Inflammation: Friend or Foe?
It’s true: inflammation lies at the heart of many chronic conditions today. Obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, autoimmune disease, and depression are just a handful of conditions linked to inflammation, but what if I told you that it’s not really the bad guy? Let’s take a step back and consider that inflammation is a healthy response rather than a trigger of imbalance.
When Inflammation is Good
Our bodies are made to maintain balance, or homeostasis. As we move about the world, we encounter a number of inputs every single minute: temperature changes, energy needs, painful stimuli, hormone balance, and more. Amazingly, our bodies make immediate biochemical changes that are usually so effective that we never stop to think about how they work.
Inflammation develops when the body senses an injury or an invader, like a bacteria, virus, or other foreign substance. To maintain homeostasis, an inflammatory response develops to locate, identify, respond and heal (or attack, in the case of an invader) the area. Without inflammation, we wouldn’t clot or heal from wounds. We wouldn’t develop a fever or mount our own internal army to destroy viruses or bacteria. Honestly, we probably wouldn’t survive very long.
When Inflammation is Bad
So, if we can agree that inflammation is a healthy, necessary part of life then we can also agree that it can go very, very wrong sometimes. While the body fights to maintain internal homeostasis, it also must react to the outside environment. After all, we don’t live in bubbles! This is where stress, diet, sleep, anxiety, and other external inputs begin to exert their influence. We call this allostasis, a juggling of these external factors while still maintaining internal homeostasis to support our health. Like I said, our bodies are amazing!
As you can imagine, certain external inputs – stress and diet, for example – have either anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory influences on our bodies. Imagine that you have a boss who puts tremendous pressure on you and frequently yells when unexpected tasks arise. Your stress level would be through the roof, as might your heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels, and other markers of inflammation. Working for a few days or months in this environment might not have a long-term impact on your body. The body understands that this high stress is not normal, and fights to maintain balance in the midst of your environment.
Imagine that you are in this situation for years, or decades. At some point, your body starts to see those high cortisol levels as normal and it begins to make internal changes in other hormones or organ functions, all in an attempt at balance. The inflammatory response is now chronic, and since the stress is not stopping, the inflammation and imbalance continues to build.
6 Factors that Promote Inflammation
To recap, inflammation is a necessary and healthy response to a stimulus, vital to our survival. Identifying the trigger of the inflammation (the root cause) is vital to healing. Let’s take a look at some lifestyle factors that are pro-inflammatory in nature. The good news: these are things you can change by making some shifts in your daily routine!
1 – Foods High in Sugar
Sugar contains a lot of energy (calories) compared to the abysmal amount of nutrients it offers. Because of this, simple sugars and refined carbohydrates, which breakdown into sugar in the body, contribute to weight gain and obesity. This is a pro-inflammatory condition. Sugar also suppresses immune function for 2 – 4 hours after ingestion while refined carbs can lead to bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. As the link between healthy gut bacteria and immunity gains scientific traction, it’s clear how a diet high in sugar may lead to poor immune function and chronic inflammation.
2 – Fatty Acid Imbalance
You have probably heard of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Both are necessary in our diets, by the ideal ratio of omega-3: omega-6 fatty acids is 2:1. Unfortunately, the standard American diet contains an abundance of omega-6 fats from processed foods. Omega-3, found in fatty fish, some nuts, seeds, and their oils, is less abundant in typical American fare. Inadequate omega-3 fats, along with excess consumption of dairy and animal fats, high in arachidonic acid and saturated fats, leads to inflammation.
3 – Nutrient Deficiencies
Our bodies require nutrients for basic cellular functions, which include resolving inflammation and supporting immunity. The Mayo Clinic estimates that up to 65% of the population doesn’t get enough Vitamin D. This vitamin, available mostly through fortified foods and sunlight exposure, combats inflammation and protects against autoimmunity and the progression of osteoarthritis. Magnesium, which is responsible for over 300 biochemical reactions in the body, is lacking in 20-40% of most industrialized populations. Up to 84% of postmenopausal women are magnesium deficient, leading to increased inflammation and poor cellular function. Fiber is often missing in a diet rich in processed foods. Toxins are removed from the GI tract by fiber, which then carries them out for excretion out of the body. Along with phytonutrients, our anti-inflammatory antioxidants, fiber represents one of the body’s most vital tools for detoxification.
4 – Physical Inactivity
Physical inactivity is associated with an increased amount of adipose tissue (fat). Whether inactivity results in overweight, obesity, or low muscle mass (often called “skinny fat”), the result is pro-inflammatory. Fat cells actively create hormones, along with inflammatory markers within the body. In contrast, exercise reduces inflammation and improves insulin sensitivity (further reducing inflammation).function.
5 – Toxin Exposure
Toxins, such as xenobiotics found in our air, water, food, personal care products, and cleaning products, bind to cells within our bodies and hamper normal function. Not only can these toxins create inflammation, but they can also disrupt immune function.
6 – Stress & Poor Sleep
We all know how stress makes us feel. Even writing about the example of the yelling boss earlier in this post made me cringe! Stress promotes inflammation, suppresses the immune response, and can impair wound healing. Often stress and sleep go hand-in-hand in a vicious cycle: High stress will cause poor sleep, or poor sleep will induce stress. Sleep is restorative to our body, allowing it to heal from the day’s assaults. Both quality and quantity matter when it comes to sleep, with a lack in either capable of contributing to inflammation.
What’s Your Inflammation Story?
Is inflammation your friend or foe? Can you identify some factors that might be contributing to inflammation in your life? I’d love to hear your story, whether you’ve taken any steps toward healing, and how it’s working for you. I find that my own relationship with inflammation runs in cycles – sometimes I coexist with it just fine, and other times I feel tossed about in it’s waves. Just remember, there are factors you can work on to gain control of your own health and levels of inflammation.