There's a lot of information (both accurate and not) floating around out there about inflammation. So much information, in fact, that it can be difficult to discern what's true and what's supposition.
Emerging research links most diseases in some part to an inflammatory process. This is pivotally important information. Maybe, just maybe, they'll finally be able to answer questions such as: Why is it causing pain? How is it linked to digestion (or indigestion)? When should it be considered more than just a passing issue?
The Skinny on Inflammation
Inflammation is a complicated process involving chemical triggers, immune cells such as macrophages, fluids, cortisol… all kinds of technical stuff. We'll get into that later.
In simple terms, inflammation is the body's defense mechanism. When the body perceives something as harmful, it attempts to protect itself by removing any irritants, pathogens, or damaged cells, trying to re-establish peace and balance.
This seems as though it's counter-intuitive to all the of the mainstream information, stating that inflammation is the root of all evil. So is it? Yes and no.
Now, let's dig in…
Why Acute Inflammation Is A Good Thing
In a well-balanced body that is not experiencing underlying issues -- issues that are contributing to chronic inflammation -- the inflammatory process is beneficial.
Let's consider what is going on with localized, healthy inflammation. Take, for instance, scraping your knee or elbow.
The initial pain is often replaced with a dull, throbbing ache. Then the abraded skin over and surrounding the wound becomes red and swollen and may even ooze clear fluid (this is referred to as "serous exudate" and is a normal part of healing).
How does your body know to do this? When crushed or damaged, the injured cells send out signals that attract a group of chemicals that put immune cells and other constituents such as electrolytes and sugars into action. These are normal and helpful in the body's immune system function.
These immune cells and other components each have an active role in working to heal and repair the damaged tissues, both superficially and subcutaneously. Once the body has "mopped up" and mitigated the damage, the injury can begin to heal properly.
Why Chronic Inflammation Is Harmful
If inflammation were just a short-term, localized problem, then it would be end of story, as it is in the case of the knee or elbow scrape above. Chronic inflammation, however, is much more complex and has far-reaching consequences.
What can start as a local problem can lead to a systemic or "whole body" issue. Let's use a fictitious person as an example. Say Casey has Hashimoto's thyroiditis. This autoimmune disease occurs when the body mistakenly identifies thyroid tissue as harmful and attacks the thyroid gland. She manages it well with medication and rarely has any issues.
Thanksgiving turns out to be a carb-lover's dream -- Aunt Maude's crazy-good rolls, pecan pie, stuffing -- you get the picture.
Casey pigs out and two days later is in agony. Her joints ache. It hurts to move her eyes. What is going on?
Little did she know -- the gluten contained in the foods she ate over the holiday were the culprit. A sensitivity (bordering on allergy) to wheat gluten caused her body to attack the lining of its intestines. This, in turn, created the condition known as "leaky gut syndrome", in which food particles pass through the intestinal membrane into the bloodstream.
Detecting an unwanted and potentially harmful substance, her body went into attack mode to protect itself against the foreign material, also attacking her tissues. All of these inflammatory cells and chemicals coursing through her blood erroneously caused inflammation throughout her body.
Everything cleared up in a week or two. Then, on a short hike she tears her meniscus in her knee. So, where does the meniscus injury play in?
Well... a tiny injury to the cartilage from before the hike was in the process of healing. It was minor enough that Casey didn't know it was there. Nonetheless, her body was busily (and quietly) repairing the damage.
When the inflammatory response from the gluten began, her body released cortisol and other stress hormones to offer short, intense bursts of immune function followed by suppression in an effort to try to stop excess inflammation. BUT this suppression also put the kibosh on the quiet healing in her knee and boom, injury.
Once the inflammation cycle is started, it can become self-perpetuating. So, is it any wonder chronic inflammation is such a prominent (and increasingly common) problem?
What Are Some of the Chronic Inflammation Symptoms?
There are some common signs that may indicate you are experiencing some type of chronic inflammation or are in an inflammatory state. If any of these signs are all too familiar to you, it's very likely you may be experiencing chronic inflammation.
- general malaise
- inability to focus
- digestive issues
- behavioral changes
- joint and muscle aches
- depression syndromes
Are There Tests For Chronic Inflammation?
What about food sensitivity tests to narrow down the possibilities? Well, here's the deal with food sensitivity tests. A leaky gut that allows toxins to escape into the bloodstream is one of the leading causes of chronic, systemic inflammation. Therefore, often times food sensitivity tests are recommended to identify food intolerances that might be causing inflammation.
