We all have that friend — the one who, in small doses, is AMAZING.
Maybe all they want to do is inhale alcohol like it’s going out of style, and party as if they’d never left their early 20’s. Hanging out with this friend can be great fun for one or two nights, without question — even necessary, some might say, to get out and live a little!
Now, imagine that instead of seeing this friend every once in a while, you suddenly had to spend every waking hour with them.
What was once fun becomes your own personal nightmare…
You feel hungover every day, you never get a good night’s rest, and a relaxing evening is a distant memory.
What if I told you that another version of this harrowing tale is something you’re actually experiencing at this exact moment, but that instead of an external friend, this companion is internal inflammation?
Inflammation, in small doses, is absolutely essential. Without it, cuts wouldn’t heal, colds wouldn’t go away, and very quickly, life as you know it would come to an end.
But no matter how important intermittent inflammation is, our bodies just aren’t equipped to handle inflammation 24/7.
Chronic inflammation is the term given to an overactive inflammatory response. It’s been tied to nearly EVERY chronic disease of our time. Neurological diseases, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, depression, autoimmune diseases…you name it, an overactive inflammatory response may be at least partly to blame.
Even if you’re one of the lucky few who lives free of an identifiable chronic disease, chances are that you don’t feel 100% healthy…or 100% yourself.
Brain fog, trouble remembering things, moodiness, difficulty losing weight, fatigue that just won’t go away, aches and pains with no identifiable cause…each and every one of these could be caused by chronic inflammation.
And what happens when you go to your doctor with these symptoms?
Most of them will tell you it’s normal—just a part of aging. They may give you some generic tips, or more likely, tell you to take a painkiller every day for the rest of your life.
So what, then, should you do when you KNOW something is wrong? When you suspect that you’re experiencing 24/7 inflammation that is slowly, steadily, breaking down your mind and body?
I’m here to tell you that there are things that you can do to take back control of your life.
But to successfully do so, you need to understand inflammation…really understand it. What it is, how it works, and what you can do to naturally undo the damage.
Part 1: What is Inflammation?
Redness, itching, swelling…we’ve all experienced the obvious signs of inflammation. But chronic inflammation is a whole different story. If you think you might be experiencing inflammation-induced health troubles, it’s important to take action to fix it.
As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Only by understanding what inflammation is and how it works can you take steps to regain control of your life and your health.
A Healthy Inflammatory Response
With all of the negative hype that surrounds inflammation, it can be hard to step back and understand that inflammation itself is not a bad thing. (1)
At its core, inflammation is how your body responds to injury or illness. When your body is functioning properly, the inflammatory response helps us respond to and conquer potential dangers.
Inflammation in Response to Injury and Illness
The good type of inflammation is that which occurs due to physical stressors. Physical stressors can be injuries, such as cutting your finger or spraining your ankle. They can also include pathogens, like the cold virus or the Streptococcus bacterium, that have invaded your system.
If you cut yourself or sprain your ankle, your immune system will initiate an inflammatory response. White blood cells, proteins, and fluids are delivered where you need them, allowing you to heal. (2)
The common signs of injury-induced inflammation include redness, heat, swelling, and pain at the site of the injury. These are all signs that the inflammatory process is well underway and that your body is healing.
The same thing happens if you catch a cold, flu, stomach bug, or other pathogenic illness. Your immune system uses inflammation to deliver cells to destroy the invaders and protect your health.
The common signs of pathogen-induced inflammation include:
- Sore throat
The key to this type of inflammation is that it is temporary. After your body has successfully healed an injury or killed off intruders, your immune system wraps it up and leaves the area alone, returning your body to normal. This is when a cut heals or you recover from a cold.
When Things Go Wrong
Clearly, this healthy inflammatory response is not the type of inflammation involved in the progression of chronic illness, fatigue, or memory troubles. When inflammation is temporary, it tends to be good for you. But when it doesn’t go away, that is where the trouble lies.
Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation
Inflammation is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it protects you from disease. It allows wounds to heal. It delivers assistance to places in your body that needs it the most.
On the other hand, it can damage the very cells you require to live. It causes pain. It damages cognitive function, memory, and learning abilities. Most of all, it contributes to countless chronic diseases.
The type of inflammation that goes in, kills pathogens or heals an injury, and then gets out is called acute inflammation. “Acute” references that the inflammation is temporary, and once you are healthy, completely disappears.
Chronic inflammation is the national health crisis that you’ve likely heard about. Chronic inflammation, as the name implies, is when you experience continuous inflammation in your body. This type of inflammation leads to damage to your own healthy cells, not just those of invaders or damaged tissue.
How Can You Tell if You Have Chronic Inflammation?
There’s a reason why most of us feel like we just aren’t healthy, and it’s not that it’s a normal, unavoidable part of aging.
If you relate to one or more of the following, you’re likely living with chronic inflammation:
- You struggle to get out of bed each morning
- You can’t seem to wake up without coffee
- You feel down or anxious more often than not
- You have trouble remembering things
- You feel like you’re in a fog all day
- You have aches and pains and you don’t know where they came from
You may be wondering, don’t most people feel this way?
Unfortunately, in the United States, the answer to that question is likely yes. But this isn’t because it’s inevitable; it’s because chronic inflammation and related diseases are on the rise.
Don’t accept a subpar quality of life because it’s the norm. There are things that you can do to reduce inflammation and start to find relief.
Diseases Associated With Inflammation
Chronic inflammation has been implicated in the pathogenesis, or development, of nearly every chronic disease of our time. (3) Some of the most common inflammatory diseases include:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
- Neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, etc)
- Autoimmune diseases
What all of these diseases share in common is that they are largely influenced by your environment, rather than solely genetic.
While genetics do play a role in the likelihood of developing specific diseases, overall, how we live can be the single biggest factor in our likelihood of developing one of these life-threatening illnesses.
The good news is this: we know ways to help reduce inflammation in the body. These include reducing activities that cause inflammation and making lifestyle changes to combat existing inflammation.
