The Cause & Effects of Inflammation

Last week we discussed Nutritional Supplementation and its importance to overall health and well-being. Today we are going to dive into the topic of inflammation and how it affects our body.

Inflammation is a normal physiological response of our body that helps to protect it from injury, infection, or a toxic substance. Several events need to occur for us to have a healthy inflammatory response to injury or infection. Inflammation involves the release of white blood cells from our immune system to fight off infection to help control and neutralize an infection. Inflammation related to tissue damage, which can result from an injury or increased demand or stress to a tissue including exercise, follows a slightly different path to help in healing the involved tissue. Whenever we have tissue damage there are chemicals released from the tissue, called prostaglandins, which are local messengers that help to signal a local response from our circulatory and immune systems to create the inflammatory response and to ultimately heal the tissue. Prostaglandins are composed of lipids, or fatty acids. Common NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) including Ibuprofen and Naproxen work by blocking prostaglandins. Though these can help to reduce an inflammatory response and its associated pain, inflammation is a necessary and needed process to help our bodies heal from injury.

Today We Will Discuss:

  • Define Acute & Chronic Inflammation
  • Diseases Caused by Chronic Inflammation
  • How Smoking Promotes Inflammation
  • Alcohol Consumption & Inflammation
  • The Impact Diet has on Inflammatory Response
  • Recovery & Reducing Inflammation

As we discussed previously in our Macronutrient: Fat blog post, Omega-3 fatty acids help to control inflammation. Prostaglandins composed of Omega-3 fatty acids help to properly regulate the inflammatory response. The local response to prostaglandins produced by Omega-3 fatty acids compared to other fatty acids (Omega-6 fatty acids) is less severe along with also having an anti-inflammatory affect, which helps reduce inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acids reduce the effectiveness of Omega-3 fatty acids and may also have a pro-inflammatory effect. As previously discussed in our Heart Health Blog, the American diet is significantly higher in Omega-6 fatty acids compared to Omega-3 fatty acids. On average, we typically see ratios as high as 15:1 to 17:1, which is one of the main reasons the American diet is so pro-inflammatory, increasing our risk to many diseases including, but not limited to arthritis, heart disease, and cancer. A healthier ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids is between 1:1 and 4:1.

Acute & Chronic Inflammation

Inflammation is a natural and healthy response, which is necessary for us to protect ourselves from infection and injury. Inflammation helps to fight off infection and helps our body to heal from injury. Inflammation in response to an infection or an injury is known as acute inflammation, this form of inflammation is healthy and needs to occur for us to be able to properly heal. The body’s immune system exists to heal injury and to fight foreign invaders (germs, toxins) that threaten injury. Following injury or infection, the affected tissue sends out chemical alarm signals (prostaglandins). Immune system cells respond to the alarm like firefighters, traveling in the blood to the site of the injury. The immune system cells and the chemicals they produce help heal the injury: they get rid of the damaged tissue and encourage new tissue to form. And when that job is done, the immune system quiets itself down. In other words, the immune system is like a well-run army: it recognizes an attack, it mobilizes for and engages in battle, and when the battle has been won, the troops are ordered to stand down. Redness, pain, swelling and heat are common signs of acute inflammation.

In addition to acute inflammation, we can also have chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can have significant negative consequences to our health as it is a prolonged, uncontrolled form of inflammation where the body continues an inflammatory response in the absence of infection or injury. Which means the army continues to fight even though the battle has already been won. Chronic inflammation commonly occurs as a result of triggers that are commonly, but not always, a result of many lifestyle choices. These triggers continue to promote an inflammatory response without the presence of acute injury or infection. Chronic inflammation can happen without any significant warning signs or symptoms. Some common signs of chronic inflammation can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Brain fog
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Gastrointestinal complications (bloating, diarrhea, constipation)
  • Weight Gain
  • Weight Loss

Chronic inflammation is involved in the disease process of many health conditions:

Collectively, diseases related to chronic inflammation account for 50% of deaths worldwide. There are a number of factors that can increase our risk to chronic inflammation and the consequences that are associated with it. Many of these factors we can control, however there are some that we cannot. The factors that we cannot control are often a result of our genetics. For example, many autoimmune conditions result from an uncontrolled immune response that causes chronic inflammation, which damages healthy tissue and leads to disease. Common autoimmune conditions include:

  • Irritable Bowel Disease (Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis)
  • Lupus
  • Psoriasis
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Hashimoto’s disease (a form of hypothyroidism)

Fortunately, there are a number of factors that we can control to help reduce our risk to chronic inflammation. Let’s discuss some of these factors:

  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Diet
  • Obesity
  • Stress
  • Sleep
  • Exercise

Many of these factors were discussed last week in our Recovery Blog, recovery is extremely important to your body’s ability to regulate and control inflammation.

