By Maureen McDonnell, RN
When we think of a part of our body being inflamed (as with a sore throat, hive or a cut), we typically conjure up images of that area feeling red, hot, and tender. This type of healthy inflammatory response is the result of our immune system calling on white blood cells and other chemicals to protect us and prevent infection.
However, there is another type of inflammation that is becoming all too common and that is apparently at the root of many of the chronic illnesses we see occurring in record-breaking numbers. Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, author and co-medical director of Canyon Ranch, states in his book The Blood Sugar Solution that “One of the most significant medical discoveries of the twenty-first century is that inflammation is the common thread connecting not just the obvious autoimmune and allergenic diseases but most chronic diseases including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, dementia and depression.”
This chronic type of inflammation does not initially produce symptoms; it typically injures tissues over an extended period of time. It is like a smoldering fire that is created by the immune system in its attempt to fight off the damaging effects caused by an array of culprits such as: sugar, processed food, bad fats, stress, toxins in the environment, allergenic foods, chronic low-grade infections and an overgrowth of pathogenic organisms in the gut. This low-grade inflammation is taxing on the body (especially the immune system, as it is called on to produce the inflammatory chemicals called cytokines.) When the production of these inflammatory chemicals gets out of control, the ensuing inflammation manifests in different ways for different people, but results in health problems that range from allergies and asthma, diabetes and obesity, to heart disease and cancer.
Causes of Inflammation
• Diet is a main factor in causing chronic inflammation. Foods such as sugar (especially fructose and high fructose corn syrup), artificial sweeteners, refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice), trans fats found in processed foods and unhealthy oils that contain inflammatory Omega-6 fats are all diet related causes of chronic inflammation.
• When children or adults consume foods high in sugar, they ride a dangerous metabolic roller coaster which causing drastic fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin levels. Eventually the cells lose their responsiveness to insulin and become what is called “insulin resistant.” This means the cells no longer respond to insulin’s request to let sugar and insulin inside the cell. Insulin resistance is a root cause of many chronic illnesses and it promotes the aging process primarily because it induces inflammation.
• Hidden food allergies: in addition to foods that can cause an immediate reaction (developing hives from eating shrimp for instance), there are food sensitivities identified as causing delayed reactions (drinking milk, and a day later developing a headache or foggy thinking for example). These IgG mediated sensitivities can be identified via an elimination diet or measured via blood work. They are known for damaging the gut membrane which in turn weakens the immune system. Although most allergists do not recognize how these food sensitivities cause symptoms, many integrative medical doctors believe they play a significant role in contributing to inflammation and the formation of chronic illness.
• Imbalances in gut bacteria: There are 500 different species of bacteria and 100 trillion microbial cells in the gut. These “bugs” that live within us feed off of what we eat and they play major roles in our digestion, metabolism, inflammation and our risk for developing colon and other cancers. Pathogenic or bad bugs feed on sugar and produce harmful toxins. If the bad bugs get out of balance, a condition referred to as dysbiosis occurs which can lead to leaky gut syndrome. This is a set-up for toxins to get through our gut lining, which in turn triggers an immune response to these “foreign” substances. It has been shown in studies that these bad bugs can also initiate and promote obesity and insulin resistance. (1)
• Toxins from the environment: Many of the toxins such as those found in pesticides and heavy metals (such as mercury which is found in dental amalgam fillings and in the flu vaccine as well as many childhood vaccines) have been linked to insulin resistance and chronic inflammation.
• Sedentary lifestyle: According to Dr. Hyman, “lack of regular exercise creates low-grade inflammation in the body. And regular exercise dramatically reduces inflammation.”
• Nutritional Deficiencies: Deficiencies in antioxidants, Vitamin D and Omega-3 fats can promote inflammation. One study published in the American Journal of Medicine showed that simply taking a multivitamin was more effective for reducing of inflammation than taking a statin drug. (2)
• Stress: The cascade of symptoms induced by the stress response includes: the release of cortisol, an increased level of cholesterol, increased insulin levels, a decrease in beneficial gut flora, a decrease in blood flow to the digestive system, decreased metabolism, a decreased production of digestive enzymes, an increase in triglycerides and excretion of water soluble vitamins. All of these systemic responses to stress were designed to aid us in periodic fight or flight situations. However when stress becomes a chronic issue signaling these reactions to occur on a more consistent basis, our bodies become taxed, drained and inflamed.