By doing these two things, you can increase your chances of living a long, and most importantly, healthy, life.
Part 2: What Causes Chronic Inflammation?
Whether or not you experience chronic inflammation seems to be largely determined by three primary sources:
- How you live your life
- Whether or not you have an autoimmune disease
- Your genes
- The health of your digestive tract
When you know where inflammation comes from, it becomes easier to reduce and avoid it.
Lifestyle Factors That Contribute to Inflammation
The primary source of chronic inflammation is how we live our day-to-day lives. Much of how we live today is not how our ancestors evolved to live over many thousands of years. As a result, our bodies suffer from low-grade chronic inflammation.
But there is good news: lifestyle is the proinflammatory component, or contributor to chronic inflammation, that we have the most control over. By understanding what factors in our daily lives contribute to inflammation, we can work to reduce them. In fact, we may even be able to cut some of the most harmful ones out completely.
A Poor Diet
What we eat may be the largest single factor that contributes to (or reduces) chronic inflammation. The current diet in America has an acronym — it’s called SAD, short for the “Standard American Diet,” and sad it truly is. (4)
Over the past century, many of us have gone from eating food that came from small, local farms and the wilderness to sometimes not eating a single fruit or vegetable all day. Today it’s possible to go weeks at a time only eating food that has been heavily processed into something far different from what our bodies were built to eat.
Foods that encourage inflammation are known as proinflammatory foods. Here, we’ll review the 8 food ingredients known to contribute to inflammation.
1. Added Sugar
Sugary foods are adored around the world. We rejoice in cakes and chocolates and pastries, but too much sugar can wreak havoc on our health by contributing to inflammation.
In the USA, where on average we consume nearly four times the maximum recommended daily intake of added sugars, this dietary danger has reached epidemic levels. (5)
It’s important to note, however, that not all sugars are created equal. Heavily processed sugars are the most dangerous to our health, both because of their high fructose content and how quickly they impact our blood sugar levels.
The first of these is the type of sugar most of us are most familiar with: common table sugar. These fine white crystals are the result of removing any redeemable nutrient from cane sugar. By removing the fiber and other nutrients, we’ve turned this plant-derived sweetener into a dangerous, proinflammatory food.
When it comes to hazardous sweeteners, however, nothing compares to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). (5) HFCS is highly processed, resulting in an incredibly sweet byproduct that’s exceptionally high in fructose. It produces a proinflammatory cascade that’s linked to insulin resistance, obesity, and more.
Thanks to its increased shelf life and low cost, HFCS is commonly found in processed and fast foods. Even ketchups and salad dressings commonly include HFCS.
Few of us realize how much added sugar in the form of HFCS that we take in each and every day. If there is one change that you can make in regards to added sugar, read every label and try to avoid anything containing HFCS.
2. Refined Grains
People’s perception of grains nowadays seem to fall into one of two categories: grains are either seen as universally good or universally bad. Neither one of these tells the full story.
Whole grains, such as wheat germ, oats, and brown rice, are incredibly healthy for most of us. (6) But when these whole grains are stripped down with all of their healthful parts removed, the end result is a carbohydrate dangerous to our health.
These processed grains are known as “refined.” The consumption of refined grains has been tied to many of the common inflammatory conditions, including type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.
White breads, white rice, and nearly every cereal, baked good, and bread product from your local grocery store is made from refined grains.
Unlike whole grains, refined grains are high-glycemic index foods. (7) They quickly spike our blood sugar levels and increase the production of a variety of inflammatory compounds.
3. Artificial Sweeteners
Many people turn to zero-calorie sweetened drinks to avoid high fructose corn syrup and other added sugars. Unfortunately, when these drinks are flavored with artificial sweeteners, they too can damage the cells of your body.
One sweetener initially marketed as a safe alternative to aspartame, for instance, was Splenda, which contains sucralose. In preliminary studies, however, sucralose was found to induce liver inflammation in mice and acesulfame-potassium to alter gut health and potentially contribute to obesity and chronic inflammation in mice. (10)
Researchers have also found evidence that similar damage may occur when humans consume artificial sweeteners. Daily consumption of diet drinks sweetened with artificial sweeteners was associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, two of the most common inflammatory disorders. (8)
Much more research is needed to understand how, exactly, these products impact us, but many researchers caution against the assumption that these zero-calorie sweeteners are safe for our health.
4. Non-Organic Foods
We live in the industrial farming age. While large-scale farming advances have doubtlessly resulted in our ability to feed more people than the earth could support otherwise, it has unfortunately also resulted in foods that are less healthy for us to eat.
If you eat food that isn’t organic, you’re ingesting lots of questionable man-made chemicals, primarily pesticides.
While many large companies would like for us to believe that these compounds are 100% safe in small doses, research and history suggest that consumers should be wary of these compounds. It is also of note that much of the research deeming them “safe” have been conducted by the companies that profit off of their use and development. (11)
We don’t grow food the way that it was meant to be grown. Walk through a forest and you’ll notice that all types of plants grow interspersed. Yet driving through vast expanses of farmland, you’ll see giant sections of monoculture—a practice where only one plant is grown.
Monoculture has been found to attract more insect pests than a field growing a variety of plants, although the exact reason remains up for debate. (9) Farmers spray large quantities of poisons known as pesticides to kill pests, allowing these food crops to survive long enough to produce their cash crop.
Some crops, known as GMO crops, have an altered genome that allows them to be sprayed with even more of these poisonous chemicals than a plant without that altered genome. (12) Even more disturbingly, many of the most common crops are being produced with synthetic pesticides grown inside of them as part of their DNA. No matter how well you wash, you won’t be able to reduce the amount of pesticides you consume from these crops.
Research suggests that some of these pesticides, virtually unavoidable in non-organic produce, can lead to health damage, including inflammation. (11) By consuming small, continuous doses of these proinflammatory synthetic chemicals, we can experience low-grade chronic inflammation.
5. Certain Types of Fats
Not long ago, a low-fat craze overtook the nation. You’d find every type of food imaginable with their fats stripped away (and, unfortunately, replaced with sugar). We now understand that fat in and of itself is not a danger to our health…but certain fats are.
