Inflammation: The Silent Killer
Inflammation: The Silent Killer
Inflammation is the body's natural response to injury or infection in which the immune system sends cells to the affected area via the bloodstream. This is known as acute inflammation and is responsible for the redness and swelling you see around a cut or a sprain, and is one of the number one defense mechanisms of the human body.
The type of inflammation that many doctors and experts speculate is the cause of a wide variety of illnesses is known as chronic inflammation. This occurs when the immune system is over-activated, and the body is essentially fighting against itself. The results of chronic inflammation can be extremely detrimental to your health as it has been linked as a possible cause of almost every modern disease including heart disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes, arthritis, and possibly even depression.
Fortunately, testing for inflammation is relatively simple as it produces a protein in the blood known as C-reactive protein, or CRP. Though not yet routine, CRP testing can be done at the same time as cholesterol levels, and costs less than $50. Patients who are already at high risk for diabetes or heart disease don't need to be tested for CRP as many of the preventative measures for chronic inflammation and these illnesses are the same.
Chronic inflammation affects so many people because its causes are varied and we can become exposed to its causes without realizing it, even though we may feel perfectly healthy. Here are some common causes of chronic inflammation according to Dr. Mark Hyman:
• Poor diet—mostly sugar, refined flours, processed foods, and inflammatory fats such as trans and saturated fats
• Lack of exercise
• Hidden or chronic infections with viruses, bacteria, yeasts, or parasites
• Hidden allergens from food or the environment
• Toxins such as mercury and pesticides
• Mold toxins and allergens
You may think that taking anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin would be a good way to reverse the effects of chronic inflammation, but you would wrong. Dr. Hyman states:
“Common treatments such as anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen or aspirin) and steroids like prednisone — though often useful for acute problems — interfere with the body’s own immune response and can lead to serious and deadly side effects. In fact, as many people die from taking anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen every year as die from asthma or leukemia. Stopping these drugs would be equivalent to finding the cure for asthma or leukemia –- that’s a bold statement, but the data is there to back it up.”
Taking medication to treat the symptoms of chronic inflammation falls under what Dr. Hyman calls “downstream medication,” meaning it doesn't do anything to prevent the cause. Instead, Dr. Hyman recommends “upstream medication,” which locates the hidden causes of inflammation and finds ways to stop the problem before it starts.
There are many ways to fight off inflammation using “upstream medication” techniques, and many intuitively relate directly to the lifestyle choices which cause inflammation in the first place. Here are some steps you can take that many doctors believe will reduce and prevent chronic inflammation:
Eat whole foods – choose unprocessed, unrefined foods high in fiber. Fruits and vegetables are always a safe bet
Eat healthy fats – omega-3 fatty acids can reduce risk of heart attack, heart disease, and high blood pressure. These can be found in fish oil and certain plant and nut oils like canola and flaxseed.
Relax – learning to engage the vagus nerve relaxes your whole body and lowers inflammation
Avoid allergens – find out if you have any food allergies and avoid those foods – gluten and dairy are common allergens
Take probiotics – improving you digestion is an important step to improving overall health
Take vitamins – a multivitamin along with fish oil and vitamin D will all help reduce inflammation
Many of these steps are already recommended simply to improve your lifestyle and overall health and well-being, so reducing and preventing inflammation is just another added bonus.
And reducing inflammation may be more important than ever now that researchers have linked the condition to depression. In a study recently published in Archives of General Psychiatry, Dr. Andrew H. Miller, senior author of the study and professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, points out that the damaging effects of chronic inflammation can extend to the mind as well as the body. There is also evidence that depressed people suffering from high inflammation are less responsive to conventional treatments like anti-depressants and psychotherapy.
In the first application of a biological therapy to depression, researchers gave patients with major depression the new biologic drug infliximab, which is being used to treat inflammatory diseases. All of the patients had already shown moderate resistance to traditional treatment.
When patients with high inflammation were treated with infliximab, as determined by CRP testing, “they exhibited a much better response to infliximab than to placebo.”
These results could open a whole world of using biologic therapy in the treatment of depression and other psychological conditions, though it is still in the early stages.
While there is still some doubt surrounding the causes and effects of inflammation, it is safe to say that following the advice of doctors and taking preventative steps will do nothing but improve your overall health and well-being and help your body fight off disease and infection.