What is inflammation?
More and more today, research and scientific papers are written talking about inflammation. How often have we seen something criticized as “inflammatory”? From Omega-6 fats to stress to sugar to diet, everything bad seems to cause inflammation. But what exactly is inflammation and why is it such a problem? If it’s so dangerous, why do our bodies keep doing it in response to everything they don’t like? There are different types of inflammation and the causes are many. Some inflammation is dangerous while others are protective for our bodies. So let’s look at how inflammation works and why it can be dangerous. Remember, not all types of inflammation are bad.
The best way to explain inflammation is to think what happens when you get a splinter. If the splinter is left in place, the area around it turns red and swells. That’s inflammation at work. It’s not bad because it means your immune system is rushing help to the area to fight any viruses or bacteria that might have gotten in. In the case of a cut or splinter, you want that help because this type of inflammation keeps any pathogens out of your body so you don’t get sick. This type of inflammation is good. Basically, if this type of inflammation is left alone with no repeating of the injury, the body heals and everything returns to normal. In fact, when we exercise, we damage muscles and they become inflamed. If we rest and then resume the exercise, our muscles actually get stronger. Again, this type of inflammation is good. But sometimes, inflammation can be bad. If you were to keep stabbing yourself with splinters in the same area (using the example above), or kept training every day without letting your muscles and body rest and repair between workouts, the inflammation would never go down because you would be constantly re-injuring yourself. This type of inflammation is bad.
These inflammations I described above are visible to the eye. What about inflammations that are hidden? That’s exactly what happens if you keep irritating your gut lining (for example, with foods you’re sensitive to). The injury is constantly being repeated, at least three meals a day, every day of the year. This is chronic inflammation and it’s bad. Other sources of chronic inflammatory stress include:
- Psychological stress – a job you hate, money problems, social isolation, unemployment, caring for a loved one with a serious disease, etc.
- Excess Omega-6 fats – consuming too much soy and soy products, peanut oil or nuts increases your levels of Omega-6 fats which are pro-inflammatory.
- Inadequate Omega-3 fats – consuming too little of these essential fats from sources like fatty fish, olive oil, fish or krill oil. Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory.
- Sleep deprivation – this is a powerful stressor which can raise your cortisol levels and create chronic inflammation.
All of the above (and others I haven’t mentioned) are serious and powerful stressors. If they’re constant in our lives, they’re causing chronic inflammation. If the inflammation is in your gut, you might not see it the way you see a splinter on your finger, but it’s still there. The symptoms may be subtle at first, but over time, they build up and can cause serious problems. It’s better to prevent this from happening then try to reverse it afterwards. Think of the way your whole joint swells up and gets stiff when you get a splinter in your knuckle. It just doesn’t work right and you see it. Now imagine your gut trying to work when it’s all inflamed like that, all the time. You don’t initially see the problem, but it’s still there. The bottom line – the root problem is the injury; inflammation, the symptom.
Inflammation – more than just a symptom
If that symptom(s) of inflammation continues for too long, it can also become a problem. Acute inflammation isn’t a problem because if the inflammatory response flares up and then dies down, there’s nothing to worry about. But chronic inflammation can actually be a symptom that causes problems of its own. Most chronic diseases are associated with inflammation. Doctors and scientists are not always sure if it is the inflammation that causes the disease, or the disease that causes the inflammation? There’s some evidence that inflammation is actually the cause. For example, cytokines (any of a number of substances, such as interferon, interleukin, and growth factors, that are secreted by certain cells of the immune system and have an effect on other cells) are an important part of the immune reaction to infections, inflammation, and injuries. But some of them are pro-inflammatory and some anti-inflammatory. Pro-inflammatory cytokines and chronic inflammation can make all kinds of diseases worse. For example, the following diseases have been correlated with pro-inflammatory cytokines:
- Alzheimer Disease
- Obesity and diabetes – obesity-induced inflammation contributes to the development of diabetes, and diabetes does nothing for your weight.
What are PUFAs?
Fifty to sixty years, the Standard American Diet (SAD – ironic, isn’t it!) had plenty of saturated fats in it. We cooked with butter and lard. The safer fats were unsaturated. The more unsaturated, the better. We cooked with soybean, peanut or “vegetable” oils. These oils, even though more unsaturated than animal fats like lard, are loaded with Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs. These omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory. In fact, the ratio of the Omega-6 to Omega-3 (anti-inflammatory) PUFAs in the SAD diet are typically about 25-30 to 1. This leads to inflammation. If chronic inflammation just stopped everything from working quite right, it would be bad enough – but contributing to all kinds of chronic diseases takes it up a level from worrying to a serious problem. When it’s a one-time thing, inflammation is nothing to be concerned about since it is self-limited. In fact, it’s necessary because we wouldn’t be able to recover from injuries without it. If you have time to recover between bouts of inflammatory activity, it can even be beneficial in certain cases. But when it’s chronic, inflammation is a serious problem. It makes you feel bad, stops your body from working as well as it could, and contributes to other problems like insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome eventually.
What’s the bottom line?
Don’t let your life fill up with inflammatory stressors! These are some of the ones we don’t think of:
- Diet – limit Omega-6 fats, excess sugar, and refined carbs. Get enough Omega-3s, preferably from actual fish, not just from fish oil supplements.
- Psychological and Social stress – Find ways to mange it better.
- Rest between workouts – Give yourself plenty of rest time between workouts. Workouts don’t make you stronger. Workouts injure your muscles, recovery from workouts makes you stronger.
- Be kind to your gut – Take care of your gut bacteria as the wrong types of bacteria in our guts are an inflammation bomb waiting to happen. Get plenty of antioxidants from fresh fruits and vegetables or quality antioxidant supplements as our diets are not as nutrient-rich as it was for our parents or grandparents. You may find it helpful to take a quality probiotic and prebiotic (more in a later lesson).
How important is our diet?
I’m not telling you that we should stop eating certain foods and eat others as much as I’m telling you that the human body is surprisingly resilient when it needs to be. Going on a crusade against every potential source of inflammation causes more stress than it’s worth. But you should be aware of what inflammation is and how to prevent it. This will help you understand why certain foods are better to eat than others, which sources of protein are better than others, etc. Research has established that obesity is characterized by low-level chronic inflammation. Several theories as to how this inflammation occurs have been proposed, but dietary choices seem to be the most important factor involved. It’s increasingly recognized that regular consumption of certain foods leads to diet-induced inflammation, which in turn sets the stage for insulin resistance, leptin resistance and other conditions that lead to being overweight and obesity. These conditions make it very hard to lose weight and maintain healthy body weight or regain weight when you stop “dieting.” Studies done on non-westernized populations show that hunter-gatherers have virtually no incidence of obesity, even when they had access to an abundance of food. In fact, ancient man ate entirely different from modern man. Anthropologists teach us that, genetically, we still are adapted to eat a more “ancient” diet, not the fast food/sugary drinks we consume today. Refined sugar, refined grains, refined vegetable oils and certain dairy products were not a part of these ancestral diets, while they are eaten in abundance in westernized societies. These “modern” diets promote obesity and inflammation through various mechanisms. We are still basically a hunter-gatherer society, only different in that the men now hunt for the TV remotes and the women gather up the children for a ride to the fast food restaurants!