The Most Effective Treatment Options for Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation is a growing problem, particularly in the fast paced Western world. It is a degenerative process that sits at the root of just about every nasty chronic disease and debilitating illness known to man.
The scary thing is that many people who suffer from chronic inflammation carry on with their everyday lives completely oblivious to the issue, often until it’s too late.
In this article, we’ll take you through the basics of inflammation, how to detect it, and how to bring your body back to its normal, healthy state.
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation gets a bad name, but it’s important to note that in small does it is extremely beneficial. Broadly speaking, there are two different types of inflammation – chronic and acute.
Acute inflammation is the body’s natural response to tissue injury or infection. When it feels like it under threat, the body produces symptoms of redness and swelling that prevent the spread of infection, to aid in recovery and help to bring the body back to it’s normal state - homeostasis.
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Chronic inflammation on the other hand is not quite as beneficial. As the name suggests, this is inflammation that lasts over a prolonged time period.
Like many instances in life, it’s possible to get too much of a good thing. The dose is in the poison, so to speak.
Rather than benefiting your health, chronic inflammation is thought to be a major contributor towards the development of a whole range of degenerative, chronic diseases.
As the guys at Life Extension point out:
“Of the ten leading causes of mortality in the United States, chronic, low-level inflammation contributes to the pathogenesis of at least seven. These include heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and nephritis.”
In addition to these common killers, inflammation plays a key role in IBD, arthritis, and many other autoimmune diseases. It’s not something that you want to be experiencing for too long.
What Causes Chronic Inflammation?
Although the exact mechanism behind chronic inflammation is not entirely clear, there are thought to be a number of triggers.
High blood sugar levels and excess calories (caused by poor dietary choices), high emotional stress levels, and even environmental toxins can contribute towards cellular stress and dysfunction, which in turn leads to an inflammatory response.
It’s the bodies natural defence mechanism against anything that it deems harmful.
Problems ensue when you are repeatedly exposed to the same harmful stimulus. Inflammation levels stay elevated, as there is still a perceived threat to the body.
If left untreated, this low level inflammation causes a number of harmful catabolic processes in the body, including organ damage and plaque build up, and eventually the development of degenerative diseases.
What are the Symptoms of Chronic Inflammation?
Chronic inflammation is sometimes referred to as the silent and deadly killer.
It is thought that the condition can carry on in the background for many years before symptoms are identified and major illnesses ensue.
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This may be partly due to the disconnect us humans have with our bodies. Modern living requires much less movement than our bodies are designed to carry out. If we wish, we can get through life with little to no physical exertion. When you don’t move regularly, you struggle to form a dialect with your body, so it can be hard to detect if there are any underlying issues.
Our ignorance with regards to inflammation may also be due to the way the modern healthcare system is set up. Chronic inflammation is rarely treated on its own by mainstream doctors and physicians. Action is typically taken only when the inflammation has reached the stage where it has morphed into a degenerative disease, such as heart disease or arthritis. In many cases, the damage has already been done, and our medical professionals are left to try to patch things up.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. If you are mindful and aware, you may be able to detect the signs of inflammation before they get too serious, and action to halt the condition in its tracks.
Here are a few of the most common symptoms, highlighted by the guys at SCD Lifestyle:
- On-going, irritating pain in the body (like the joints or muscles)
- Allergies or asthma (especially when they keep getting worse)
- High blood pressure or blood sugar problems
- Ulcers and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (constipation or diarrhea)
- Constant fatigue or lethargy
- Skin problems or red, bloodshot eyes
- High inflammatory markers (detected by a blood test) – e.g C—Reactive Protein, Homocysteine, HDL, Blood Glucose
If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to consult a medical professional as soon as possible, and perhaps more importantly to start making changes to your lifestyle, before the inflammation is allowed to cause serious damage.
In the next section we’ll look at how you can do just that…
How to Combat Chronic Inflammation
There are a number of ways in which you can start to combat inflammation and bring your body back to a healthy state.
Although we’ll mention diet quite frequently in the rest of the article, note that the other aspects are just as important. It’s the combination of many different things that will help you keep your inflammation levels under control, as opposed to any one thing in particular.