In order to limit inflammation and protect your health, there are three categories of fats that you should try to limit or avoid:
1. Artificial Trans Fats
Trans fats are a type of fat that humans created to increase the stability and shelf life of certain products. There is no amount of this fat that is good for your health.
Study after study has found an increase in inflammation due to trans-fat consumption. (13) One human study found that inflammatory markers were 78% higher in woman who consumed large amounts of trans fats than in those who did not. (14)
Trans fats are often found in margarines and processed foods. When reading food labels, watch out for the term “partially hydrogenated” oils, as this is a term for trans fats.
2. Saturated Fats
Unlike trans fats, not all saturated fats are bad for your health. However, too many saturated fats can harm your health and lead to inflammation. (15)
Saturated fats are those that are solid at room temperature, such as bacon fat and coconut oil. You’ll also find them in whole-fat dairy products.
The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 6% of your daily calories from saturated fat. (16)
3. Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fatty acids are an essential fatty acid, meaning that we humans must obtain them from our diet. The problem is that we eat far too many of them.
When broken down in the body, omega-6 fatty acids play an important part in promoting inflammation, while their sister, omega-3 fatty acids, play a role in reducing inflammation.
When we consume too many omega-6 fatty acids and too few omega-3 fatty acids, we promote inflammation. (17)
The following foods are high in omega-6 fatty acids:
- Vegetable oils, such as soybean, safflower, and corn oils
- Dairy products, such as milk, ice cream, cheese, and butter
Research suggests that an ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is about 1:1, meaning that we should eat equal amounts of these types of fats. We will go into more detail about omega-3 fatty acids when we discuss foods that combat inflammation.
A glass of wine with dinner is unlikely to pose a real danger to your health; in fact, it may even provide some benefits. But when one drink turns into three or more, you’ve crossed into dangerous territory. (18)
Researchers in Porto, Portugal used inflammatory markers and a questionnaire to examine the relationship between alcohol consumption and inflammation. Women who drank 30 grams/day of alcohol or more—which is about three drinks worth—showed far higher levels of inflammation than non-drinkers. Interestingly, women who drank roughly one drink per day showed the lowest levels of inflammation.
For men, the same study indicated that the more alcohol ingested, the higher the inflammation. Even one drink per day correlated with higher inflammatory markers.
Why the difference between men and women? It could be differences in what the sexes drank, differences in biology, or something else altogether. Further research is needed to determine if this finding carries over to other populations, and if it does, what the reason might be.
Another important finding in regards to alcohol and inflammation is that high alcohol consumption is associated with increased intestinal permeability, or what is colloquially known as “leaky gut.” (19) Leaky gut is a condition wherein small, toxic compounds escape the digestive tract and wreak havoc on the body. Tissue damage and inflammation can occur when toxic compounds escape the digestive tract.
7. Processed Foods
Processed foods make up an inordinately large portion of the standard American diet. Processed foods contribute to inflammation thanks to their ingredients, processing methods, and packaging. (20)
Let’s start by examining the ingredients in processed foods. Between numerous synthetic chemicals, high quantities of added sugar (typically in the form of high fructose corn syrup), trans fats, unhealthy vegetable oils, and very high levels of sodium, processed foods are jam-packed with proinflammatory compounds.
What’s more, in order to extend shelf life and increase palatability, most of these foods are processed in such a way as to remove any redeeming nutrients that were there to begin with. Vitamins, minerals, fiber, and many other nutrients are stripped away, requiring them to be fortified with enough nutrients so that those who eat them won’t become deficient.
One example of this refortification is seen in white bread. White bread is made from wheat from which the bran and germ—the two nutrient-dense parts of wheat—have been stripped out. To this now nutrient-free bread, a wide array of synthetic chemicals are added to improve how quickly it can be made, its palatability, or its shelf life. Some of these, such as potassium bromate, have demonstrated proinflammatory properties in animal studies. (21)
Lastly, if your food is packaged in a can or plastic wrapping, it has come into contact with countless synthetic chemicals. Some of these are completely harmless, but others, like BPA, have demonstrated proinflammatory properties in multiple studies. (22)
8. Fast Food
Undoubtedly the worst category of food in regards to chronic inflammation is fast food. It’s packed with high fructose corn syrup, trans and omega-6 fatty acids, sodium, artificial sweeteners, and dubious synthetic chemicals. (23)
Even the salad dressings, jams, and ketchups have HFCS in them, and they don’t tend to offer organic options.
Fast food is particularly dangerous for our health because it’s designed to be hyper-palatable. (24) Fast food conglomerates have spent inordinate amounts of money to find out how to make us eat more than we should and crave their food.
Their research has resulted in an increasing incidence of food addiction, wherein we experience strong cravings for excess unhealthy food. When it comes to fast food, the best thing to do is to avoid it whenever possible. This is an imperative step when it comes to getting chronic inflammation under control.
Research reveals that chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation, which then leads to the development of chronic illnesses. (25) And in our modern world, few of us don’t feel some type of stress every day.
Rush hour traffic, arguments with family or friends, financial difficulties, and being spread too thin are just a few examples of the stressors that we’re often confronted with.
But have you ever noticed that the way your body and mind react to these mental struggles isn’t exactly helpful? Cursing or honking your horn when traffic has stopped does nothing except make your blood pressure continue to rise.
The reason that we respond to emotional struggles in a way that doesn’t seem congruent with the situation is that our stress response evolved to help us deal with physical, not mental, dangers.
Our Bodies Aren’t Meant to Deal with Continuous Stress
Many thousands of years ago, the stressors that our ancestors came into contact with were those that posed a real, physical danger. This response is known as the fight-or-flight response, and it’s designed to help you get away from danger alive, at any cost. (25)
Your heart races, delivering oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood to your extremities. Your vision sharpens and your muscles contract, preparing your body to run or fight.
In prioritizing this fight-or-flight response, your body halts digestion and reduces your immune response to things like cold or flu viruses. All of your resources are diverted to where they’re needed the most…were you in physical danger, that is.
