Inflammation arises as your body's effort to heal itself. The body's healing response cannot occur without inflammation. Wounded or diseased areas are flooded with extra blood and immune cells, the familiar signs of which are redness, puffiness, and at times a warm or burning sensation.
The negative side of this is the harm caused when inflammation tips the balance against healing, and our own bodies pose a greater threat to health than any outside disease. Here people die, for instance, from fevers gone out of control.
Inflammation is the ultimate two-edged sword, and the polar nature of inflammation has been known for a long time. However, the focus to date has been overwhelmingly on acute inflammation, the drastic kind triggered by wounds and disease.
However, more relevant today is the easily overlooked, seemingly innocuous state of low-grade chronic inflammation that has massive health impacts, and is the root of all chronic diseases. It can make you old before your time.
What makes chronic inflammation so dangerous, is a matter of time. Lifestyle disorders that cause the most harm in modern society, for instance hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers take years or even decades to gestate before the first symptoms appear. The same appears to be true for Alzheimer's. This discovery pushes back the onset of disease so far, that detection is difficult without developing sensitive new tools.
As research in various disorders unfold, a single factor, namely markers for inflammation, keeps appearing over and over, no matter how different any two disorders are. This is a startling revelation, because hypertension looks nothing like Alzheimer's or cancer like diabetes. Yet in the incremental breakdown of healthy cell function, chemicals that trigger inflammation are a vital link, and often the only link. In fact, inflammation is a contributing factor to a majority of all deaths. Literally billions of lives are at risk in both the developed and developing world.
The single most important thing you can do to prevent premature aging is to control inflammation.
Yet, too often we think of inflammation as something to get rid of, and instead choose to medicate pain, swelling, or stiffness with anti-inflammatory drugs in an attempt to relieve the discomfort, ignorant of the fact that inflammation is a critically important defense mechanism. It is our natural siren to alert us that a body part needs attention, much like the call from a fire alarm, which moves firefighting to action. But too much produces disease. Our primal ancestors did not suffer from chronic inflammation. And they had almost no chronic disease to speak of. This is because they exercised as their environment demanded, and they ate clean, natural and healing foods.
In the modern world, chronic disease is rampant, thanks to unnatural, processed foods such as sugar, cheap vegetable oils and refined carbohydrates that your body wasn't designed to handle, toxins and pollutants in our air and water, and the stress of everyday living.
And studies show a significantly greater percentage of women over 55 suffer from chronic diseases than men in the same age group. Here are just a few of the conditions that can result from chronic inflammation:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Heart disease
And the older you become, the greater your risk. All those years of relentless inflammation are bound to take a toll on your health.
Inflammation works in two main ways: primary and chronic. The primary pathway works on detoxification and repair. This is a symptom-less pathway when it is efficient. Every day when you walk, exercise, eat, or breathe the body needs to cleanse and eliminate the build up of toxins and repair any cellular injury that has occurred. When primary inflammation is hard at work, you will not experience any pain or even be aware it is occurring.
When the primary pathway of inflammation falls short, then the secondary pathway steps in. Secondary inflammation, or what you may know as chronic inflammation, is a pathway of protection. It protects your cells from rapid destruction by allowing the tissue to change and adapt to the on-going stress in the area, and can cause pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of function that signals to us that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. This is when most patients will self-medicate or come to the doctor for help. Unfortunately, when chronic inflammation remains for long periods of time and is not addressed adequately, it will cause the expression of genes that lead to degenerative conditions such as coronary artery disease, arthritis, cancer and others.
How do you fight against a threat that potentially targets the brain, cardiovascular system, the immune system, the organs and tissues of the endocrine system, in what has been referred to as 'smoldering inflammation'?
While in many cases, anti-inflammatory medications are prudent and potentially life saving in patients with certain conditions such as cardiovascular disease (for example aspirin has been shown to prevent heart attacks) and auto-immune inflammations (when treated with anti-inflammatory medications, these patients can experience improved quality of life), it is still very common for doctors and patients to take a rather cavalier attitude toward prescribing and consuming these medications. In this context, it is important to note that anti-inflammatory medication is not without side effects. One problem is that in suppressing inflammation, the medicine is disabling the body's ability to detoxify, repair, and protect itself. In addition, the medication itself is a toxin that needs to be eliminated through the pathway of primary inflammation, when that pathway would be better spent taking care of the body's natural needs.