Eat a Healthy Diet
First up are our food choices.
We’re all aware that eating a clean diet is a key component with regards to living a healthy, disease free lifestyle. The food you put into your body can also have a profound impact on your levels of inflammation.
Here are some steps you can take to make the best anti-inflammatory choices with regards to your diet.
Choose Alkaline Foods
Plant foods are largely considered to be alkaline forming, meaning they encourage the body towards a more alkaline state. Inflammation and diseases thrive in an acidic environment, therefore neutralising the acidity reduces the risk of developing inflammation.
- Some of the most alkaline foods include berries, collard greens, pumpkin seeds and watermelon.
- Common acid forming foods include dairy products, refined sugars, grains, fried foods and some meats.
As the guys at Livestrong explain:
“It's fine to have some acid-promoting foods in your diet, but too much can lead to inflammation, which contributes to a variety of diseases from cancer to heart disease. Increasing your intake of alkaline-promoting foods can help counteract those negative effects and promote better health.”
Go for Nutrient Density
To minimise your risk of chronic inflammation you should aim to consume foods that contain high concentrations of beneficial vitamins and minerals. This includes vegetables, fruits, pulses, nuts and seeds.
As well as being alkaline forming, these foods are packed full of antioxidants that negate the damage done to cells by free radicals that build up in the body. This reduces the likelihood of your body mounting an inflammatory response.
Aside from consuming an all round healthy diet, if you already suffer from inflammation it may be worth trying to include specific micronutrients into your regime that have been proven to help bring inflammation levels down.
Some of the most effective include:
- Magnesium - Magnesium has been rated as the most anti-inflammatory dietary factor in the Dietary Inflammatory index.
In the famous Harvard Nurses Study, there was seen to be a correlation between magnesium intake and CRP levels, an inflammatory marker. Those who consumed more magnesium experienced significantly lower levels of inflammation.
You’ll find it in abundance in leafy greens, nuts, seeds, bananas and wholegrains.
- Curcumin - Curcumin is the main active compound found in turmeric. It gives the spice its distinctive yellow flavour. Aside from making your Indian dishes look nice, curcumin also provides a whole host of health benefits, including a reduction in inflammation which we've gone over extensively in our guide, here.
Researchers at the University of Maryland explain that:
“Curcumin lowers the levels of two enzymes in the body that cause inflammation. It also stops platelets from clumping together to form blood clots.”
The compound is most active when combined with other spices such as black pepper. It goes great in spicy Indian dishes, but can also be added to juices, smoothies and teas.
- Resveratrol - Resveratrol is a compound that is typically found in the skins of red grapes. You may have heard about it in the context of drinking red wine for heart health.
Studies suggest that it may help to bring down inflammation levels and slow down the ageing process, reducing the risk of developing many of the inflammation-related diseases mentioned above.
Although the exact mechanism behind the effectiveness of resveratrol is not known, it is thought the compound in inhibits a number of inflammatory substances in the body.
Eat Your Fiber
Those plant foods that are alkaline forming and nutrient dense have yet another thing going for them – they’re typically packed full of fiber.
As well as promoting a healthy digestive tract and maintaining stable blood glucose levels, fiber has also been shown to reduce inflammation. Like magnesium, studies have linked fiber consumption with lower CRP levels, an inflammatory marker.
The exact mechanism behind the fiber phenomenon isn’t quite clear, although the Arthritis Foundation presents a few plausible ideas:
“A fiber-rich diet may help reduce inflammation by lowering body weight. High-fiber foods also feed beneficial bacteria living in the gut, which then release substances that promote lower levels of inflammation body-wide. Lower inflammation may have to do less with fiber itself, than with healthy plant chemicals called phytonutrients found in fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
Get Your Omega-Threes
Fat often gets a bit of a bad name in the diet and nutrition world.
People read an article about the negative health impacts of trans fats and saturated fats, and they try to avoid all fatty foods altogether. However, it’s a dangerous game to play, as some fats are beneficial and indeed essential for healthy living.
Omega-threes are a type of unsaturated fatty acid. As the ladies at Women’s Health explain:
"They're great for your heart and your nervous system, and now studies show that omega-3's- the "good fats" that are found in some fish like salmon-can also dial down the overeager white blood cells that lead to inflammation."