But in our modern world, we very rarely need to respond to physical threats. Instead, your body responds the exact same way that it would have when encountering a tiger, except now the “emergency” is that a creditor is calling or you have a meeting with your boss.
When one stressful thing follows another, your body doesn’t have time to return back to normal. Your blood pressure rises, your digestion suffers, and your body starts to become damaged.
While the exact pathways are still being researched, scientists agree that chronic stress results in an inability to regulate the inflammatory response. (26) Over time, this results in damaging inflammation throughout your brain and body. This damage can lead to fatigue, mood troubles, digestive problems, difficulty thinking, and more.
Lack of Sleep
We all know that it’s important to get a good night’s rest, yet few of us actually do it. Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night, but a 2016 poll across the US found that 1 in 3 adults regularly gets fewer than 7 hours of sleep. (27)
Some of us struggle with insomnia, a condition that makes it hard to fall asleep or sleep soundly. Others simply prioritize other things over sleep. Things we end up choosing to do instead of sleeping run the gamut from binge-watching tv shows, to getting ahead at work, to staying out too late with friends.
But did you know that sleep plays a huge role in your inflammatory response? (28)
Insufficient sleep duration and sleep quality have both been tied to the pathogenesis of multiple inflammatory diseases. Researchers have found that sleep difficulties result in a proinflammatory response.
What’s more, when you don’t get enough sleep you’re more likely to indulge in excess unhealthy foods, which also results in inflammation. (29) This is thanks to a change in your hormones; just one night of sleep deprivation results in an increase in ghrelin, a hormone that makes you feel hungry.
By this point, we all understand that we shouldn’t smoke cigarettes. Unfortunately, they are so addictive that this knowledge isn’t enough to stop the 15 out of every 100 Americans currently smoking. (30)
If you need another reason to put that pack down for good, you’ve come to the right place. Recent evidence suggests that the missing link between smoking and the countless chronic diseases that it’s been shown to cause is likely one thing: inflammation. (31)
When you smoke, neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) are released. These NETs damage tissue throughout your body. Whether or not you exhibit signs of a chronic disease, if you smoke cigarettes, your body is being barraged by proinflammatory NETs every time you light up.
Not Moving Enough
Physical activity is important for our happiness and health. Humans were built to spend much of the day walking, farming, hunting, or taking care of children. We weren’t meant to spend daylight hours indoors, bent over a desk, and nighttime hours sitting in front of a television.
As technology has expanded, so has sedentary behavior. We can go hours, days, or weeks without even leaving our homes! Even our children and grandchildren don’t encourage us to get moving the way they used to. With phones, laptop computers, and gaming systems to keep them and us entertained, we seem to be glued in place, even when we leave the house.
Researchers have long known that a sedentary lifestyle increases our risk of most every chronic illness, particularly cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. (32) They now believe that it may be the low-grade inflammation that results from a lazy lifestyle that causes this damage.
Environmental Toxins: The Unique Challenges of Living in an Industrialized World.
Air pollution, synthetic chemicals in the products we buy, and heavy metals and other contaminants in our food and water all prompt an increased inflammatory response in our bodies.
When compared to the horrible air quality in countries like India and China, the air in locations such as the United States may seem harmless. Unfortunately, if you live near forest fires, highways, non-organic farmland, or power plants, you too are exposed to unhealthy levels of outdoor air pollution. (35)
Those of us who live in the suburbs and spend hours commuting by car or bus each week are breathing in tiny particles which elicit an inflammatory response. And when we experience this daily, chronic inflammation is the result.
To reduce your outdoor pollution exposure:
- Drive with your windows up and the fan on circulate
- Do not run or bike next to busy roads
- Stay inside during ozone alerts and rush hour, keeping your windows shut
Moreover, indoor air too can be packed full of particles known to cause inflammation; it’s often even worse in quality than outdoor air. (36) Some of the toxic compounds found in indoor air come from: (37)
- Building materials that contain toxic chemicals like asbestos or lead
- Furnishings that are often coated in flame retardants
- Cleaning products and synthetic fragrances made with toxic ingredients
- Mold, radon, or other contaminants which we may or may not be aware of
- AC, heating, and humidifier units release inflammatory particles into the air
To reduce your indoor pollution exposure:
- Keep your windows shut during ozone alerts, rush hour traffic, or forest fires
- Buy natural cleaning products, candles, and other fragrances
- Use filters, including a HEPA vacuum filter, indoor air purifiers, and new filters for your AC and heating units
- Air out your indoor air by opening windows and doors when pollution levels are low
- Look for non-toxic mattresses, pillows, furniture, and flooring when you’re shopping
Products We Buy
Nearly every consumer good contains compounds known to be inflammatory, or synthetic chemicals that have yet to be studied for safety. Only a small fraction of the 85,000 chemicals used today in the products we buy have been tested for safety! (38,39)
Some of the common products that you should use caution when purchasing are:
- Cleaning products
- Anything with “fragrance,” such as perfumes, air fresheners, dryer sheets, and candles
- Makeup and nail polish
- Plastic kitchenware (baby bottles, food storage containers, cookware, silverware, and more)
- Nonstick cookware
- Canned goods
The best thing to do? Do some research before you go shopping for anything new. There are all-natural makeup and cleaning product brands, glass food storage containers, baby bottles that are BPA-free, and safer cookware options (such as stainless steel).
It’s easy to assume that the water that comes out of our pipes is safe, but recent tragedies and research suggest otherwise.
Take the water poisoning of citizens in Flint, Michigan, where tap water was contaminated with lead from the pipes and the bacteria E. coli. (40) And if you think this is an isolated and uncommon event, it may surprise you to know that at least 4 million households across the US are exposed to too much lead in their drinking water. (41)
In a three-year study conducted by the Environmental Water Group, hundreds of contaminants were found in tap water across the US. (42) These included unregulated chemicals, industrial solvents, and even perchlorate, which is used in rocket fuel.
