What Is Inflammation And What Can I Do To Help?
By Dr. Weronika Lewkowicz, ND
What is inflammation?
The body has a strong defense mechanism against foreign "objects" called the immune system. When an irritant (pathogens like bacteria or viruses; injuries, chemicals, allergens, etc.) enters the blood stream, the immune system flags it as a foreign invader, and activates inflammation - which involves specialized white blood cells that are called in to eliminate the threat and protect the body. There are five symptoms that may be signs of an acute inflammation:
5. Loss of function
What if there is no irritant but I still have inflammation?
Unfortunately, our bodies are not perfect, and some individuals may have faulty immune systems that just go haywire and start flagging proteins or particles as invaders, but they are flagging regular parts of our tissues and blood that are supposed to be there. This is what we call auto-immune disease. The body begins to fight itself, causing damage and pain, along with some of the other 5 signs of inflammation listed above. This can happen anywhere in the body including joints (rheumatoid arthritis), gastrointestinal system (Crohn's disease, Ulcerative colitis), skin (psoriasis), endocrine system (type 1 diabetes), thyroid (Hashimoto's thyroiditis, Grave's disease), nervous system (multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis), and others.
Why did I develop autoimmune disease?
This is a challenging question because there are many theories on various causes, however there is no one clear cut answer. It is often a combination of genetic mutations on an individual basis and environmental factors. One of the more well known theories is the "Hygiene Hypothesis", which suggests that an increase in autoimmune conditions and allergies is linked to high standards of sanitization after industrial revolutions. Excessive widespread use of antibiotics, pasteurization, vaccinations, hand washing, sanitization, and staying indoors (vs playing outside in the dirt for children), may lead to a less robust immune system. On the other hand, countries which are not industrialized or have lesser sanitization practices have more exposure to microbes and less reports of autoimmune disease. However, these countries tend to see more bacterial infections and parasitic infections. Is one better than the other? I'm not sure!
The other mystery of autoimmune disease is why does it only flag certain cell types and not everything in the body? For example Type 1 diabetics have an attack on their pancreas beta cells, or Hashimoto's thyroiditis patients have an attack on their thyroid cells. Why not on other cells? We still don't know for sure, but it is speculated it has to do with molecular mimicry - when similarities between foreign and self-proteins favor an activation of autoreactive immune cells. Meaning something looks similar or close enough to the invader, and your body can't tell the difference anymore so it attacks both.
The last major theory I'll mention is Viral and Bacterial Infections. Viruses are tiny but potent, and often have life-long lasting effects, mostly because our body can never truly get rid of a virus, it just goes dormant. Bacteria can be eliminated completely, however it can cause detrimental effects as well. A lot of scientists and research support the idea that autoimmune diseases are invoked by a preceding infection. For example there is some research on Klebsiella and ankylosing spondylitis, or EBV (Epstein-Barr virus) and thyroiditis. The act of our immune system fighting off the infection somehow cross-reacts with our own proteins in tissues and causes the cascade of autoimmune disease.
Can I test for inflammation?
Yes! There are multiple blood tests which can test various inflammatory markers. Some of the most common ones include:
ESR - Erythrocyte sedimentation rate - faster than normal rate may indicate inflammation
CRP - C-reactive protein - a substance the liver produces in response to inflammation
hsCRP - highly sensitive CRP - marker of inflammation in cardiovascular system
ANA and Antibody testing - various antibodies can be tested (thyroid, lyme, arthritis, etc) which test not for inflammation specifically, but indicate if there is an attack on your own cells / tissues.
How do I lower inflammation?
You can help lower inflammation through diet and exercise.
Refined carbohydrates (highly processed white bread, pastries, snacks)
Processed meat (hot dogs, sausage)
Too much of red meat (burgers, steaks) - believed to be "ok" in moderation (3-4 times a month)
Margarine, shortening, and lard
Allergens (avoid your allergies! If you know you're allergic to something, try to avoid it)
Enjoy Plenty of
green leafy vegetables (really most high-nutrient vegetables, say it with me F I B E R - including avocado; corn and peas are not as high nutrient - sorry Green Giant®)
nuts (walnuts, pecans, cashes, brazil nuts)
low-glycemic fruit (berries, pears, apples, cherries, citrus, plums)
whole grains (oatmeal, barley, quinoa, brown rice)
olive oil (drizzled on food and salads)
fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha)
anti-inflammatory cooking herbs (ginger, turmeric, garlic, black pepper, rosemary, cinnamon)
lean proteins (preferably good quality turkey or chicken) with lean red meats (bison, lamb, beef) less often
Exercise: Did you know as little as 20 minutes of brisk walking reduces inflammation? Walking after lunch or dinner not only helps bring down glucose faster, it stimulates digestion and acts on inflammatory markers as well! Additional exercises that combine moderate activity with stress relief and act on lowering inflammation: yoga, stretching, cycling, and swimming. You don't have to go crazy at the gym to help lower some of your inflammation, just getting into good habits of going on daily walks makes a huge difference. Exercising will also help keep your body weight at a healthy level, and less fat cells also means less inflammation.
Are there any supplements or herbs?
Yes! Naturopathic doctors work on giving the body what it needs to help balance inflammation on an individual bases. For some individuals this may mean balancing sugar intake by altering diet, and supplementing with chromium or inositol. For other individuals it may mean targeting gut health by altering diet and supplementing with demulcent herbs like marshmallow root and slippery elm, or rebuilding the gut mucosa with a special type of zinc or glutathione. For others with joint inflammation, it may mean altering their exercise routine and higher doses of turmeric or bromelain. There is a ton of options out there, you just need to find the right ones for you with the help of your naturopathic doctor.
"Your body's ability to heal is greater than anyone has permitted you to believe"