Inflammation: The Sneaky Cause of Pain and Illness
What do think of when you hear the word “inflammation?” Maybe you think of red and swollen joints. Or, perhaps, the pain and fiery irritation from an injury come to mind. Maybe you remember a time of illness and think of fever, chills, and aches.
Undoubtedly, all of the above are forms of inflammation. However, inflammation can also be a sneaky invader, harming us unawares.
By definition, inflammation is the body's natural response to protect itself against harm. Acute inflammation occurs immediately following an injury or accompanies an illness or infection like pneumonia or the flu. White blood cells rush to the area of concern, surrounding it like an army of warriors.
Chronic inflammation, however, is often a low-grade, continuous burden in our bodies and is typically a response to an unwanted or undesirable substance. (We’ll get to those substances in just a moment.) It’s so problematic because it is insidious, and we often may not know exactly what is causing it.
Symptoms of Inflammation
The symptoms of chronic inflammation can also vary from person to person which is why it’s so darn sneaky and hard to “diagnose.” People may just feel a little “off” or chalk up their pain to aging.
Symptoms can range from achy joints, to skin issues like rashes and eczema, digestive problems, fatigue, excess weight or a “spare tire,” periodontal disease, brain fog, puffy face or eyes, and even depression or anxiety.
Unfortunately, if left unchecked, this constant barrage of irritation can also lead to conditions like atherosclerosis, lung disease, high blood pressure, or joint immobility. The list goes on and on.
Autoimmune conditions are also thought to be caused, in part, by excessive and chronic inflammation. When the body senses that toxins are present, it tries to eliminate or wall them off by forming inflammation around them. But sometimes problems with the immune system cause it to mistake the body’s own healthy cells as invaders and then repeatedly attacks them.
Cancer is another disease that is associated with chronic inflammation. Over time, this inflammatory response can lead to DNA damage at the cellular level. Once DNA is altered, the cells are no longer “normal” and can mutate into tumor cells. This is scary, to say the least!
If you’re wondering how much inflammation you have in your body, your doctor can order a C-reactive protein (CRP) test. This is a blood marker for inflammation and potential disease.
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
As we mentioned earlier, our bodies identify and attack unwanted “toxins” and foreign substances. So what are these toxins, and how do we avoid them?
Some toxins come from our environment. When we are exposed to pollutants in our water (like chlorine and fluoride) and in the air we breathe, our bodies become inflamed. Our beauty products and household cleaning supplies often contain dangerous levels of toxins like fragrances, phthalates, parabens, antibacterials and triclosans to name a few. Sometimes environmental toxins surround us whether we know it or not. One example is radon, a colorless and odorless gas.
Toxins can also invade our bodies through the food we eat. We may be ingesting antibiotics and hormones when we eat conventional meats and dairy. When the animals are given these substances, we too get them when we consume animal products.
Refined vegetable oils are also a culprit in inflammation. Oils like corn, soybean, sunflower, and cottonseed are damaged in processing and oxidized. These are Omega 6 fatty acids and are associated with inflammatory diseases (versus Omega 3s which are anti-inflammatory).
Other inflammatory foods often enter the average American’s diet. Fried foods, because they are heated in damaged oils, contain potentially carcinogenic compounds. Trans fats fall into this same category of damaged fats/oils.
Refined and heavily processed foods like most cookies, crackers, and boxed snacks are also inflammatory. They may contain damaged vegetable oils, and more significantly, they are high in carbohydrates and simple sugars.
Sugar, in general, is VERY inflammatory and should be limited or avoided as much as possible. Sugar leads to increased blood sugars and insulin, taxing our bodies and leading to stored body fat.
Too much alcohol is not good for many of our organs and is associated with diseases like cancer. Red wine may be beneficial and anti-inflammatory in small doses, but overconsumption of alcohol is detrimental to health.
Genetically modified (GMO) foods should also be avoided. These typically contain pesticides. The four most common GMO crops are corn, soy, canola, and cotton. But GMOs are making their way into other crops like potatoes, tomatoes, sugar, rice, and conventional dairy and meat (since the animals are given GMO feeds).
Healing Chronic Inflammation
Fear not. There are ways to reduce the overall inflammation in our bodies. Sometimes making just a few changes can go very far in turning around one’s health and unpleasant symptoms.
Environment: First of all, we can avoid as many environmental toxins as possible. You can make your own cleaning products using water and vinegar and some good-smelling essential oils like lavender or eucalyptus. Alternatively, you can look for organic cleaning products.
Likewise, organic beauty products may be a good choice. There are companies that pride themselves on providing non-toxic makeup products. Also, look for lotions and sunscreens without toxic ingredients. Another simple, effective ingredient is baking soda. Baking soda can be used as a toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, and even to clean the house. Talk about a multi-faceted and cheap solution!
Diet: As far our diets go, if we follow a diet similar to what our ancestors ate, much of the inflammatory foods will be removed. The Paleo diet is one approach. Following this way of eating, one would aim to cut out most refined and simple sugars. Most, if not all, grains are eliminated. This is important since grains can be inflammatory, elevate insulin, and even cause digestive issues. They also contain anti-nutrients like lectins, phytates, and sometimes gluten which can lead to a leaky gut, and, you guessed it … more inflammation!
Conventional meats and dairy are also out. The focus would be more on grass-fed beef, organic chicken, pastured pork, and wild caught fish. For some, all dairy is eliminated. However, some Paleo followers allow for ghee (clarified butter), butter, full-fat yogurt, kefir, and cheese … all of the organic and grass-fed variety. If someone tolerates dairy and seems to be asymptomatic consuming it, these high-quality versions may be fine. However, in general, dairy is quite inflammatory for many.
When we focus more on eating an array of fruits and vegetables, healing fats (like avocado, olive oil, or coconut oil), and nourishing meats and organ meats (from grass-fed and/or organically raised animals), our bodies get a break from toxic foods and can have a chance to heal. Another nourishing and healing superfood is bone broth. Consuming a cup or two of bone broth each day can heal the digestive tract, reverse a leaky gut, and help stop inflammation. Drinking lots of purified water also helps to flush out toxins. Aim to hydrate each day with at least 8-10 cups of water.
Lifestyle: Daily exercise, meditation, prayer, good sleep, and stress relief are essential to reducing inflammation. These things will reduce blood pressure, help regulate blood sugar, and release feel-good chemicals that help calm the body and lower CRP. Getting adequate sunlight and spending time outdoors also lowers inflammation by raising vitamin D levels.
Supplementation: There are some key supplements that have anti-inflammatory effects. Including the following into your regimen may be beneficial. Omega 3s (in the form of fish oil, krill oil, or cod liver oil), turmeric curcumin, evening primrose (GLA), vitamin C, vitamin D3, magnesium, vitamin K2, and coenzyme Q10 are a few known anti-inflammatory supplements.
Chronic inflammation is something we all need to look out for. If we're experiencing any unexplained aches, pains, or fatigue, our body may be telling us it's in distress. When inflammation goes on without efforts to stop it, we can become sick or diseased.
Through thoughtful and diligent food choices, lifestyle decisions, and self-care, we can reverse inflammation and feel much better in our own skin.
- This article was originally written as a guest blog post for www.livecleannourish.com, a beautiful natural health blog.
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