A guest blog from our partner, Kimsey, at Progressive Health and Wellness.
In 1999, the cover of Time Magazine boasted “Inflammation: The Secret Killer.” A commonly used but poorly understood term, inflammation has been attributed to the underlying cause of all chronic disease, from diabetes and neurological conditions to autoimmune disorders and cancer. While this is not incorrect, it is important to really understand inflammation – what it is, what causes it, and why it is associated with so many health conditions.
First things first, lets define the term ‘inflammation.’ Very simply put, inflammation is the immune system’s response to injury and infection. Many want to describe it as heat, swelling, pain, redness, and this is true with certain forms of acute injury. Sprain your ankle? Yes, it will become swollen, hot, and painful. Cut your arm? Same thing. However, with chronic inflammation, these features typically do not occur. The body is designed to resolve acute injury. Though inflammation often gets a bad wrap, the truth is that we need the inflammatory response, it’s how we heal ourselves. The problem occurs when the level of injury supersedes the body’s ability to resolve it. Acute injury then becomes chronic, paving the road to disease.
Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation
Acute inflammation is a direct, fast, appropriate response to an injury or microbial invasion (i.e infection). In this process, once the injury is detected, immune cells such as neutrophils, the most abundant type of white blood cell, macrophages, lymphocytes, and others are signaled to the seen via cytokines, immune signaling chemicals. There, depending on the nature of the injury, they use a variety of mechanisms, including blood vessel dilation/permeability, additional white blood cell recruitment, and the use of chemokines (toxic chemicals) to (1) destroy any kind of invader and (2) heal the wounded area. This combined effect causes the pain, heat, redness, and swelling we’re all familiar with. From there, the infection will slowly be eradicated or the injury healed, and the body returns to business as usual.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is not so easily resolved. It is long lasting (defined as 3 months or longer), and occurs as a result of 2 main factors:
- Failure to eliminate whatever caused the acute inflammation
- Multiple “injuries” that slowly accumulate, such as high levels of stress, heavy metal toxicity, poor diet, and a physical injury that heals improperly
In chronic inflammation, the persistent and relentless immune response actually becomes a source of injury in and of itself. The immune system then becomes imbalanced, sometimes on the genetic level (as seen with autoimmune conditions and cancer), causing it to either fight a battle that is no longer there, or lose the balance between “destroy and kill” and “heal and repair.” With time, chronic illness, including but not limited to diabetes (both types), obesity, autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and MS, cancer, asthma and allergies, psychiatric disorders such as major depression, bipolar, anxiety, and schizophrenia, and neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, can manifest.
A note on genetics: Epigenetics continue to prove that genetics do not determine our destiny, but rather it is the interaction between genetics and our environment that determines if chronic illness will arise. Genetics simply represent our “weakest link,” or how the chronic condition will manifest – be it cancer, autoimmune, or Parkinson’s. In other words, having a genetic predisposition to something does not guarantee you will get that disorder, but if various environmental factors (see below) line up, genetics shed light on how our health may be impacted. If genetics are the gun, environment pulls the trigger.
There are 3 categories of injury, all of which can illicit an immune response that can eventually become the source(s) of chronic inflammation. Unfortunately, the body has one stress response mechanism, so from a stress hormone point of view (cortisol, adrenaline), your body literally doesn’t know the difference between running from a lion and having to meet a work deadline – they illicit the same hormonal cascade of events (however, the immune response does vary based on the injury). Because of that, I use the term “stress” and “injury” interchangeably.
Chemical stress/injury: Examples of this include toxicity (ubiquitous in our environment – the air we breathe, water we drink, food we eat); hormone imbalance; food sensitivities; nutrient deficiencies; genetics; infection; gut dysbiosis
Physical stress/injury: Traumatic brain injury (TBI); broken bones; acute injury that doesn’t heal appropriately or completely; osteoarthritis; scoliosis; whiplash; herniated discs; degenerative disc disease
Emotional stress/injury: Emotional trauma; financial stress; relationship stress; work; traffic; deadlines; lack of community or support; lack of purpose in life
An analogy I use often with my clients is this: Think of the inflammatory response like a bucket. If you keep dumping water into the bucket (i.e. layering injury upon injury), eventually it overflows. Same concept applies here: When the level of injury supersedes the immune system’s ability to resolve it, symptoms and chronic illness arise. We do not simply want to eliminate inflammation. Rather, it is imperative to identify YOUR sources of injury, then systemically prioritize and eliminate them so the body can go back to healing itself.
Three Universal Tips for Reducing Injury
While effective strategies to calm the inflammatory response will always be unique to each individual, these 3 recommendations comprise the foundation of optimal health:
- Eat an organic, whole foods diet: Nutrition effects every aspect of our health, from the immune system to the cardiovascular system to detoxification and everything in between. Food directly sends messages regarding the state of our external environment to our DNA so it can respond accordingly. Food can either be your strongest medicine or slowest form of poison, quite literally becoming a source of injury or a tool to resolve it. Eliminating sugary and highly processed foods (Soda, I’m talking to you) and eating an abundance of organic fruits and vegetables, 100% grass-fed, free-range, and wild caught animal products, nuts/seeds, and healthy fats will provide the nutrients your body needs to function optimally and heal injuries as they arise. Identifying and eliminating food sensitivities is an important part of a therapeutic diet, too.
- Manage stress: Stress interferes with your body’s healing and repair mechanism and can become a source of injury in and of itself. While we can never eliminate stress, we can control our response to it. In today’s high-stress environment, we’re essentially all running from lions all day long. Actively and intentionally engaging in stress management techniques, such as mindfulness, yoga, meditation, or anything that you find particularly centering and relaxing (long walk, exercise, reading) helps reduce your emotional injury and calm the stress response.
- Get enough sleep: We do approximately 80% of our healing and repair while we sleep. In fact, the brain (which orchestrates many aspects of the immune system) is more active during sleep than during waking hours. Optimal amount of sleep for adults is between 7-9 hours. Unfortunately, when our to-do lists grow, our sleep is often the first to go. It is important to prioritize your sleep. Create a “sleep hygiene” schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day; turning off all forms of media (phone, TV, computer) at least 1 hour before bed; allow 30-60 minutes to unwind before turning off the lights. The body loves routine, so by practicing a consistent bedtime ritual, you can not only ensure you GET sleep, but that you get quality sleep, too.
For anybody suffering from health concerns that would like more guidance on identifying and addressing their sources of injury, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.