Anybody on a prescription anti-inflammatory medication is required by their physician to take periodic liver function blood tests. Why? Because the drugs are suppressing not only the chronic inflammation which causes pain, but also the primary pathway of inflammation, which, as you know is responsible for detoxifying our cells. When the liver is unable to detoxify expediently, then the cells of the liver will become damaged. The result? Liver toxicity. Other common side effects such as internal bleeding and drug interactions must be closely looked for.
This is not to suggest that you live your life in pain. But you can now see, every time you use a medication that suppresses inflammation, you are effectively suppressing detoxification, repair of the cells, and protection of injured tissues. What is needed here is that you become a responsible advocate for your own good health. Inflammation is holistic, affecting potentially any system in the body. However, relying on a lifetime of anti-inflammatory medication alone will not improve your health. Optimising your health depends on understanding the mechanisms that are responsible for your body's need to maintain a chronic inflammatory approach.
The answer may not lie in drugs but in lifestyle. In fact, the entire wellness movement, in its goal of achieving lifelong good health, must drill into the public mind a new model for health that doesn't focus of risks and prevention, important as they are. Instead, the new model is all about the entire mind-body, and making every day a healing day. Measures to overcome chronic inflammation need to be maintained for a lifetime.
By combining traditional and holistic principles to treat patients, ordering certain lab tests, as well as examining the patient's diet, lifestyle and environmental influences on health, many inflammatory mechanisms can be uncovered and addressed. Some aspects of chronic inflammation, such as impaired organ function, cellular death, aging, and recovering from serious injury or illness, involve serious medical intervention. But for the most part, a lifestyle that allows the whole body's system to thrive is the key. A thriving, homeostatic system is supported by the following:
- A balanced lifestyle without extreme changes.
- Good sleep.
- A whole food, plant-based diet.
- Paying attention to everyday activity, including walking and standing.
- Reducing stress.
- Absence of emotional upset, anxiety, and depression.
- Solid family and community support.
- Feeling loved and wanted.
- A calm, unconflicted mind.
Which provides you with an unerstanding of what you can you do to decrease the need for chronic inflammation in your body, and help your body heal without suppressing inflammation.
The list of what we can do is not mysterious or novel. We've all absorbed lifestyle information for years. But the revelation that chronic inflammation is a true plague changes the urgency and priority of the choices we all have to make . For example, given that yoga and meditation benefit the mind-body in many ways, they become high-priority choices for everyone, starting at an early age. Recent revelations that the brain can directly regulate inflammation has opened new, tremendously exciting opportunities. Insights on the detailed physiology of how the mind and the nervous system influences this system may provide new ways to help us alleviate chronic inflammation over long periods of time. The challenge now is to identify how best to regulate inflammation and to map that mind-body connection. Only then can we better understand how to truly support a “thriving body”.
Here are just a few suggestions for reducing chronic inflammation:
The right nutrients can combat the effects of modern living. But most doctors are not educated in the role of nutrition in disease. They often suggest a “balanced diet.” But that's often just a balance of inflammation-friendly junk, such as breads, cereals and other processed foods.
The primary pathway of inflammation is built primarily from Omega 3 fatty acids. Eating food rich in these natural nutrients assists the body in having a more profound primary inflammatory response and at the same time, it minimises the chronic inflammation responsible for pain and suffering.
Taking supplements rich in plant enzymes such as bromelain assist the body as catalysts for the repair of our cells. Taken on an empty stomach, these enzymes can break down the byproducts of inflammation thus clearing the way for cellular repair.
Efficient inflammation depends on a healthy immune system. 70% of the cells of our immune system are found in the gastrointestinal tract. These cells are fed by short chain fatty acids (that do not exist in nature), which are the result of fermentation of complex carbohydrates - whole grains, vegetables, beans - by the friendly bacteria (probiotics) of our intestinal lining. So it is essential for anyone suffering with inflammation to eat food such a yoghurt, which has an ample supply of probiotics on a daily basis.
