The Only Way to Combat the Inflammation Epidemic
If you trawl through medical data long enough and hard enough, you might begin to suspect that inflammation is the cause of virtually all disease.
Asthma, several types of cancer, bone health, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, eczema, depression, and even obesity and stalled muscle growth can be tied directly to the wrong kind of inflammation, as can hundreds of other common ailments.
Modern medicine typically treats inflammation with pain pills (anti-inflammatories) or they try to suppress the immune system with other powerful drugs. These are flawed approaches. The only way to combat the epidemic of inflammation is to understand its causes and address them directly by food choices, lifestyle choices, and targeted supplement choices.
Inflammation is a tightly choreographed offensive designed to heal the body. Without inflammation, wounds wouldn't heal... ever. Diseases would persist for years. Even the muscle you strive to strengthen and build might never get bigger or stronger if inflammation didn't exist or, as is the current trend, was completely wiped out by inadvisable pharmaceutical interventions.
Inflammation uses swelling to allow superhero-like proteins, white blood cells, and antibodies to come charging into the injured area. This same swelling that allows these antimicrobial defenses to enter also makes it easier for growth factors to do their part and begin to reconstruct blood vessels and tissue.
So before we go after inflammation, we first have to distinguish between the two types, because one is mostly good and the other is mostly bad.
Acute inflammation is the kind that happens after an injury like a cut to your hand, a bruise, or surgery. It's not meant to be long lasting; it's localized and it often results in rapid healing.
Acute inflammation is also essential to muscle growth. After you work out, injured muscle fibers are lysed and growth factors flow in to increase the rate of muscle regeneration. Protein molecules called cytokines that initiate healthy inflammation then rush in and decrease levels of myostatin. This myostatin protein tells the body to stop growing muscle and instead focus on muscle catabolism, so suppressing it aids muscle growth.
Likewise, acute inflammation awakens dormant satellite cells so they can grow into full-fledged muscle cells. However, if you impede or stop acute inflammation by taking post-workout NSAIDS like aspirin, ibuprofen, or Naproxen – or even if you ice your muscles – you could shut down the swelling that makes it possible for healing to occur, and you might even negate your workout's muscle-building effects.
Chronic inflammation starts as a gross overreaction to some stimuli that's usually pretty benign. This overreaction might be in response to a particular food, a particular emotional stress, an unhealthy lifestyle choice, or some wayward bacteria or viruses.
The resulting inflammatory response is somewhat like bringing a cannon to a pillow fight. The system overreacts and the swelling and chemical onslaught goes on and on. Eventually, without any true battles to fight, this army of chemicals might even begin to attack the body itself, a condition often characterized as autoimmune disease.
Chronic inflammation is what you see in common allergies, gluten sensitivity, or in any one of the hundreds of mysterious human ailments that cause us misery and deplete our savings in often-futile medical interventions. Chronic inflammation might also spell death to muscle growth because it increases levels of hypertrophy-blocking myostatin.
Clearly, acute inflammation needs to be maintained or even temporarily enhanced while chronic inflammation should be suppressed or even defeated.
Few people realize the far-reaching, disease-causing implications of inflammation. It causes insulin resistance, even in lean, muscular people. It interferes with bone remodeling. It's even implicated in anger disorders or aggressive behavior.
People who suffer from depression are 30% more likely to suffer from rarely disclosed brain inflammation. Inflammation undoubtedly plays a role in cancer. It even plays a big part in obesity, which is a double whammy because fat itself is inflammatory.
Inflammation is also the main reason dentists are so anal about gum disease. Gum bacteria can make their way to the heart or heart vessels, which can then cause inflammation and lead to a heart attack.
Strangely, much inflammation can probably be traced directly to the gut and zonulin, a weirdly-named protein that regulates the gaps and fissures in your intestinal lining, thus governing the passage of nutrients and other molecules into your intestines.
Anti-gluten people are all over zonulin. They argue that gluten causes levels of zonulin to increase and go haywire. Gaps and fissures start randomly opening and closing all over the place like a restless Labrador retriever in the back seat inadvertently stepping on and off a garage door opener.
These gaps and fissures then allow undue protein molecules – even microscopic bits of food – to get into the bloodstream where they're identified as invaders and provoke an immunologic response, e.g., inflammation. The intestinal linings of people with celiac disease, Crohn's disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are presumably rife with these fissures, so much so that they've been labeled as having the aptly named "leaky gut syndrome."
But leaky gut syndrome, or varying degrees of it, isn't restricted to people with Crohn's or IBS. It's likely that anyone who suffers from any type of inflammation, systemic or otherwise, has an intestinal tract that's as potholed as a back road in Marrakesh.
And it's certainly not all about gluten. There are other, equally or even more powerful moderators of "leaky gut syndrome" than gluten in both celiac patients and non-celiac patients.
