5 Causes of Inflammation (And How to Avoid Them)
5 Causes of Inflammation (And How to Avoid Them)
“Inflammation: The Root Cause of All Disease?”
That headline from Yahoo News1 was pasted across my email inbox — and of course I couldn't resist a click.
Inflammation has become the new buzzword in pop medicine, described as the cause of everything from cancer to Alzheimer's.
But is this reputation deserved?
The short answer: yes.
There is mounting evidence to suggest that chronic inflammation is linked to Alzheimer's2, cancer3, heart disease4, diabetes5, and low testosterone6 — to name a few.
The slightly longer answer: yes and no...
It may surprise you to know that inflammation is actually a necessary part of a healthy body.
Acute (short term) inflammation is the body's way of dealing with foreign invaders in the body — whether it be living organisms like viruses, germs, and pollen, or chemicals like medications, pollution, and environmental toxins. Without it we wouldn't be able to get these things out of our bodies!
It's only when this bodily response fails to quit — either through continued contact with the inflammatory stimulant, or some deficiency in the body's immune system — that you witness the chronic (long term) inflammation associated with Alzheimer's, cancer, and the other diseases I listed above.
If you're aware of what's causing your chronic inflammation, it is possible for you to reduce or even eliminate its effects — thereby increasing your health and well-being.
Here are five little-known inflammation triggers that you should be aware of.
Not getting enough sleep. Getting stuck in traffic. Having emotional arguments.
No matter what causes your stress, it all has the same effect on the body.
One of the responses to stress is production of the hormone known as cortisol — one of its main functions is to prepare your mind and body to “fight or flee” a stressful situation.
Now normally the release of cortisol is a good thing for inflammation, it helps prevents the inflammation process from going off in the body. This is why you'll often receive cortisol or a similar drug when you have an allergic reaction — the allergic reaction is an inflammatory response, and cortisol helps suppress that response.
However, prolonged cortisol release desensitizes the cells that produce the inflammatory chemicals in your body — you start to build up a tolerance, in other words7. The longer you remain in a stressed state, the less effective your cortisol becomes at keeping inflammation at bay.
There are literally thousands of stress reduction techniques out there. If your stress is biological (like sleep problems), then talking to a doctor would be your best option. Some people will benefit from talking to a therapist or counselor, especially those suffering from relationship, career, or financial stress.
No matter what degree of stress you're suffering from, I'd highly recommend learning breathing techniques via meditation or yoga. We often respond to stress by speeding up our breathing and clenching our teeth, but this can often make the situation worse. By focusing on your breath, you can slow it down and pay more attention to your thoughts and feelings that arise from the stressful situation. This will go a long way towards calming yourself down and responding appropriately to the stressful stimuli.
Many medications are taken without thought for the side effects or consequences, while other times they're taken because the side effects are outweighed by the benefits.
Either way, one of the main side effects of some of these medicines is inflammation. A lot of drugs — like pain killers, fever reducers, statins, and some antibiotics — are broken down in the liver, which can cause it to become inflamed8.
Statins and gout medications have been associated with muscle inflammation, anti-epilepsy drugs have been associated with general inflammation, chemo drugs can cause bladder inflammation, and a whole host of drugs are associated with pancreas inflammation.
So what can you do about medication inflammation?
First of all, hopefully you and your doctor have already had a talk to decide that the benefits of taking the medicine outweigh the inflammation risks. If you haven't done that yet, schedule an appointment and do it now!
Second of all, start doing other things to take care of your body. Oftentimes these diseases for which you are taking medicines can be treated with a healthier diet, exercise, and smoking cessation — all treatments that don't involve chronic inflammation. Even if you still have to take the medication, by taking care of your body you'll be more resilient to its side effects.
In addition to the rise of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease with the rise of the Standard American Diet (SAD) in the 60's and 70's, inflammation too has seen its own dramatic increase. In fact all of those diseases I just mentioned are in some way or another caused by or associated with inflammation...
Despite what you've been led to believe all these years, eating foods rich in saturated fat won't cause heart disease — if anything, it helps protect you from it. What we do know about heart disease is that you can have tons of fat in your arteries — but without inflammation, you can't develop heart disease.9
Both obesity and diabetes are associated with inflammation of tissues involved in energy metabolism (breaking down food for energy), including fat cells, liver, muscles, pancreas, and the brain, which all contribute to the insulin resistance that characterizes these two diseases.10
So what part of the diet exactly causes inflammation? Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats found in most vegetable oils11, and refined carbohydrates like pasta, crackers, and cookies12. The same foods that we've only been eating heavily in the past 40-50 years.
The obvious solution to this: don't eat processed foods! If junk food is the cause of inflammation, it's only sensible to cut out (or drastically limit) its consumption. So save the cake for your birthday and Doritos for food emergencies only.
As I mentioned earlier, inflammation is a natural response to dealing with viruses and bacteria. It helps your immune system mobilize a response to keep the germs from spreading and to eventually rid them from the body. Normally our body is pretty good at fighting the diseases with inflammation, and then quickly getting that inflammation under control.
However, there are things that can suppress your immune system reaction, which increases your risk of infections and ultimately your risk of chronic inflammation. Some of these can't be avoided — like certain drugs taken for organ transplants, which need to suppress the immune system so the body accepts the new organ.
Others CAN be avoided — things like lack of sleep, lack of exercise, a poor diet, and stress can all weaken your immune system and make it harder to fight off diseases. Remember, the longer it takes you to fight off the infection, the longer you expose yourself to the harmful effects of inflammation. The solution, then, is to take the effort and talk to your doctor or health consultant about improving your sleep and diet, and introducing exercise stress-reduction techniques into your life.
Just like germs, your body deals with these foreign invaders by inducing an inflammatory response. Some of us deal with this every spring when the pollen comes out — your itchy eyes and runny nose are both the effects of inflammation in those two body parts.
Air pollution — whether cigarette smoke or from car exhaust — can trigger inflammation of the airways and lungs, and in some people this can lead to an asthmatic reaction. Others experience skin inflammation when they come into contact with certain chemicals from clothing and furniture.
The key to reducing this inflammatory reactions is to minimize or eliminate your exposure to these pollutants and allergens. Sometimes this won't be possible — you could sit inside all day to keep away from ragweed pollen, but who wants to do that when it's 75 degrees and sunny outside? In this case, I usually just suck it up and take an over-the-counter allergy medicine. Some people — especially those in polluted cities, or those with very severe allergies — will put on “particle respirator” masks like the one pictured below.
You'll also want to keep an eye on indoor air pollution as well — vacuum often to keep the house free of allergens, eliminate mold, wash bed sheets and clothing often, and ventilate (open windows) if you're not allergic to things outside. You may consider purchasing an air purifier as well, which can help cut down on your indoor air pollution. I use the Honeywell Compact Air Purifier in my room, and have noticed that I'm waking up a lot more clear headed.
Remember — short term inflammation responses are a normal and healthy reaction. It's when your body can't stop this inflammation process that you'll start to notice the more harmful health effects — and when you should be more concerned.
Yours in health,
P.S. I just glossed over the dietary aspect of inflammation. If you'd like more information on what food changes you can make to better your health, I recommend checking out this article by Dr. Champ.
P.P.S. Do you have any questions, concerns, or comments about this article or any other health topic? Please share them with me via Twitter @HealthwireKen, or "Like" our Health Wire Facebook page and post your message on our wall.