What do heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer and a host of auto-immune diseases have in common? More than you might think.
They all have to do with inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to attacks from viruses, bacteria or injuries, but sometimes your immune system can actually cause chronic inflammation. This condition leads to some of the worst illnesses of middle and old age.
Inflammation is rapidly becoming the most widespread illness of the 21st century. The good news is that you can make changes in your life that can prevent and even tame the unhealthy effects of this condition.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is an essential part of a healthy immune system. It is a response that helps your body heal after injury or infection.
There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation occurs after you cut your finger, for example, or when your body is fighting an infection. It is one of the immune system’s effective defenses against anything foreign and potentially deadly.
However, your body may lose its ability to recover from inflammation. This means you experience inflammation on an ongoing basis. This continuing, low-level inflammation keeps your immune system attacking your body and sets off a series of cascading biological reactions that seriously affect your health and can lead to every disease imaginable, according to Norwalk Pharmacy.
Chronic inflammation can affect most parts of the body, but because it tends to be hidden, you may not realize you have it. The more obvious signs include joint pain and stiffness. General symptoms include lack of energy and headaches. Even if you do not have these symptoms, you may still be affected by chronic inflammation.
The starting point for this disorder originates in the gut, where trillions of bacteria reside in a symbiotic relationship. If the balance is upset, an opportunistic parasite called candida will overwhelm beneficial bacteria, causing a disturbance in proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Candida then burrows into the gut lining, penetrating its wall and allowing proteins, sugars, infectious microbes and other particles to access the bloodstream. This condition is known as leaky gut.
Research published in the Nutrition and Clinical Practice journal shows that unbalanced gut flora can affect numerous processes in the body, including metabolism, immune function, energy production, excess body weight, and whether your disease-inducing genes are suppressed or turned on.
Essentially, the immune system becomes overburdened as inflammatory triggers are cycled continuously through the blood.
“When they wash over pancreatic tissue, diabetes may result. When they find their way inside joint tissues, rheumatoid arthritis can kick in. And when they bombard artery linings, it may lead to heart disease. Researchers also think that the brains of Alzheimer’s patients become inflamed—what’s referred to as ‘brain on fire’—before plaque accumulates between the nerve cells, gradually wiping out the patient’s memory. On the cancer front, studies show that the same hormones that turn up the inflammatory response also stimulate cells to divide more frequently and increase malignancy risk,” wrote Alison Garwood-Jones.
Taming the Triggers
There is good news. Research shows that your lifestyle choices can have strong effects on inflammatory diseases. Sometimes dietary changes alone can eliminate up to 80 percent of symptoms. Although there is a long and varied list of offending substances, the three main things to consider are sugars, or refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats and toxins.
“When you eat sugar, you deplete the enzymes that help you to digest protein,” said Renae Norton, an eating disorder specialist. “So the protein gets into the bloodstream partially digested and is attacked by the immune system.” Similarly, dietitian Desiree Nielsen suggested that we should also avoid refined carbohydrates, as they send blood sugar off kilter and promote inflammatory damage (High50.com).
Vegetable oils, trans fats (hydrogenated) and packaged goods also contain too many omega-6 fatty acids and lack fiber and nutrients, causing them to lose their anti-inflammatory profile.
In addition, refined starches lack proper probiotic and yeast cultures and are highly hybridized, with gluten content more inflammatory than previous varieties. Wheat, rice, spelt and soy also contain large amounts of lectins that cause leaky gut. Sprouting and fermenting grains reduces phytates and lectins, making these foods easier to digest. Genetically modified organisms and hybridized foods tend to be the highest in lectins since they have been modified to fight off bugs (Draxe.com).
Dr. Andrew Weil, in his book Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, suggests stocking up on foods rich in Omega-3s—greens, seeds and nuts, and oily, cold-water fish like salmon, sardines and black cod. Correcting Omega imbalances brings the typical North American diet closer to the Mediterranean diets, where obesity, heart disease and chronic inflammation rates are lower.
Additionally, to foster the growth of healthy gut bacteria through diet, choose foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics include live beneficial bacteria and yeasts naturally created by the process of fermentation in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, miso soup, kimchi and others. They primarily line the gut and are responsible for nutrient absorption, supporting your immune system and healing leaky gut, among other effects.
Prebiotics are non-digestible food components in foods like bananas, onions and garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, apple skins, beans, and many others. Prebiotic fiber goes through the small intestine undigested and is fermented when it reaches the large colon. Research has found that prebiotics are helpful in increasing the beneficial bacteria already in the gut by promoting the production of butyric acid in the colon which is extremely anti-inflammatory. Prebiotic fiber is also not as fragile as probiotic bacteria because it is not affected by heat, stomach acid or time (Florowska 2016).
Our body is a “connected system that works best when everything is optimized. [And] if your lifestyle has included a poor diet, being overweight, inactivity, poor sleep and stress, it may well be contributing to chronic inflammation,” said Nielsen. Other factors thought to contribute to chronic inflammation include smoking, excessive alcohol, nutritional deficiencies, environmental pollutants in the food chain, and lack of proper exercise. Taken together, these all lead to persistent, chronic, low-grade, systemic inflammation (High50.com).
Remember, chronic inflammation contributes to many diseases. But an anti-inflammatory plan that combines diet with crucial lifestyle modifications can help you feel better, lose weight and live longer.