Chronic Inflammation: Causes and Treatment
Chronic inflammation does not happen overnight. You don’t treat it with a magic pill or surgery. However, you can start by making a few small diet and lifestyle changes.
by Carole Blemker, R.N., R.D.
Inflammation has become a buzzword in the current medical lexicon. Prior to the 1980s, inflammation was mostly used to describe a normal acute immune response to infection and/or injury. Cut yourself or catch a cold and a cascade of chemical reactions signal inflammatory compounds to get rid of the bad guys, clean up, and set the stage for healing. Inflammation’s role is then complete and it politely bows out until the next performance.
In the late 1980s researchers started looking at another type of inflammation: one which plays a villainous character creeping around and creating a melodrama of physical maladies such as irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and even cancer. This villain was named “chronic inflammation” and it became the focus of research dollars, prescription drug formulations, and dietary recommendations. The research launched fish oil-derived omega-3 fatty acids from laboratories onto the shelves of pharmacies and health food stores. Turmeric and ginger were no longer just spices found in exotic Asian cookery. They were encapsulated, bottled and shelved alongside the fish oils.
What is chronic inflammation? Think of it as an overstimulated immune system which can’t regulate the appropriate release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in response to infection or physical trauma. Instead, the immune system continually releases small amounts of inflammatory compounds, or sometimes it plays the drama queen (as in allergic reactions to innocuous proteins found in nuts or ragweed pollen). Gradually, collateral damage from long term exposure of healthy tissue to inflammatory chemicals can result in chronic disease.
Chronic inflammation does not happen overnight. You don’t treat it with a magic pill or surgery. The causes can range from genes, immune function, diet, exposure to environmental toxins, blood sugar and insulin dysregulation, and stress factors. Obviously, you cannot control your genes (yet). However, you can start by making a few small diet and lifestyle changes. Monitoring what you eat can have far-reaching effects on your immune system, blood sugar, and stress response.
One of the biggest contributors to chronic inflammation is the skewed ratio of certain pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids (FA) to anti-inflammatory omega-3 FA in the modern diet. Both omega-3 and -6 FA are essential because our body needs them and can’t make them on its own. However, we are eating disproportionately more omega-6 FA than omega-3 FA, while living in bodies that were designed for the opposite. Much of that lopsided ratio is due to our heavy consumption of grain fed animal products and certain vegetable and seed oils, omega-6 FA sources that can generate the production of inflammatory molecules. We can make omega-3 using a FA found in flaxseed or chia seeds, but the conversion is unreliable and too many dietary omega-6 FA interfere with the process. (Flax and chia are still nutritional powerhouses. Just keep in mind that getting omega-3s from these sources is complicated.)
Eating fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, anchovies and mackerel 2-3 times per week provides two types of omega-3s, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and decosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA is a precursor to anti-inflammatory signals, prostaglandins, which prevent cardiovascular disease and improve blood flow. EPA is also involved in the production of resolvins that prevent inflammatory cells and chemical signals from forming in the body. Omega-3 supplements are an option as well. Just make sure you are getting a reputable brand; they should not taste fishy or leave you burping with a nasty aftertaste. It is definitely worth spending more for a good quality supplement.
Incorporate turmeric and ginger into your diet. Both spices are strongly anti-inflammatory and also bring loads of other healthful benefits to the table. Turmeric should be used in combination with black pepper which helps with its absorption in the GI tract. Traditional Indian cooking often combines turmeric with a fat, such as ghee or coconut oil, which may also aid in its absorption. A powerful protector as an anti-oxidant, turmeric is now the superstar of supplements. As with fish oil, make sure you buy a reputable brand.
Exercise is helpful in decreasing inflammation. When not overdone, it helps the immune system, is a great stress reliever, and helps build muscle mass, which aids in reducing inflammation. Excess fat can release inflammatory chemical signals called adipokines that affect the body as a whole.
Cook with coconut oil. It’s delicious, easily substituted for other fats in baking and frying, and safe at high temperatures. Although a saturated fat, it consists of medium chain triglycerides (MCT) that can reduce abdominal fat, the fat around your gut that has a bad habit of pumping out inflammatory chemicals that increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Most animal fats are long chain triglycerides (LCT) that are digested completely differently than MCTs, which go directly from the stomach to the liver where they are quickly metabolized, burning more calories than the fat contains. For this reason MCTs are being extensively researched as a possible aid in weight reduction. Try this recipe adapted from The New York Times.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil
1 3/4 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 teaspoons light brown sugar, packed
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Melt coconut oil in a small saucepan over low heat. In a large bowl, toss together potatoes, coconut oil, sugar, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Spread potatoes evenly on a large baking sheet. Roast, tossing occasionally, until soft and caramelized, about 1 hour. Makes 2 to 4 servings.
More information on chronic inflammation, including inflammatory ratings of many foods can be found on the web site http://www.inflammationfactor.com.
Carole Blemker is a Registered Nurse and Registered Dietitican with many years of experience. She is also a former librarian who loves researching all things concerning plants and people, and teaching from both holistic and clinical perspectives.