It’s not just in salmon that you’ll find your omega-threes. They exist in plentiful amounts in flaxseeds, leafy green vegetables and wholegrains too.
Limit Refined Sugars
As well as consuming a wide range of healthy foods, if you want to beat inflammation there are some things that you probably should avoid or limit.
Refined sugars are one such thing, found in many of the processed foods that line the supermarket shelves. The guys at Life Extension explain why they’re probably not the best choice for your health:
“Circulating sugars, primarily glucose and fructose, are culprits as well. When these “blood sugars” come in contact with proteins and lipids a damaging reaction occurs forming compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs).”
When these AGEs bind to the cell-surface receptors, they trigger the inflammatory response.
If you’re consuming sugary foods several times throughout the day, your inflammation levels are likely going to remain elevated, and you’re going to run into problems.
Limit Your Consumption of Conventional Animal Products
The consumption of animal products is a topic that is hotly debated.
Putting all of the ethical and environmental arguments aside, it seems like high levels of animal products may not always be the best choice if you’re looking to avoid inflammation.
The same inflammatory AGEs created when we consume refined sugars are actually present in animal products cooked at high temperatures, particularly red meat.
Animal products are also a source of saturated fats. Although small amounts can be beneficial, over consumption of saturated fats has been shown to result in a high likelihood of developing low level, chronic inflammation.
As mentioned above, animal products are also acid forming, particularly dairy. This means that they encourage the body towards a more acidic state, making it a breeding ground for inflammation and disease.
By all means include small amounts of these foods in your diet if you like, and go for organic, free-range products whenever possible. However, the evidence suggests that plant foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables may be a better source of nutrition if you want to keep your inflammation levels down.
Move Your Body Regularly
Along with diet, movement is another crucial part of the overall health picture. Without movement we stagnate, we age, we become inflamed and we succumb to disease.
Prioritize Regular Movement
There have been multiple scientific studies that have illustrated how regular exercise can help to bring down levels of inflammation. Mark from Mark’s Daily Apple, gives some good examples in his great article from 2012:
Study after study (epidemiological and clinical alike) shows that extended exercise programs generally reduce markers of inflammation (like C-reactive protein) over the long-term:
- In elderly Japanese women, a 12-week resistance training program reduced circulating levels of inflammatory markers compared to baseline; reductions in CRP were associated with increases in muscle thickness.
- American adults who engaged in frequent physical activity tended to have lower CRPs than adults who were more sedentary.
- In type 2 diabetics, (key term coming up) long-term high intensity resistance and aerobic training reduced inflammatory markers over the course of a year (independent of changes in body weight, meaning activity was the key factor).
Modern life is busy, and often it can seem impossible to find the time to exercise when you’re juggling a thousand and one other commitments. But it’s important to realise that if you carry on with the same lifestyle choices, the same results will ensue. If you want to protect yourself from inflammation and disease, you have to make movement a priority.
This might mean ten minutes in your morning routine, some dedicated time in the evening, or regular low-level movement throughout the day. Do what you can, and build gradually until movement is a habit.
Less Body Fat = Less Inflammation
Although weight loss may not be the main mechanism behind the anti-inflammatory effects of regular training, it certainly helps.
Fat cells secrete a number of hormones throughout the body, including those that encourage inflammation. This is particularly true for visceral fat cells (found around the abdominal area).
The Doctors Weighs in states that:
“Your fat, like any other organ in your body, has an ideal size, and functions best when at that size… As fat expands through weight gain, the adipose tissue cells release more and more inflammatory messengers, including TNFα and IL-6.”
Moving regularly and eating healthy food will help you to maintain a more favourable body composition, reducing the size of your fat cells and the amount of inflammatory compounds they can give off.
Having a healthier looking body may also boost your self-esteem and bring down levels of stress and anxiety, another key factor in chronic inflammation, which we’ll discuss shortly.
Don’t Overdo it
There’s a fine line between training regularly and overdoing it, a line that you need to be mindful of if you want to remain healthy.
Although moving often is beneficial, overtraining can actually lead to chronic inflammation.
