Understanding the Role & Cause of Inflammation

Here’s a new flash. We have a chronic disease & inflammation problem, and it’s getting worse. How bad is it? Even the CDC is alarmed:

  • 60% of the U.S. Population has one chronic disease
  • 40% of the U.S. Population has at least two chronic diseases
  • 75% of COVID-19 deaths were among patients who had at least four chronic diseases (or comorbidities)

Chronic vs. Acute

What exactly does it mean to say someone has a chronic disease? At the core, chronic refers to a continuous, ongoing, and likely worsening condition that becomes more debilitating over time, necessitating some medical care to manage symptoms. Contrast this with acute, which refers to a sudden, short-term stress or condition that typically does not linger for extended periods of time. This distinction is critical to understand because the human body can find acute stresses helpful in the sense that the body can adapt and evolve to become stronger and more resilient as a result of the acute stress. Obviously I’m not talking about a sudden fall or car crash that results in a broken bone or ligament tear & requires urgent medical attention, but I’m talking about things like exercise, intermittent fasting, or even a cold shower or pool-plunge. Yes, the weight lifting you’re doing; the time-restricted feeding or intermittent fasting; and even your cold shower to start the day are all examples of acute stresses that actually help the body through muscle repair, bone strengthening, metabolic health improvement, circulatory improvement and muscle soreness relief during recovery.

Chronic vs. Acute Inflammation

As explained in much greater detail from Harvard Medical School, inflammation is your body’s mechanism to communicate something is wrong, but not all inflammation is bad. In fact, inflammation is a way your body seeks to heal and repair itself, just as when you sprain an ankle, and watch the ankle swell while turning a kaleidoscope of colors from red to purple to blue. That ankle is injured, and the swelling and colors are indicators the body is first in protection mode before switching to healing. It launches white blood cells into the injured area to first protect it, then we try to help the body accelerate the healing process by using ice to minimize swelling, staying off the ankle to minimize pressure and stress on the surrounding area, and eventually begin applying heat & massage to force the healing power of oxygenated blood into the tissue for repair. As mentioned above, every time you work-out, you create inflammation through microscopic tears in muscle tissue under the strain of aerobic or resistance training. That muscle soreness you feel? Inflammation is doing its job to repair & heal, with the goal of strengthening and becoming more resillient. Finally, acute inflammation is very applicable when it comes to sickness, such as an infection or dealing with a virus. White blood cells attack the area, cause an immune response (fever, redness, chills, etc) and engage the immune system to remove the threat. So, in so many parts of our daily life, we experience inflammation, but it’s actually a protective mechanism and something we do not want to eliminate.

So, why is chronic inflammation something we want to avoid? First, chronic inflammation is also an indicator that something is wrong, but the root cause & net effects are very different. Chronic inflammation usually starts out in a low-grade format, and lingers for a long period of time. The body responds in kind to the low-grade level by sending in white blood cells to heal, but finds over time those cells are not enough, so it has to send in more. Eventually, the volume and frequency of white blood cells attack areas around the inflamed area, and the constant state of remaining inflamed triggers an immune system response that can become even more dangerous the longer the chronic inflammation exists. You may have heard the term “cytokine storm?” That’s an example of the human immune system seeing chronic inflammation as an attack and actually attacking the body’s own cells, some of them healthy, to try and remove the problem.

Understanding the Root Cause

Regardless of which inflammation we’re experiencing, the most important question to answer is “what is the root cause of this inflammation?” Sometimes it’s easy, especially in acute inflammatory situations. Chronic inflammation, however, can be tougher to identify and usually requires more testing and analysis. It’s best to see your doctor and have some blood tests and other exams completed to accurately assess what is the root of your inflammation. However, we are understanding more and more how our lifestyle choices can play a pivotal role in either accelerating or minimizing inflammation. Smoking, alcohol consumption, processed foods and a sedentary lifestyle all are significant contributors to chronic inflammation. So, you can make some immediate changes to your current exercise and diet regime if reducing inflammation is important to you. Exercise is important for immune function, muscle strengthening and helping reduce adipose tissue (fat), which is a major contributor to inflammation. Foods (ie, wheat, gluten) that cause a condition called intestinal impermeability (leaky gut) can wreak havoc with your digestive system and trigger chronic disease by releasing toxins and bacteria into your body. Type 2 Diabetes (TD2) is a chronic condition due to insulin resistance, not only upsetting the body’s hormonal imbalance but also placing the immune system in a state of hyperactivity. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) and obesity are also examples of chronic disease that are directly tied to dietary and lifestyle choices.

Better Choices

Recently, this article on yahoo.com covered a list of foods that can be consumed to help reduce inflammation. From the article:

Eating more of certain anti-inflammation foods like turmeric and pineapple could reduce those signs but, the scientists say, what you don’t eat is just as important as what you do. “The most important foods to avoid are grains, beans and nightshades — unless they are pressure-cooked or, in the case of nightshades, like tomatoes and peppers, peeled and deseeded,” says Dr. Gundry. “The lectins in these foods are a major cause of leaky gut.”

Dr. Kara adds a few more culprits to this list, namely Western-diet staples. “High-fructose corn syrup, trans-fat, excessive saturated fats, and junk food in general can cause inflammation and lead to the uncomfortable symptoms associated with it,” he says. “The best way to decrease inflammation is to prevent it in the first place.”

So what can we eat to try and reduce inflammation? Some suggestions include turmeric, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, pistachios, alliums, ginger, green tea, cruciferous vegetables, plain greek yogurt, wild caught fish, grass-fed/finished beef, nutmeg and cinnamon. Probably the two biggest foods to eliminate are sugars and seed oils, (also called vegetable oils) made from soy, corn, canola, cottonseed, safflower, and others, as they are direct contributors to the chronic disease proliferation we see today across the world.

Finally, if you’re looking for a major dietary shift to reduce inflammation, I would encourage you to explore the ketogenic lifestyle, as it incorporates all of the foods named above plus a host of other important macronutrients that work to keep inflammation low, including avocados. If you would like more information on the inflammatory benefits of the ketogenic lifestyle, please visit the Understanding the Low Carb Science page on my website.