ELISA and ALCAT are both blood tests that claim to identify food intolerances by examining how blood responds when exposed to a specific food.
ELISA testing measures IgG antibody reactions. ALCAT measures white blood cell reactions. The accuracy of ALCAT testing has been a topic of debate when testing for food allergies.
It would seem that these tests would prove intolerances beyond a doubt, however, the immune system is much more complex. There are studies that have shown an IgG response to a food actually indicates tolerance.
Furthermore, white blood cells are constantly changing shape and activity. Consequently, if this occurs in the presence of a food, it doesn't necessarily mean the food was the trigger. It could have been any number of factors prompting the white blood cells to react (such as a seasonal allergy).
Yes, this is a lot to take in, right? However, what is most important to learn from all this is the fact that, indisputably,both tests are infamous for inconsistent results.
So, what test is beneficial in cases of chronic inflammation?
After much research into this conundrum, The Feel Good Lab recommends what is called a "food inflammation test", not a "food sensitivity test."
The difference is in the types of immunoglobulins which are tested, therefore, the "food inflammation test" is much more accurate in exposing the problem. It can reveal what foods are causing an inflammatory response -- not just a generalized, adaptive response -- to specific foods. To view information about this specific test click here.
The Results Are In… Now What?
Once you are armed with the information on why the inflammation is happening, you can start making changes to help resolve it.
Perhaps the most crucial step in beating chronic inflammation is to take a look at your overall lifestyle. The foods you eat will make a huge impact, but if you're not taking care of the rest of your life, you won't be able to overcome your inflammatory issues as easily.
Here are a few ideas and tips that can help put you on the right track. Obviously, everyone is different, so you'll need to make changes according to your own individual needs.
Revisiting Your Diet
One of the easiest places to start making changes toward an inflammation-free lifestyle is your diet. With the wide array of processed foods and additives that humans were never supposed to start consuming, it isn't any wonder that food can be a major contributor to chronic inflammation. Not sure where to start? We have a full article to getting started with diets for pain relief, but here are some basics:
1. Cut out, or at least significantly lessen your sugar intake. Remember, sugar isn't just the common white "table" sugar. There are many types of sugars with deceptive names such as fructose, glucose and galactose, among others. Too much sugar will activate the immune system and create a pro-inflammatory response. There are so many hidden sugars in the foods we all eat; it is necessary to CHECK THE LABEL.
2. Consider breaking up with gluten. You might need to say goodbye to your morning pastries, but the connections between gluten and chronic inflammation are just too strong to ignore.
3. Reduce the amount of processed foods you eat. With processed foods, your body is getting too many chemicals and overloading the detoxification system. Again, read the label of everything – yes, everything – you eat out of a box. If you can't pronounce it, you probably shouldn't eat it.
4. Incorporate healthy inflammation-fighting foods into your diet. Just because you're eating a healthy diet doesn't mean you have to be eating a bland diet. Fresh fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants that are aces at fighting inflammation. Spices such as turmeric and ginger up the flavor game AND provide hefty anti-inflammatory benefits.
5. Trans-fats… Yep, you need to say goodbye to the fast food fries (check out this recipe for a healthy alternative loaded with nutrients)! There is NOTHING good about trans-fats.
6. WATER, WATER, WATER. This is the most plentiful element in your body. Need we say more? If you don't drink enough water, this will lead to a buildup of toxins in your system. Your immune system will respond to rid itself of these these toxins, but without enough water it is unable to do this, hence, the inflammatory response continues. Just like a stream, keeping that water moving will prevent it from becoming stagnant.
Lower your Stress level
Easier said than done, right? As you'll recall, stress triggers a number of chemical responses, including inflammatory reactions. When you experience excessive stress you can begin to develop adrenal fatigue, making it harder for your body to bounce back from stressful events and experience heightened inflammation.
In today's world it is difficult to lead a completely "stress-free" life. The first step in managing stress is to figure out what you are being exposed to that is causing the stress. Then take action to lessen the cause.
Just as importantly, start to become aware of situations or things that lead/add to stress and try to avoid them.
Not sure where to start? Explore these stress reduction methods and find what works best for you.
Exercise for Inflammation
Being active plays a huge role in fighting inflammation and decreasing obesity. And here is a bonus… exercise has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety (which can lead to cortisol release and subsequent inflammation issues)!
Many of us are chained to our desks for work which leads to a sedentary lifestyle. This necessitates taking an active stance (no pun intended) and seeking out ways to get regular exercise.
Just how and why is exercise so good for chronic pain and inflammation? It's multi-faceted.