How Smoking promotes Inflammation

Smoking, a toxic substance, is highly correlated to vascular disease, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Research has shown that smoking triggers increased systemic inflammatory mediators (particularly C-reactive protein) in our body that advance damage to our organs including our lungs and vascular system resulting in arteriosclerosis or narrowing of our arteries (vessels that supply blood from our heart to our organs). Arteriosclerosis is highly correlated to heart disease as our blood pressure is increased from having to push blood through a narrower vessel, which increases strain on our heart increasing our risk to heart disease. Smoking also weakens our immune system, which further promotes chronic inflammation, increasing our risk to chronic infections and illnesses, including the autoimmune diseases described above.

Another risk factor with smoking, is that smoke from cigarettes increases free radical production. Free radicals are highly reactive and unstable molecules that are made by the body naturally as a byproduct of normal metabolism. Free radicals can also be made by the body after exposure to toxins in the environment such as tobacco smoke. Free radicals can damage DNA. The consequences of this damage include effects like speeding up the aging process and even playing a role in the development of cancer, heart disease other health conditions. Many of the plant chemicals (phytochemicals) in our foods are antioxidants. These nutrients stop the formation of free radicals and may reduce the damage they would cause in the body. The power of antioxidants to fight free radicals is one reason why a diet rich in vegetables and fruits has been linked with a lower risk of many diseases. The good news about smoking is that these changes can be reversed by quitting smoking in those who do smoke regardless of the length of time that one has smoked typically within a five year period.

Alcohol Consumption & Inflammation

Alcohol intake, also a toxic substance, has a similar effect to smoking in that it raises C-reactive protein levels and as a result increases systemic inflammation. Alcohol can increase acute and chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation related to alcohol consumption is the reason for a hangover after a night of drinking increased amounts of alcohol. These symptoms typically resolve within a couple days of drinking and our often not a problem. The bigger problem of alcohol and inflammation is related to prolonged periods of consistently drinking alcohol, which promotes chronic inflammation, can lead to several health-related concerns and disease. Most commonly we think of the effects to our liver with alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. However, there are a number of other ailments that occur from chronic alcohol consumption including heart disease (same mechanism as smoking related to the increase of C-reactive protein, which promotes arteriosclerosis and heart disease), joint and muscle pain (related to dehydration and a reduction of fluid in our joints leading to persistent joint inflammation and pain), gout (alcohol is high in purines which form into uric acid), brain damage (due to sensitivity of brain cells to alcohol, causing increased release of inflammatory chemicals locally in the brain, which over time creates damage to our brain tissue).

The Impact Diet has on Inflammatory Response

Our diet can either reduce and/or promote chronic inflammation based upon the dietary choices that we make and the foods that we consume. One of the best ways to reduce inflammation should live in our refrigerator and not in our medicine cabinet! Let’s look at common foods that are pro-inflammatory or produce more inflammation in our body:

  • Processed & refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and white pasta
  • Desserts: Cookies, candy, cake, and ice cream
  • Processed snack foods: Crackers, chips, and pretzels
  • French fries and other fried foods
  • Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages (fruit juices)
  • Red meat (burgers, steaks) and processed meat (hot dogs, sausage, bologna)
  • Margarine and shortening

Now, let’s look at some common foods that are anti-inflammatory or help to reduce inflammation in our body:

  • Vegetables: Broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.
  • Fruit: Especially deeply colored fruits like blueberries, pomegranates, grapes, and cherries
  • High fat fruits: Avocados and olives
  • Healthy fats: Olive oil and avocado oil
  • Fatty fish: Salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, and anchovies
  • Nuts: Almonds and other nuts
  • Peppers: Bell peppers and chili peppers
  • Chocolate: Dark chocolate
  • Spices: Turmeric, fenugreek, cinnamon, etc.
  • Tea: Green tea

As we can see from above, fat is not the “bad guy” in our diet. We need to be more concerned about the high amounts of refined sugars and other additives found in highly processed foods, which have a significant pro-inflammatory effect on our body. As we discussed above foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids (those noted on the list above) will have a beneficial anti-inflammatory effect, however we need to be careful of fried foods along with other fatty foods like margarine or shortening that can contain trans fats, which also can promote inflammation. Dark chocolate (the greater the percent of cacao in the chocolate the better) and deeply colored fruits have high amounts of antioxidants to help neutralize free radicals. Another point here is not to say that you can never have some of the foods that you may find on the pro-inflammatory list, we just need to not make those foods staples in our everyday diet and focus our diet primarily on those foods which are anti-inflammatory.

Unhealthy foods and an unhealthy diet also lead to weight gain and obesity, which itself is a risk factor for inflammation. Metaflammation, the metabolic inflammatory state associated with obesity, directly contributes to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. Low grade chronic inflammation occurs from a few different mechanisms as a result of weight gain and obesity. Hormones play a crucial role in the connection between obesity and inflammation, primarily two hormones are involved: Leptin and Insulin. Leptin is secreted from our adipose (fat) tissue, which helps us to control satiety or satisfaction of hunger, in other words it helps us to control hunger. However, since Leptin is released from adipose tissue, those who are overweight or obese will have higher amounts of adipose tissue and therefore higher amounts of Leptin in their body, which can lead to Leptin resistance. This reduces the ability of Leptin to control our hunger and therefore we tend to eat more leading to more weight gain. In addition, high levels of Leptin have been found to have a direct ability to increase inflammation within our body.