Because heavy metal and toxic chemical exposure can result in inflammation, it may be wise to filter your water to reduce your likelihood of exposure. (43)
Autoimmune Disorders and Inflammation
Autoimmune diseases are chronic inflammatory conditions that occur when your immune system attacks its own cells. (44) Exactly what causes this type of “self-attack” is unknown, but genetics, sex, ethnicity, diet, and environment all contribute to your susceptibility.
When your body attacks itself, your immune system targets different parts of the body. These areas of the body are then slowly broken down as a result of immune-system mediated chronic inflammation.
Different autoimmune disorders target different parts of the body, such as your joints, muscles, nerves, thyroid, and more. Some of the more prevalent autoimmune diseases include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Type-1 diabetes
- Irritable bowel disease (IBD)
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Celiac disease
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
With an estimated 20% of the population in the US suffering from an autoimmune disease, you may even suffer from one without realizing it. (45)
The symptoms vary widely from one condition to the next, due to different parts of the body being targeted, but some of the common early signs are: (44)
- Weight loss
- Weight gain
- Cognitive troubles
- Brain fog
- Skin rashes
- Achy joints or muscles
- Digestive issues
- Swollen glands
- Tingling or numbness in your hands or feet
If you experience more than one of the above symptoms and cannot seem to shake them no matter what steps you take, you may be suffering from chronic inflammation tied to an autoimmune disease.
Genetics and Personal History Influence Inflammation
Chronic inflammation can be caused by things other your lifestyle. Your genes, how much you weigh, and whether or not you’ve been impacted by certain pathogens can determine how much inflammation you experience.
Most of us could stand to lose a little weight, particularly the fat that accumulates around our mid-sections, called visceral fat. Visceral fat, in particular, is a risk factor for chronic disease.
Thanks to its reputation, we often consider our fat cells villains that we want to destroy. But our adipose tissue, also known as our fat cells, do more than store excess energy as fat. This tissue plays a role in our metabolism and immune systems, with immune cells actually residing in our adipose tissue. (46)
The influence of our fat cells on our immune systems and metabolism is so important that researchers consider our adipose tissue a bona fide immune organ!
When we’re slim, our adipose tissue releases anti-inflammatory compounds, but when we’re overweight, we can experience adipose tissue disorders that result in a change of function.
When we gain fat, our fat cells, called adipocytes, actually grow. These hypertrophied adipocytes, or enlarged fat cells, are known to release proinflammatory cytokines, a type of molecule involved in the inflammatory process. This also changes the immune cells found in adipose tissue, resulting in increased systemic inflammation and insulin sensitivity.
What this means is that those who are overweight are likely to suffer from chronic, low-grade inflammation independent of other factors. This inflammation has a name, “metabolic inflammation,” and it has been shown to play a role in insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
You might be wondering, how much of all of this is within my control? Aren’t some people more likely to experience chronic inflammation simply by the default of the genes they were born with?
Because there are so many factors that influence inflammation, it’s hard to say just how much your genetics matter. One thing is for certain: many factors that contribute to chronic inflammation are at least partially influenced by your genes.
Two of the contributors to chronic inflammation, obesity and autoimmune diseases, are partly influenced by genetics.
When it comes to obesity, there are countless genes that play a role, although hardwired obesity is very rare. Research suggests that anywhere from 6% to 85% of obesity-related phenotypes is attributable to the genes that we inherit. (47)
As for autoimmune diseases, the likelihood of being diagnosed with one does increase if someone in your immediate family has one. (48) Some autoimmune diseases appear to be more heritable (passed on through genes) than others, but none of them are fully heritable.
It’s important to remember that there are many factors other than genetics that contribute to your likelihood of being overweight or developing an autoimmune disease or one of the many other diseases linked to chronic inflammation. For each of these, how you live and what you have been exposed to are critical components.
In fact, how we live has a direct result on which of our genes are expressed. In a 2014 study, researchers found that eating fried foods could actually alter gene expression, in effect turning on obesity genes in those who were susceptible. (49) This study gives hope that our actions may be able to trump some of the genetic lottery.
Chronic Infections: When Pathogens Create Chronic Inflammation
Pathogens are the little microorganisms that make us sick. They can be bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. When we contract any illness, our immune systems are activated to kill it off. During this response, inflammation occurs through multiple pathways. (50)
Most of the time, our immune systems completely eradicate the pathogen, shutting down the immune response and turning off the inflammation. Once in a while, however, a pathogenic illness become chronic. (51)
Chronic infections may continuously stay around or come and go, each time eliciting an immune response. Some of the most common chronic infections are those caused by herpes, HIV, lyme disease, hepatitis, urinary tract infections, and candida.
To the extent that it’s possible, working to treat the underlying infection can help those with chronic illnesses reduce the damage caused by continuous inflammation. Making concurrent lifestyle changes can help to further subdue the inflammation.
Our Digestive Tract in Inflammation and Disease
The health of your gut is critical when it comes to managing inflammation throughout your body. (52) Each of our digestive tracts is home to trillions of microorganisms known as our gut microbiome. This community of microorganisms is important to our digestive health and protects us from pathogens found in the food and water we consume.
When this community is healthy, the digestive process goes smoothly. Pathogens, whether bacterial, viral, or fungal, are removed without our immune systems initiating an inflammatory response.
Another key player in the digestive process is the mucosa that lines our digestive tracts. This mucus keeps pathogens and other small particles from escaping through the lining of our digestive tracts and provides a home for some of our gut microbiome.
Stress and what we eat influence the diversity and population of the bacteria in our digestive tracts and the health of our digestive mucosal lining. When we eat heavily processed foods, such as frozen pizzas, fast food, or twinkies, the bacteria in our guts shift from what we call good bacteria (those that are beneficial to our digestive health) to bad bacteria, and the protective mucus can break down. Similar changes happen when we experience continuous stress.
Over time, this change in the health of our digestive tracts leads to both local and systemic inflammation. Part of this is due to proinflammatory compounds released by the bad bacteria, while other inflammation is caused by pathogens and small particles escaping our digestive tracts.
