationAsthma and allergies
Constant fatigue/Adrenal fatigue
Frequent breakouts, acne and skin conditions, such as psoriasis
Gastrointestinal stress and dysfunction
Low immunity and frequent illness
Lupus and other autoimmune conditions
Anti-inflammatory FoodsBerries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries)
Coconut oil and olive oil
Green leafy vegetables (kale, chard, spinach)
Nuts (walnuts, almonds, pine nuts)
Raw seeds (chia, flax)