When you exercise, your body releases chemicals such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. These help suppress excess immune response and allow your body to recover from strenuous activity without eliciting an inflammatory event.
There is also the fact that exercise helps to increase blood flow throughout tissues. This helps remove toxins and bring oxygen to cells. A well-nourished cell is less likely to die and attract cytokines and other cells that clean up dead tissue.
During your day, take breaks to get up and move around, stretch out.
Consider going for a walk at lunch or sneak off to the gym for a quick workout. Pro tip? Always keep your workout bag in your car and after work head straight to the gym!
Just try it – it sucks at first (getting in the habit of going somewhere other than home at the end of the day is hard) but will give you an extra adrenaline burst and allow you go home with more energy, looser muscles and a nice dose of those feel-good chemicals known as endorphins.
Avoid Exposure to Environmental Toxins Such As Secondhand Tobacco Smoke
Everything you are exposed to, everything you touch, everything you breathe, the food you eat, and even the water you drink has to be processed by your body; consequently, it truly does matter what you put in and on your body if you want to minimize your chronic inflammation.
Toxins and pro-inflammatory substances are everywhere and are virtually impossible to avoid. Toxins include chemicals found in the items you use everyday -- toothpaste, deodorant, hair spray, perfumes, cosmetics, etc.
They are also in many of the cleaning products and chemicals used in your home. For instance, chlorine bleach like you probably have in your laundry room can cause oxidative cellular damage, amping up the inflammation quotient.
What about cigarette smoke? It's been established that smoking is bad for your health. Did you know, however, that even secondhand smoke can wreak havoc with your body's inflammatory responses?
Studies show that exposure to cigarette smoke triggers the production of pro-inflammatory cells known as cytokines. If you live with a smoker, the chances that it is affecting your chronic inflammation is very high.
So, what's the solution? While there is no way to avoid toxins completely, you can start by taking inventory of all of the products you use in your home regularly. Weed out the ones that are the most likely to be harmful and replace them with less harsh alternatives.
If you live with a smoker, ask them to smoke outside. It's also helpful to use air filters (make sure they have a high HEPA rating and are designed to handle heavy burdens such as tar and nicotine).
Buy organic produce and other food products whenever possible. If you haven't checked out the "Dirty Dozen" list, you should. It shows you which produce is likely grown with an excessive amount of fertilizers and agricultural chemicals. These chemicals have been linked with autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, among others.
What about Supplements?
Healing inflammation is different for each individual. In today's world, there is a huge selection of supplements which contain anti-inflammatory ingredients, from vitamins and minerals to herbal formulas.
Deciphering which product is most beneficial when dealing with inflammation can be difficult and confusing. It doesn't have to be.
Ideally,when looking for supplements, you should choose one that is produced by a trusted lab with all necessary certifications in place. Most of this information is available on the company's website, allowing you to make an informed decision.
The supplements you're considering should also contain only the best ingredients; those that do not include any "hidden" ingredients or fillers. Read the label carefully -- if it contains cellulose, artificial colorings, talc (also called magnesium silicate) or oils such as hydrogenated soybean oil, steer clear.
Obviously, last but not least, it should also deliver the maximum results possible. Some supplements that are known to directly have an effect on chronic inflammation are: Alpha-Lipoic Acid, Fish Oil, Ginger, and Turmeric.
Now, Take Action to Fight Inflammation
Failure to stop chronic inflammation can have extreme consequences in the long-run -- arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, frequent urinary tract infections, heart disease and even cancer... inflammation shouldn't be taken lightly.
By taking action now you can start to produce positive results in resolving inflammation and encourage the healing process to begin.
The common saying, "A healthy gut is the key to a healthy body and mind" says it all. 80% of your immune system lies in and around your gut.
Healing and preventing "leaky gut syndrome" plays a major part in keeping your body inflammation-free.
Without a healthy gut, nutrients cannot be properly absorbed, vital colonies of beneficial bacteria will be weakened or destroyed and the immune system will be compromised. This makes the chances of developing new sensitivities and inflammatory triggers greater.
A balanced and thriving digestive system will allow your body to control inflammation, resulting in a strong immune system, which is the foundation of health and the basis for leading a happy, less painful life.
If you're experiencing aches and pains or swelling and discomfort regularly, don't ignore it. Sure, it's not uncommon to reach for the ibuprofen at the first sign of pain. It's important to remember, however, that your body may be trying to tell you something.
Isn't it time you listen and take charge of your chronic pain and inflammation?