How to Measure Chronic Inflammation:
• A blood test: C-Reactive Protein is a marker of systemic inflammation.
Tips for Reversing Chronic Inflammation
The remedies for reducing inflammation are the same ones that are needed to stabilize insulin levels:
• Balance blood sugar levels by avoiding sugar (especially soda, a source of high fructose corn syrup and the main source of calories in the US), refined flours and grains. Instead, consume a plant-based diet that includes high quality protein and an array of antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits. Dark green leafy vegetables (such as kale and Swiss chard), sweet potatoes and organic nuts all have anti-inflammatory properties. Typically the deeper the color of the food, the higher their antioxidant levels. Try some super foods such pomegranate, acaia, organic blueberries, and anti-inflammatory herbs and spices such as turmeric (source of curcumin), holy basil and tulsi.
• Balance the Omega 6 to Omega 3 fat ratio: Ideally, we need a 1:1 ratio between Omega 6s and Omega 3s. The typical standard American Diet (SAD) provides a 25:1 ratio. Lowering the amount of vegetable oils and taking a mercury-free source of Omega 3s such as a high quality fish or krill oil can be helpful.
• Supplements may include: A comprehensive multi vitamin, Vitamin D3 (your level should be checked first) and antioxidants such as Resveratrol. Antioxidants reduce the damage caused by free radicals and oxidation that go hand and hand with chronic inflammation. In addition to taking supplements of Resveratrol, it can also be found in purple grapes, blueberries, bilberries, cranberries, cherries and red wine. Proanthocyanidins are found in grape seed extract.
• Reduce the Toxic Load: If you think agencies like the EPA and FDA are our Washington watchdogs making sure all unsafe chemicals are not entering our air, water, food and vaccines… think again! We need to be our own watchdogs and research alternative, less toxic forms of household cleaning, laundry and personal care products, cookware, water bottles, as well as natural, organic or at least non-GMO food sources. It’s not perfect, but a good source for this type of information comes from the Environmental Working Group’s website: www.EWG.org.
• Get regular exercise: Exercise makes our cells less likely to become insulin resistant and more likely to stay receptive to insulin and sugar getting inside the cell. This reduces the blood levels of sugar and insulin, which is a critical key to avoiding chronic inflammation.
• Reduce Stress: “Easier said than done” I can hear you saying. But, whether it’s listening to a relaxation tape as you take a walk, getting a regular massage or simply setting aside a few moments each day to breathe deeply, taking some time out of your busy day to do something for yourself has proven to have tremendous physical and mental health benefits. (3)
Summary: Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, Joseph Mercola, MD and many other pioneers who function on the cutting edge of modern research, nutrition and medicine agree that the shocking escalation in the number of people affected by chronic illnesses (43-60% of adults, and 54% of children) is a direct result of increased rates of chronic inflammation. Identifying the specific dietary and lifestyle culprits that are relevant for you and taking the steps to cool the smoldering fire caused by chronic inflammation are key to preventing and reversing this disastrous trend and moving you and your children to a stronger state of health.
Maureen McDonnell has been a holistic, nutritionally-oriented registered nurse for 36 years. In addition to being the health editor of WNC Woman Magazine, she is the medical coordinator of the Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer in New Mexico and co founder of the website Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet www.SOKHOP.com. Maureen provides health and wellness classes that include information and group support for the “30 Days to Feeling Fit” program at the beautiful Wysteria Inn in Weaverville (formerly the Secret Garden Inn and Spa). Call 609-240-1315 or email Maureen at MauraHealth@aol.com for dates and to reserve your seat at this free program.
1. Cani, PD, et al. Metabolic endotoxemia initiates obesity and insulin reistance. Diabetes 2007 Jul: 56(7): 1761-72
2. Church, TS, et al. Reduction of C-reactive protein levels through use of a multivitamin. Am J Med 2003 Dec 15; 115(9): 702-7
3. Dusek, JA; Benson, H, Mind-body medicine: a model of the comparative clinical impact of the acute stress and relaxation responses. Minnesota Med. 2009 May; 92(5): 47-50
The Blood Sugar Solution by Mark Hyman, MD
Herbal Medicine, Healing and Cancer: A Comprehensive Program for Prevention and Treatments, Donald Yance and Arlene Valentine