Inflammation is the body’s natural protection and repair response to germs, toxins, environmental pollutants, injury and illness, and other threats. So why would we want to reduce such a beneficial process? Because, like so many of the body’s other protective mechanisms that involve multiple systems (immune, hormonal, vascular and more), inflammation must be kept in balance in order to be beneficial. Otherwise, these repair processes may work overtime, essentially causing more damage.
Think of inflammation as being similar to stress. Acute, but infrequent inflammation can be healthy. The same is true of stress. Both help to “wake up” the system to respond to dangers. But if inflammation, or stress, continues to progress unchecked, a cascade of detrimental biochemical reactions can occur that damage cellular DNA and healthy tissue. Chronic inflammation can also drive uncontrolled scar tissue buildup (fibrosis), leading to reduced organ function. That continues until you experience an organ failure like a heart attack. It can also contribute to diseases where the body turns against itself during conditions like chronic allergies and autoimmune diseases.
Symptoms of inflammation are usually characterized by redness, swelling, pain, and stiffness, but sometimes the effects do not manifest outwardly until there has been significant damage.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to some of our most serious degenerative diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune diseases and Alzheimer’s. Luckily, there are numerous ways to control chronic inflammation naturally and promote overall health in the process.
Causes Of Inflammation
Various lifestyle factors may contribute to chronic inflammation but one of the most influential causes is diet. Since many foods are either naturally pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory, the types of foods you eat have a direct impact on your inflammation responses.
The biggest pro-inflammatory culprits are processed and sugary foods, as well as the trans fats, present in a variety of snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, and vegetable shortening. One revealing correlation is the presence of glycotoxins, also known as advanced glycation end products (AGEs), that are formed in foods that are heated, pasteurized, dried, smoked, fried or grilled. Once absorbed into the body, they bind to tissues and oxidize them, causing inflammation. Interestingly, glycotoxins are also formed by the body as a byproduct of inflammation on the cellular level. Essentially, chronic inflammation, slowly cooks up any number of chronic diseases.
A large clinical study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in 2009, clearly shows that reducing these toxins in the diet reduces inflammation and the risk of chronic degenerative disease. The authors suggest that these “oxidants” may play a more active role than genetics in determining whether we age gracefully in good health or develop chronic degenerative diseases.
In addition to diet, certain lifestyle choices may contribute to inflammation. For example, it has been shown that sleep deprivation can lead to chronic inflammation. People who are overweight or obese may be at the highest risk, as well as people living with diabetes, an existing heart condition, or constant psychological, emotional or physical stress. Furthering this process are the effects of environmental toxicity from air, water, food pollutants and heavy metals, all of which contribute to chronic inflammation, and have been linked to numerous chronic degenerative conditions.
Cascading Chain Reaction
When an injury or threat occurs, chemicals such as inflammatory cytokines are released into the blood or tissues as part of the normal healing response. These inflammatory cytokines are destructive to our normal cells, and with chronic inflammation they result in irritation and wearing down of cartilage and tissues, giving rise to further inflammatory triggers.
This process creates a type of heat and friction on a physiological level that is similar to what happens when you rub fabric together for so long that its fibers begin to degrade.
In the body, this process of degradation can be viewed as changes in cellular function and abnormalities in the healing process. Even further, inflammation can affect internal organs and can cause:
- Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis) that can result in shortness of breath or swelling in the legs
- Inflammation of the kidneys (nephritis) that may cause high blood pressure or kidney failure
- Inflammation of the large intestine (colitis) that may cause cramps, diarrhea and digestive problems
As tissue health degrades under the impact of chronic inflammation, an “itis” (which refers to an inflamed tissue) can evolve into fibrosis, a structural change in the tissues akin to that kind of scarring that restricts function. Chronic inflammation in the circulatory system drives plaque formation as well as hardening of the arteries. In addition, chronic inflammation has been linked to mental and emotional imbalances, digestive disorders, skin problems, musculo-skeletal conditions and much more.
Treatments For Inflammation
There are a variety of natural treatment options for inflammatory conditions including diet, supplements and lifestyle adjustments.
As I mentioned, diet plays a primary role in reducing or promoting inflammation. A recent report from the University of Alabama discusses several foods that are shown to help reduce or mediate chronic inflammation, including citrus fruits, tomatoes, wild salmon and dark leafy greens. Certain culinary herbs also greatly help to control inflammation while providing a wealth of additional antioxidant and health promoting benefits: ginger, parsley, cilantro, cardamom, turmeric, rosemary, thyme, oregano, cumin and more. Other helpful foods include berries, olive oil, omega-3 oils, raw nuts, seeds, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage as well as raw cacao. Good hydration and targeted supplementation are also essential.
Acupuncture is an effective therapy that can help reduce chronic inflammation by rebalancing the body’s energetic and organ systems while moderating inflammatory responses.
Perhaps one of the most important things to consider in reducing inflammation in the body is to reduce the amount of stress in your life. Stress hormones like cortisol trigger the release of inflammatory chemicals such as cytokines that are now viewed as major contributing factors in chronic degenerative conditions. Stress relief measures like meditation and deep breathing as well as yoga and movement therapies such as Qi Gong and other gentle exercises are effective stress reducers. Spending time doing what you love and nourishing positive social connections are also important. Experiment and find what works for you.
Curcumin, derived from turmeric, is shown to reduce chronic inflammation. Omega-3 oil supplements from flax and fish oil can also help cool chronic inflammation. The bioflavonoid quercetin, and the antioxidant nutrients alpha lipoic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D3 and selenium can similarly help reduce chronic inflammation and protect cells and tissues.
Another critical supplement for reducing chronic inflammation is modified citrus pectin (MCP). When I began to use MCP in my clinical practice in the 1990s, I discovered that it was remarkable how fast this one ingredient could work to reduce patients’ joint pain. Initially, my colleagues and I guessed that this effect was due to MCP’s proven heavy metal chelation properties (heavy metals accumulate in joint tissues). However, over the past several years, there’s been a sharp increase in research on MCP and the inflammatory biomarker, galectin-3. MCP is a proven anti-galectin-3 therapy, and scientists now understand the direct role of excess galectin-3 in promoting chronic inflammation and fibrosis in joints, organs and other tissues throughout the body. Essentially, MCP binds to excess galectin-3 to limit its long-term pro-inflammatory effects.
With a healthy diet and lifestyle and proper stress relief measures, in addition to the right dietary supplements, inflammation can be kept under control, and your health on all levels can “stay cool.”
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