by Mike Gill
What is it? Why should I care? What can I do about it?
Inflammation has become quite a hot topic in the health world over the past decade. We are finding that it is a major factor (if not the main factor) in heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, chronic pain, and many other conditions. It used to be that we thought each of these had a separate cause, but more and more we are finding that inflammation lies at the center. Nearly a decade ago Time Magazine wrote a cover story on inflammation called “The Silent Killer”. Far from being alarmist, further research has not only shown the article to be correct, it has shown further dangers with chronic inflammation.
What is it?
Inflammation is the body’s response to something damaging or irritating it. It is a defense mechanism that is absolutely necessary for good health. The body has pathways that encourage inflammation and pathways that counter it, both mitigated (mainly) by fatty acids called prostaglandins. In an ideal world, the two balance each other out, making both pathways available for use as needed. Whatever you may think of the modern world and it’s relation to an ideal world, your body sees the modern world as less than ideal. Our stress is nearly constant, our sleep is often disrupted, our diet and exercise differ from the evolutionary model, and on and on. In the case of inflammation, many of the things that define modern life encourage the pro-inflammatory pathway, while those that are anti-inflammatory are under-represented.
Why should I care?
Chronic inflammation has been shown to be a factor in a host of diseases: diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, asthma, and many more. So, you could care because of the future. Inflammation has also been tied to depression, weight gain, chronic pain, hormone imbalances and allergies, so you could care because of the here and now. Whichever suits you, there are many reasons to care about inflammation.
What can I do about it?
Fortunately there are many ways reduce inflammation. Unfortunately, this leads to confusion, as many different authors/therapists/health gurus jockey for position in presenting their “best” ways of doing it. The actual best way is the one that best suits you. For most, the best way will be some combination of many or all of the methods listed below.
Healthy Fats: Fish oil, flax seeds, we’ve all heard of omega-3 fatty acids by now. Besides “good for us”, most of us don’t much beyond the name. Simply put, omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory and most omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory. It is believed that our ancestors in the distant past ate roughly the same amount of omega-3s as omega 6s. The average American now eats 15 times as many omega-6 fats as omega-3 fats.
Fish oil is the most commonly recommended solution, but let’s take a moment and look at the numbers. The average American eats 75 grams of fat per day. That breaks down to 70 grams of omega 6 fats and 5 grams of omega 3s. How much of a difference will two grams of fish oil make? Not much. Not enough for you to feel the difference anyway. The best way to shift this ratio is to exchange unhealthy fats for healthy ones whenever you are able. If you’d like to take a fish oil supplement in additional to this, it can only help.
Sugar: Ah sugar, the great villain driving up the size of our waistlines and driving down our life expectancy. I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that sugar is inflammatory. Sugar also drives up our production of insulin, which is inflammatory. When both float around in our blood at high numbers for long enough, we become insulin resistant (diabetes). This leads to a nasty spiral where the body produces more and more insulin (inflammatory), to deal with higher and higher levels of blood sugar (inflammatory). Use sugar with great discretion. Better yet, use it as it appears in nature; packaged in fruit with fiber. Do not confuse fruit with sugar as many diets suggest. Do not confuse juice for fruit, as many advertisements suggest.
Processed foods: Science has done a great deal to improve on the inconveniences of food; it spoils, it varies in taste, it can be fragile, strange, expensive, stinky or flavorful. It has all the variance of nature, which we have learned to disdain. To make food able to be shipped all over the globe, or stored on shelves for months, we had to chemically change it. To make it as cheap as possible, we have leaned on the cheapest crop available: corn. It turns out corn oil is inflammatory. It turns out that any animal fed corn produces oil that is inflammatory. Throw in the fact that most processed food also add unhealthy fats and sugar, and you have quite an inflammatory collaboration.
Processed is a tricky term, ripe for interpretation. As much as I’d like to give you clear directives, there are a great many degrees of processing. Shoot for the lowest amount of processing you can comfortably get, whenever you can. Leave the bomb shelter food for post-apocalyptic futures; the survivors will thank you.
Supplements: There are a great many supplements that can help with inflammation. Vitamin D is an important one, as is magnesium. Considering that vitamin D comes primarily from the sun and magnesium is necessary for leaves to be green, it is easy to see how our ancestors easily got enough of each. It is also easy to see how we don’t. More than 75% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D, with numbers even higher than that in northern latitudes and among those with darker skin. The amount of Americans deficient in magnesium is about the same. The real kicker to this is that the number for clinical deficiency is less than half of the optimal level. Speak to a professional to find the right amount of each for you.
Turmeric is the most studied herb on the planet right now, because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Curcumin is thought to be the active anti-inflammatory agent, and the amount of benefits that are being found for it are staggering (and growing every day). Any way that you can sneak turmeric into your diet is a great way to curb inflammation. If you need something more powerful, you may want to talk to a professional about curcumin.
Stress: I know, stress as a cause of anything sounds like a cop out; like a way of saying “I don’t have any other good idea as to why this is happening.” Partly this is because it can be blamed for almost anything. The truth is, there is a good reason for that; it can be a factor in almost every malady you or I can name. It has been shown that stress causes inflammation through activation of pro-inflammatory genes.
The other reason stress can seem like a cop out is that we find it hard to envision life without it. Modern life is defined by it and our bodies have not yet learned to cope. The immediate life or death situations that required adrenaline have been replaced by the insistent, inescapable realities of the modern world. While those realities are inescapable, our reactions to them can be adjusted through nutrition, supplements, meditation, breathing exercises, journaling and many other techniques.
Exercise: It just wouldn’t be a health article without exercise, right? Right. That doesn’t mean you have to join a Crossfit gym or run a marathon (or even a mile), it just means you have to move your body. Physical activity gives the body an outlet for all of the excess nervous energy that our stressful lives produce. It helps your body more efficiently deal with insulin and blood sugar. It helps in innumerable other ways too; ways that indirectly decrease inflammation.
What kind of exercise? Start with something that you like. Better yet, start by rotating several things that you like. Liking what you’re doing makes it easier (and thus more realistic) to keep going and varying your exercise helps to prevent overuse injuries. As for Crossfit or marathon running (or any other intense exercise regimen), bear in mind that though it is healthy overall, it will raise your inflammation, at least in the short term. That doesn’t mean you should skip it, especially if it is important to you. If you are to train in this way, just take steps to mitigate inflammation in the other areas listed above; even more than you otherwise would. Your health and your performance will improve.
 Americans are eating 10g less fat per day than they did in the late 1970s. (n.d.). Retrieved January 14, 2016, from http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/R-D/Americans-are-eating-10g-less-fat-per-day-than-they-did-in-the-late-1970s
 Simopoulos, A. (n.d.). Importance of the Ratio of Omega-6/Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids: Evolutionary Aspects. World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics Omega-6/Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acid Ratio: The Scientific Evidence, 1-22.
 Vitamin D deficiency soars in the U.S., study says. (n.d.). Retrieved January 14, 2016, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/vitamin-d-deficiency-united-states/
 Powell, N., Sloan, E., Bailey, M., Arevalo, J., Miller, G., Chen, E., . . . Cole, S. (2013). Social stress up-regulates inflammatory gene expression in the leukocyte transcriptome via -adrenergic induction of myelopoiesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 16574-16579.
Michael Gill is a Certified Nutritional Professional and Licensed Massage Therapist, with 14 years of experience in the natural health field. He holds a B.S. in Health Sciences from the Portland State University, School of Public Health. He has a practice in downtown Portland, and has a black belt in Poekoelan Tjiminde Tulen.
Image courtesy of stockdevil at FreeDigitalPhotos.net