If you’re not scheduling in enough rest and recovery time in between your workouts, the beneficial inflammation that follows your session (to aid in the recovery of your muscle tissues) never gets the chance to dissipate, and you remain in a constant state of low level inflammation.
The guys at Men’s Fitness have put together a great guide to recognising the symptoms of overtraining. If you notice any of them popping up, dial it down a little.
Get Out in the Fresh Air
There are a number of health benefits associated with getting out in the great outdoors. Aside from the connection to nature and opportunity to move, there are also some key factors that help to bring down inflammation.
Vitamin D is created when light from the sun interacts with compound in the skin. Not only is it needed to support bone health; it may also help to keep inflammation levels under control.
Recent studies have shown that those who take on higher levels of Vitamin D have lower levels of inflammatory markers such as the TNF cytokine.
The vitamin may also play a role in controlling symptoms of inflammation related diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease. The Vitamin Council point out that:
“Having high vitamin D levels may be a way to help manage inflammatory bowel disease, as well as to reduce complications related to the disease, such as hospitalizations, surgeries, infections, and colon cancer.”
Go Smoke Free
Smoking, both directly and second hand, can increase the production of several pro-inflammatory compounds in the body.
A research paper in 2012 concluded that cigarette smoking “induces chronic inflammation”, as well as contributing towards cancers of the mouth and lungs.
If you are someone who smokes regularly, it may be wise to take steps towards quitting. If you often find yourself in a smoke filled environment, try your best to get out to the countryside to experience fresh air as much as possible.
Last but not certainly least; the amount of mental and emotional stress you experience on a day-to-day basis can have a significant impact on your levels of inflammation.
Our bodies are built to deal with short-term stressors, whereby when faced with a stressful event (such a an approaching predator or confrontation), we enter the fight or flight state and a number of hormones are released to prepare us for action. If we execute an action (such as fighting, or ‘flighting’), the problem is usually dealt with, and the body reverts back to homeostasis.
However, our modern world is full of chronic stressors, stressors that continue over longer time periods. We worry about upcoming deadlines, bills to pay, and mistakes we’ve made in the past.
When faced with a chronic stressor, we execute the same physiological response as we would do if we were faced with a short-term stressor, only that response lasts over a longer time period.
We remain in that fight or flight state with our cortisol and adrenaline levels raised over periods of days, weeks, months and even years. This chronic state of stress alters immune cell genes, eventually leading to chronic inflammation and a whole host of degenerative diseases associated with it.
Thankfully there are a few ways in which you can get your stress levels (and inflammation levels) back to normal.
A regular meditation practice is a great way to clear your mind, bring your stress levels under control, and reduce inflammation. Research has shown that just one day of meditation can reduce inflammation and lead to better health.
By sitting quietly and focussing on the breath, you can let go of the past and future, and instead bring your attention into the present moment. This takes you out of the ‘fight or flight’ mode, and instead brings you into ‘rest and digest’.
It’s in this state that your inflammation levels are at their lowest, and your body is pain free.
Get a Good Nights Sleep
Stressful events are exacerbated when you’re suffering from a lack of sleep.
Just like our hormones follow a circadian rhythm, the release of many of the inflammatory compounds in our bodies is also thought to follow a similar pattern. The disruption of our normal sleep cycle can cause a spike in inflammatory cytokines during the daytime, meaning more pain and discomfort, and a higher risk of picking up an illness.
It’s therefore imperative to make sure you’re getting 8-10 hours of good quality shut eye each night. For a few tips and tricks, you may want to take a look at this article we previously published on the Eu Natural Blog.
Over to You
Hopefully this article has been of use to you, and has given you a good general understanding of how inflammation works, how to detect it, and how to go about fixing it.
Remember that as we mentioned earlier, there is no none single path to bringing your inflammation levels down. It’s a combination of healthy eating, healthy moving, and a healthy relationship with stress that will get you there.
It can be daunting when you feel as if you have to make many changes at once; so don’t be afraid to start small. When you’re comfortable with one change, take it further or move onto a new one.
Keep taking baby steps forwards, and your inflammation levels should gradually fall back to normal, allowing you to get the most out of your life experience.