Consuming a diet low in Omega 6-rich foods such as meat, dairy, baked goods, flour products, and grains (basically the standard processed Western diet), is also helpful when looking to relieve inflammation. Although Omega 6 fatty acids are essential in any diet because they are the building blocks of chronic inflammation (which helps the body protect itself when it can't repair itself efficiently), it will cause the immune system to bypass primary inflammation and default into chronic inflammation, when consumed in excess.
Since we require water to serve as the vehicle for all chemical reactions in the body as well as to flush out toxins, proper hydration becomes paramount (the daily requirement varies from individual to individual, and thirst is an indicator, or, consult your health professional for what's right for you). I am not talking about dehydrating liquids such as caffeinated beverages and alcohol, but rather, clean, fresh water preferably filtered, distilled, or from a reliable spring.
And not many doctors know that the stress hormone cortisol increases with age. If left unchecked, stress will sabotage your immune system and accelerate aging.
Yoga is a powerful way to help banish inflammation and help rid your body of this damaging plague. When the group that practiced yoga were tested, blood samples revealed reduced levels of C-reactive protein and reduced production of cytokines, both markers of inflammation. The researchers noted that yoga worked by reversing the activation of the body's molecular inflammatory-signaling pathways. And these benefits were maintained throughout the 16-month follow-up study period. I encourage you to take up this ancient therapy.
Yoga helps, and can be supported with appropriate diet and exercise that are important in reducing inflammation.
Here are three recommendations I give to my patients:
Turmeric: This bright orange root is one of Ayurveda's favorite anti-inflammatory foods. Curcumin is the active compound in turmeric. It acts as a scavenger for a number of inflammatory free radicals and it inhibits cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) a pro-inflammatory substance. You can add ground turmeric to stir-fries, curries, scrambled eggs, just about anything. You can also get curcumin supplements. Look for a supplement standardised to contain 90% or more “curcuminoids.” It should also contain piperine, a black pepper extract that increases absorbency.
Vitamin B: This key nutrient helps your body break down the amino acid homocysteine. High blood levels of homocysteine boost the chemicals your body uses to promote inflammation. When you have too much homocysteine in your blood, your blood vessels cannot dilate properly. This can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Daily amounts of Vitamin B6 – 50 mg, vitamin B12 – 500 mcg and vitamin B9 (folate or folic acid) – 800 mcg have been recommended.
Exercise: Even moderate physical activity lowers your C-Reactive Protein levels, which rise in response to inflammation in your body. To lower your CRP level in the shortest amount of time, try this simple workout. (Of course, check with your doctor first if you haven't been exercising for a while.):
Tai Chi: White Crane Spreads Its Wings: This elegant move is a symbol of unified movement and is a direct line of energy from the foot to the lower abdomen then out to the hand. Done three times consecutively it only takes one minute in total, although it can be done as often as you want.
- Step 1: Stand straight with your hands relaxed at your sides and your body loose.
- Step 2: Take a deep breath and slowly extend one leg in front of you by about half a step, with very little weight on the extended leg.
- Step 3: As you exhale slowly, extend your arms outward, away from your body...
- Step 4: Now extend your right arm upward and your left arm downward, like a bird spreading its wings. Keep your palms open and your whole body relaxed yet purposeful.
- Step 5: At the same time, your right hand moves dramatically farther and slightly faster than the other. But, the left hand is not limp. It should also be filled with internal energy and counterbalances the active hand.
- Step 6: Now take another deep breath and exhale very slowly and drop your hands to your side as you retract your leg until you are standing straight but relaxed.
- Repeat on the other side
Shanti Gowans is the globally recognised author and founder of Shanti Yoga™, Meditation and Ayurveda for the self, family and community.
Shantiji has brought the concepts and practices of a healthy body and a still mind to thousands of Australians through her Yoga and Meditation programs on national television... Read more about Shantiji's biography
Travel with Shanti & Peter Gowans this November for a trip of a lifetime.