When these tiny microorganisms and particles escape through our gut lining and enter our bloodstream, it’s known as “leaky gut.” Our immune systems are then triggered to go and subdue the particles that escape, causing both local and systemic chronic inflammation.
Part 3: Fighting Inflammation
In the modern world, nearly everyone is experiencing some level of chronic inflammation. As we grow older, it’s this inflammation that increases our risk of developing a chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease, neurological diseases, type 2 diabetes, or arthritis.
Even for those of us fortunate enough to avoid developing a major inflammatory disease, we can still suffer from symptoms of low-grade chronic inflammation. A lack of mental clarity, fatigue, and aches and pains, are all signs that our bodies are in an inflamed state. Plus, the more inflammation we have in our bodies, the faster we age, both mentally and physically. (53)
If you suspect that you have chronic inflammation, the first step is finding out what’s going on. By understanding how inflammation is impacting your wellbeing, you can formulate a plan for getting back to the healthiest, happiest, most energetic version of you.
Diagnosing Inflammation and Related Conditions
Diagnosing chronic inflammation and related diseases typically includes a visit during which you and your doctor discuss your medical history and symptoms. The next steps typically include blood tests, and sometimes a referral to a specialist.
There are several blood tests that your doctor can run to determine and track the level of inflammation in your body. These tests allow you to see where you are now and help you track your progress as you adopt an anti-inflammatory lifestyle and supplement program.
Some common inflammatory blood tests include:
- Fasting Insulin: This is a common test used to detect pre-diabetes. Abnormal levels of insulin also hint at inflammation and may indicate metabolic syndrome.
- C-Reactive Protein (CRP): You’ll often hear of CRP being used as a measure to determine inflammation in human studies. An elevated CRP indicates that you’re experiencing either chronic or acute inflammation. CRP testing can help to diagnose and monitor certain chronic inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or heart disease. (54)
- Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR): This is a non-specific test that uses the rate at which red blood cells sink in a test tube to determine if you’re experiencing inflammation.
- Serum Protein Electrophoresis (SPE): SPE is a good test to determine if you have chronic inflammation. It does so by measuring the levels of certain proteins.
Depending on your symptoms, other tests may be used, including X-rays, MRIs, and colonoscopies.
Does Testing Really Work?
While testing can be helpful, the tests available today still can’t provide a full picture of the body’s inflammatory response, which can leave many patients knowing that something is wrong, but not knowing exactly what it is.
This is no better exemplified than by how difficult diagnosis of an autoimmune disease can be. Remember that autoimmune diseases are those marked by an immune system that attacks its own body, creating a cascade of inflammation-mediated damage.
When those who suspect that they have an autoimmune disease go to their primary care physician, it’s not uncommon for their symptoms to be brushed off as normal. It often takes 6 or more doctors and countless tests before a diagnosis is made, and some people who have an autoimmune disease may never get a specific diagnosis. (55)
Don’t let this discourage you, however, from using inflammatory testing to monitor your progress. While they are not perfect, they can be incredibly helpful.
The Conventional Medicinal Approach
So, you’ve been diagnosed with chronic inflammation or a related inflammatory disease, like rheumatoid arthritis or metabolic syndrome. What happens next?
Your doctor will likely give you a cocktail of prescription and non-prescription medications combined with vague and antiquated healthy living tips.
Drugs Used for Inflammation
There are multiple types of prescription medications for inflammatory diseases. These medications can range from corticosteroids, a type of steroid used to treat inflammation, swelling, and allergic reactions, to immunosuppressive drugs, which are drugs used for autoimmune disorders that dampen your immune response.
These drugs are often accompanied by many side effects and interactions with other medications. Additionally, they’re typically not 100% effective at slowing disease progression or relieving symptoms. This leaves many suffering continually with pain, fatigue, and brain fog, in spite of taking prescription pills.
In order to provide moderate pain-relief, doctors may recommend that you use over-the-counter painkillers. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the drug-of-choice due to their ability to relieve inflammation.
The problem is this: NSAIDs should not be used in large quantities or for extended periods of time. Their use is associated with gastrointestinal bleeding, renal damage, heart attacks, and strokes. (56) Furthermore, pain is only one of many pesky symptoms caused by inflammation, so once you add in medications taken for other symptoms, the list of side effects and potential drug interactions can be overwhelming.
Conventional Medicine’s Vague and Outdated Healthy Living Tips
Most likely, neither your primary care doctor nor your specialist, whether endocrinologist, rheumatologist, or otherwise, are experts in healthy living. This is largely because conventional medical doctors are trained primarily on how to identify diseases and use medications to treat them.
They do not receive much, if any, education in nutrition, particularly on how to use nutrition to battle chronic illnesses. The average medical student receives just 23.9 hours of nutrition instruction—that’s only three full workdays dedicated to nutrition! (57)
Compound this lack of initial nutrition education with little to no continuing education in this subject and you’re left with medical professionals who know very little about how to use lifestyle to reduce inflammation.
If you want more than medications that are meant to mask your disease symptoms (for which most conventional drugs are insufficient in the first place), the responsibility falls on you.
Fortunately, those of us in the world of integrative medicine are continuing to learn natural ways to fight the chronic inflammation that most of us are living with. By targeting the root of the problem—inflammation—instead of its symptoms, you can start your journey towards a healthier life.
Integrative and Holistic Medicine Part 1: Lifestyle Changes
Just as lifestyle is involved in the development of chronic inflammation, it can be used to combat the inflammation that’s already taken hold. By slowly changing how you live, you can target inflammation at its source.
Read on to learn about the four primary changes you can make to begin your journey to optimal health.
1. Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
It seems like everywhere you turn, someone is touting a new way of eating, telling us that everything we’ve ever done is wrong. Some tell us to eat lots of fats and no fruits, others to never consume an ounce of dairy or meat again. But when it comes to eating a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet, there is good news:
A healthy diet is not that complicated.
The central idea is this: eat more whole foods and fewer fake foods. “Fake food” refers to many of the staples of the standard American diet, like processed food, fast food, and added sugar.