Insulin is the hormone that helps us to regulate blood sugar in our body and is known primarily for its role in diabetes. Obesity is a high-risk factor to insulin resistance, which reduces our bodies ability to properly control our blood sugar and is the highest risk factor for type II diabetes. Insulin resistance also has a direct correlation to weight gain, so it becomes a vicious cycle as weight gain causes insulin resistance, insulin resistance causes more weight gain and the increase of weight causes more inflammation. Weight gain can also be caused by inflammation of the thyroid gland, such as in Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune condition), which can cause hypothyroidism. Your thyroid being your main gland that controls metabolism, under activity of the thyroid can result in rapid weight gain. Weight gain and obesity also obviously increase risk to inflammatory conditions of our muscles and joints as a result of the increased strain to these areas supporting the additional weight. In addition, as we increase fat composition of our body, we reduce muscle mass, creating a relative loss of strength and joint support, which further displaces strain on our joints. Excess weight or obesity also increases stress on our heart as it must work harder to feed blood to the excess tissue. Eating a diet that consists of high amounts of the anti-inflammatory based foods listed above can be a great way to losing and/or controlling your weight.

Stress has a direct relationship to increasing inflammation in our body. There are several biological responses that occur as a result of stress. When we become stressed, whether physically or psychologically our body releases cortisol. Cortisol is a natural steroid that is released from our adrenal glands and signals the body to suppress non-essential functions, like your immune response and digestion, during emergency responses that are necessary during times of stress. The hormone also fuels the production of glucose, or blood sugar, boosting energy to the large muscles, while inhibiting insulin production (helps sugar to go to muscles) and narrowing arteries, which forces the blood to pump harder to aid our stressor response. In short spurts, cortisol can boost your immunity by limiting inflammation. However, during chronic stress, we have consistently high levels of cortisol, which can lead to a weakened immune system and ultimately an increase of inflammation. Chronic stress has been linked by research to exacerbate a number of inflammatory based conditions, including:

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Heart Disease
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis
  • Depression – Pro-inflammatory cytokines, chemical messengers released in response to physical or psychological stress, can trigger depressive symptoms in some people, leading to lowered mood, fatigue, and lack of normal enjoyment of life.

Recovery & Reducing Inflammation

Previously in our Recovery Blog, we discussed some stress management techniques to attempt to manage our stressors more effectively and to reduce the physiological effects of stress.

Sleep can have profound effects on levels of inflammation in our body. Proper rest and sleep allow our body a better opportunity to recover. Quality sleep allows us to achieve all four of our sleep stages, as previously discussed in our recovery blog. During our deep sleep (stage 3) stage hormones, including growth hormone, are released which helps our body to heal by helping to regulate inflammation and maintaining proper immune response amongst other things. Inadequate levels of growth hormone, which can be related to poor sleep, can result in a decrease in our ability to control inflammation and a decreased immune response, both of which can result in increased risk of disease progression. On the other hand, good sleep habits help us to control inflammation, support our immune system and decrease our risk of disease progression.

Exercise is one of our best ways to combat chronic inflammation. Research has shown that consistent levels of moderate to high intensity levels of physical exercise help to reduce many inflammatory mediators including C-reactive protein while also helping to support and stimulate a healthy immune response. These effects have profound impact on reducing our risk to many chronic health conditions associated with chronic inflammation, as previously discussed.

Hopefully if you have made it to this point in the post, you have a better understanding of those lifestyle habits that can both positively and/or negatively effect our risk to chronic inflammation and many chronic diseases. My question to you is if we think about this association of chronic inflammation and disease, is it possible that many of our known chronic health conditions, have very common etiologies, which we have the ability to control through our lifestyle and choices that we make? Perhaps rather than us looking downstream in attempting to treat these conditions with medications in the form of steroids and other medications that help to control inflammation with potential significant side effects, maybe we should be looking upstream to stop our risk of chronic inflammation through the above noted lifestyle factors. This is not to say that there may be a genetic predisposition for some of these diseases, which in and of itself may increase one’s risk to a medical condition. However, the above noted lifestyle factors can also affect our risk even if genetically predisposed.

It is important to realize that we have a profound ability to positively influence our health and well-being and reduce our risk to disease through our own lifestyle choices. Motivated to improve your health and well-being through better lifestyle choices, but unsure of where to start or how to make these changes new habits in your life? Give us 30 minutes of your time and come discover how you can begin your journey to a happier, healthier and fitter life! Schedule to come in for our First Step Nutritional Coaching Strategy Session or our No Stress Fitness Strategy session where we can help you devise an individualized, easy to follow plan for you to create healthier habits on your way to living the life you deserve! Thanks for taking the time to join us and for reading this post. We look forward to seeing and talking with you soon!

Till next time…

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