Whole foods are those that come naturally from the Earth. Any whole food, including meat, fish, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are going to be a better option than processed and fast food options.
That isn’t to say that you can eat steak and bacon day-in-and-day-out and be all set. There are certain whole foods that are better for us than others.
Some of the most powerful anti-inflammatory whole foods include: (58)
- Vegetables, particularly green, leafy veggies
- Fruits, particularly berries
- Herbs and spices
- Whole grains
- Wild-caught fish, particularly salmon
- Nuts and seeds
- Fermented foods
There is one diet that includes many anti-inflammatory foods and few foods that are bad for you: the Mediterranean diet. (59) This diet is rich in plant foods, fish, and healthy oils.
In a study published in 2016, patients with type 2 diabetes were assigned to one of two diets: a Mediterranean diet or a low fat diet. (59) After one year of dietary adherence, those on the Mediterranean diet exhibited lower levels of inflammatory markers, while those on the low-fat diet didn’t see any change.
What’s great about the Mediterranean diet is that it’s full of a variety of tasty foods and it’s easy to follow, no matter where you live. You could spend the rest of your life eating this way and not feel like you’re missing out on the joys that delicious foods provide.
Most of us already eat some of these foods. The trick is to slowly crowd out unhealthy options, like refined carbs, sugars, processed foods, and fast food, with these healthier food choices.
Now, if you’re accustomed to the standard American diet, it can definitely take some time to get used to. Fortunately, there are ways to change what types of food you crave, and with them, your habits and your dietary preferences.
How to Change Your Food Cravings
Many of us identify ourselves by the foods that we like. Maybe we think we’re chocolate people, hamburger connoisseurs, or, for the lucky few, salad-a-holics.
But recent research suggests that it’s not our minds that are telling us that we love these foods—it’s a community of tiny organisms that call our guts home. (60) And if we stick to it, we can change these gut organisms from a community of processed-food junkies to veggie lovers.
Let me explain…
Each of us is home to a community of trillions of microorganisms, most of whom live inside of our digestive tracts. We have co-evolved with these little guys since the beginning of human history, and they are critical for our overall health and wellbeing.
They help us digest foods we couldn’t on our own, they release chemicals that regulate our moods, and they do much more that helps to keep us alive and healthy.
Now, what we eat dictates which microorganisms flourish. When we eat fiber-rich foods, healthy bacteria that fight inflammation actually grow in number. The more fiber we eat, like garlic, onions, whole grains, and veggies, the more of these healthy bacteria there are.
But if you eat lots of processed food and simple sugars, other bacteria flourish—ones that contribute to inflammation and disease. The more fast food you eat, the more of these proinflammatory bacteria there are.
And when either group of bacteria is hungry, they send signals to try and get you to feed them. So when you feed the good guys, eventually you’ll actually start to crave foods like broccoli and fruit!
But if you keep feeding the bad bacteria, you’ll continue to crave sodas, sweets, and other unhealthy foods.
This is great news, because it means that we can actually change the types of foods that we crave. By sticking to a healthy diet for just a couple of weeks in a row, it will become easier! No matter how unhealthy your food cravings are now, you have the power to change them.
2. Get Moving
Exercise is one of those things that we all know we need, but few of us do enough of. Exercise can help us lose weight, reduce our risk of chronic disease, boost our mood, and even help us sleep better.
A recent study published in the journal, Brain, Behaviour, and Immunity reported that as little as 20 minutes of exercise can help to support our immune systems. (61)
In this study, participants walked on a treadmill for 20 minutes at an individualized moderate intensity. Following exercise, researchers found a reduction in cytokine production—cytokines are proteins that induce inflammation.
This study demonstrates that we do not need to go to extremes to reap the anti-inflammatory benefits of exercise. While running as hard as you can or pumping iron until you can go no longer both offer unique and impressive benefits, even a daily walk can help you take control of your body’s inflammatory response.
3. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is another one of those things that we often fail to get enough of. Just as insufficient sleep can lead to increased inflammation, getting enough sleep can help to counter it.
Getting plenty of sleep can be tricky though, particularly for those of us with chronic inflammatory conditions. (62) Studies suggest that people with autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and neurological diseases often experience disturbed sleep.
If you have trouble getting enough sleep due to an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night, there are a handful of natural methods that you can try to improve your quantity and quality of sleep.
Some of these include:
- Reduce nighttime light exposure: Humans are sensitive to light, particularly blue light. Blue light is emitted by our computer, tv, and phone screens. It can also come from certain types of lights, particularly fluorescent lights. Limiting your exposure to light as long before bedtime as you can will help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. (63)
- Sleep at the same time each night: Each of our bodies is largely controlled by something called our circadian rhythm. This cycle is in charge of when we feel sleepy, when we’re alert, hormone regulation, and more. It gets thrown off when we do not sleep at the same time each day. By aiming to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, you can work to get your internal clock working properly. (64)
- Align your sleep hours with nighttime: Unless you have a job that prohibits it or you live somewhere with long days or nights, you should try to go to sleep when it’s dark out and wake up with, or slightly before, the sunrise. (64) When we sleep when it’s dark and wake up before it’s already light out, we help to realign our circadian rhythm.
- Meditate before bed: It’s hard to quiet the mind before bedtime. This is particularly true if you are checking your email or text messages before bed, or watching something that is scary or otherwise stimulating. Wrap up your day 15 minutes to an hour before bedtime and use the time right before sleep to meditate. This will help you to calm your mind and body, preparing you for sleep. (65)
- Take a hot bath or shower 60-90 minutes before bedtime: Warming your body about an hour before bedtime will trick it into releasing chemicals that help to lull you to sleep. Studies have found that a nighttime bath can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. (66)
Getting the right quantity and quality of sleep is difficult for many of us, however it’s important for your overall health and inflammatory status that you do what you can to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night. Small improvements to your sleep routine can eventually lead to restful, restorative sleep.
4. Reduce Stress
Our thoughts and our physical health are bidirectionally connected. When we’re sick or injured, we usually become down or depressed. Similarly, when we’re stressed, anxious, or depressed, the health of our bodies can suffer.
Researchers have found that emotional stress inhibits the body’s ability to regulate inflammation. (67) If you’re a constant worrier or if you’re going through a difficult period in your life, your emotional state can result in inflammation. When your stress is a constant thing, this acute inflammation can turn chronic.
If you want to reduce inflammatory damage to your body, it’s important to learn to manage stress. While there is no simple way to eradicate stress from your life, there are many things that you can do to improve how your body copes with stress: (68,69)
- Exercise: Movement has been shown to help reduce the negative impacts of stress.
- Meditate: Meditation is an ancient practice of calming the mind that can help to lessen our feelings of stress.
- Socialize: Spending time with others elicits the release of neurotransmitters that can help to improve how we feel.
- Do More of What You Love: Whether you love travelling, playing cards, or watching sports, spending more time on the activities that bring you joy and help to lessen how much stress you experience.
While everyone responds to stress differently, learning ways to help quiet your mind and allow yourself to be relaxed and happy will bring down the inflammation in your body, all while helping to make every day more enjoyable.
Integrative and Holistic Medicine Part 2: Natural Supplements
For thousands of years, traditional medicinal practices all around the world have utilized the power of plants and fungi to help improve human health and wellbeing. We’re quite fortunate to live during a time when these prized plant medicines, once only available in the regions in which they were grown, are available to all of us.
Recent research has elucidated the ways in which many of these herbal remedies work, allowing us to pick and choose the best supplements from around the world for our needs. This understanding provides a basis for us to explore the best ways to combine different herbs to obtain the greatest benefit.
We have chosen our 10 favorite natural supplements from around the world that are incredibly beneficial for the health of our immune systems and the regulation of our inflammatory response. By combining these powerful plant medicines together, you can work to reduce chronic inflammation and start on a path towards wellness.
Raw cocoa extract is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory natural extracts that there is. (70) Cocoa helps to regulate an overactive immune system thanks to its high concentration of beneficial plant compounds known as polyphenols.
#2: Green Tea
Green tea is incredibly rich in catechins, plant compounds that exhibit a wide range of benefits for human health. (71) One of these catechins, EGC gallate, or EGCG, has demonstrated an ability to modulate the immune system, reducing inflammation and supporting healthy immune function.
#3: Boswellia Tree Extract
The resin taken from the Boswellia serrata tree has demonstrated efficacy at helping to treat chronic inflammatory diseases by reducing inflammation. (72) This resin has been used for centuries in folk medicine for exactly this purpose.
Quercetin is a flavonoid found in many different plants. (73) It’s benefits include reducing inflammation and related inflammatory pain while strengthening the immune system. Quercetin can also boost the bioavailability of other anti-inflammatory compounds, making it a great addition to any anti-inflammatory diet and supplement plan.
Resveratrol is the polyphenol in red wine that’s credited with much of its health benefits and is primarily known for its exceptional antioxidant potential. When it comes to our immune systems, resveratrol has been found to dampen the inflammatory response. Both human and animal studies suggest that resveratrol may be particularly beneficial for those with autoimmune diseases, by actually reducing or halting disease progression. (74)
#6: Tart Cherry Extract
Tart cherry extract is a unique flavonoid that comes from the Prunus cerasus tree. It can help to reduce the aches, pains, and stiffness that come from chronic inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis. (75) Additionally, tart cherry extract has demonstrated an ability to improve immune system function. (76)
Turmeric is the bright yellow/orange spice that gives curry much of its color and flavor. Recently, the popularity of this spice has taken off, and for good reason. Research indicates that turmeric can help to manage chronic inflammatory conditions thanks to its strong anti-inflammatory properties. (77)
Probiotics are supplements that contain living bacteria that have demonstrated benefits for human health. (78) They exert these benefits on your digestive tract, both while passing through, and for a small number that make your gut their home.
Taking probiotics can help to improve gut health and inflammation throughout the body. By enhancing our digestive health, probiotics may help those suffering from a variety of inflammatory conditions, including multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
#9: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly those found in cold-water fatty fish (EPA and DHA), have been shown to battle inflammation and enhance immune cell function, benefiting the entire immune system. (79) Many of the health benefits associated with the consumption of wild-caught salmon and other cold-water fatty fish are thought to be largely due to their omega-3 fatty acid content.
Berberine is a bioactive compound found in a variety of different plants that has been used for thousands of years in traditional medicine in India and China. It’s an anti-inflammatory compound that has shown promise in reducing cigarette-induced inflammation, as well as that caused by “leaky gut.” (80,81) Researchers believe berberine may help those with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and that it may also aid in weight loss. (82)
Putting it all Together: Your Plan to Regain Your Health and Stop Inflammation in Its Tracks
Chronic inflammation and its consequences may seem like an inevitable part of life, but by making small, lasting changes, you can begin to reverse damage and regain control of your life and your health.
Depending on where you are in your journey, you may or may not be ready to implement everything that you’ve learned here. When it comes to making lasting changes, it’s all about forming new habits.
Rather than try to change everything about the way you live, why not pick one new thing to implement every week? This could be removing some of the proinflammatory sources in your life, or adding in some anti-inflammatory foods or supplements.
Here are some simple changes that you could make to take action against the high levels of inflammation in your body and how they make you feel:
- Replace one meal each day with a salad or healthy smoothie
- Give up drinks with added sugar or artificial sweeteners
- Take a 20 minute walk every day before work, at lunch, or when you get home
- Stop using electronic screens one hour before bedtime
- Add in a daily anti-inflammatory supplement
- Replace synthetic air fresheners with essential oil diffusers
- Buy all-natural cleaning products
If you’re ready to regain mental clarity, reduce aches and pains, and feel energetic without having to resort to caffeine, all you need to do is work to implement small changes in the way you live. While it may seem like a big task, it’s powerful to know that you have the ability to help yourself find relief and begin to feel the way you’ve always known you should.
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