All kinds of things can cause the intestinal lining to become more permeable and allow stimulants to assault your immune system. There are, however, five main culprits:
- Diet: Alcohol, gluten (in those that are sensitive), processed foods, fast food, etc.
- Medications: Antibiotics, corticosteroids, antacids
- Stress: Physical stress, lack of sleep, or psychological stress, any of which cause the release of stress hormones.
- Hormonal: Fluctuating or abnormal levels of thyroid hormones, progesterone, estradiol, or maybe even testosterone. (It appears that nature will readily accept high testosterone levels, but it might not like levels that are off the rip-roarin', bull snortin' chart.)
Any or all of these affect the health of the intestines by creating a limited or incomplete population of bacteria in the gut. Without a proper balance of bacteria, stress chemicals or hormones cause the intestinal lining to become more permeable. This increased permeability might then allow invaders to enter your bloodstream where they alert the immune system and lead to localized or systemic inflammation.
This continued assault also causes damage to the intestinal wall itself. The microvilli that process our food get damaged and digestion is screwed up. And, in becoming damaged, these ailing microvilli themselves invite inflammation.
Likewise, all this chemical and environmental disarray invites SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), fungal dysbiosis (or imbalance), or parasitic infections, all of which can crawl or ooze through gaps in the intestinal lining, cry havoc, and release the chemical dogs of chronic inflammation.
Clearly, the answer to all this lies in a multi-pronged attack. We can stop the stress from occurring by eating well, sleeping more, and chilling out in general. This would stabilize stress hormones and keep zonulin and its resulting fissures and gaps in check.
We can also set up a bulwark against intestinal inflammation by creating, hosting, and feeding an army of beneficial bacteria in our guts that would thwart SIBO, quash fungi, and coldcock parasitic infections that cause inflammation. Lastly, we could use supplements and pharmaceutical foods to target system-wide inflammation.
The most effective lifestyle change you could make is to lose abdominal fat, which is a mother lode of inflammation. Just a few weeks of dieting can make c-reactive proteins (a marker of inflammation) plummet.
Secondly, you can do all the no-brainer stuff like getting adequate amounts of sleep, eliminating bad exercise habits, keeping blood sugar regulated through diet and the use of blood-sugar regulating supplements like cinnamon and cyanadin 3-glucoside, and ingesting omega-3 fatty acids.
You might also consider eliminating supposedly inflammatory foods like excess red meat, processed foods, and an overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids (as found in most vegetable oils and non-organic, grain-fed cattle and poultry).
And, if possible, try to keep work and relationship drama down, but that of course might require heroic efforts, i.e., changing jobs, finding a new mate, or, shudder, learning some communication skills.
Everyone knows the tired old meme about eating yogurt and its compliment of probiotics to populate the gut with beneficial bacteria, but it's an incomplete strategy. Just feeding yourself probiotics is like planting a seed and then neglecting to give it sunshine, water, or nutrients. The bacteria up and die. Instead, you need to feed them, and that's where prebiotics come in.
All of us have different bacterial environments, populated by different microbial life. It's like your digestive tract is metaphorically an African jungle, while the person next to you might have the metaphoric digestive tract of a South American jungle – both populated by birds, mammals, insects, and snakes, but all different species of said beasties.
But of all those essentially disparate tigers, lions, and bears, oh my, there are two that we want in everyone's jungle, and they are the lactobacilli and bifidobacilli.
Luckily, regardless of their particular jungle habitat, these two beasties pretty much eat the same food, which we call prebiotics. Generally, these are foods that contain normally indigestible carbohydrates like inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), and galactooligosaccharides (GOS). We can't digest these carbohydrates, but the lactobacilli and bifidobacilli feed on them.
If you suffer from inflammation (and the vast majority of us do), you first have to populate the gut with beneficial bacteria by eating a daily serving of good, old-fashioned sauerkraut, the refrigerated stuff you find in the cold foods section of the grocery. One serving has about the same amount of bacteria that you would hope to get in an entire bottle of capsulated probiotics. You could, of course, eat other foods like yogurt and the like, but it's become difficult to tell which of them are really probiotic and not humbug-biotic.
Then, eat one or more of the following FOS and inulin-rich foods to feed the bacteria that want to set up shop in your gut:
If that's problematical, or these foods don't sound appetizing to you, buy yourself an oligofructose supplement and augment your diet with at least 5 grams a day (hopefully getting close to a total of 20 grams of prebiotics a day).
As far as GOS, it might even be more powerful of a prebiotic than FOS and inulin. It's lately getting a lot of interest from research groups that have shown it to reduce anxiety and depression in human subjects to a profound degree, both of which are thought to result from inflammation.
Foods rich in GOS include:
- Green peas
- Lima beans
- Kidney beans
A daily half-cup serving of any of these foods should do the trick and keep your bacteria growing. Each of these foods contains about 6 to 7 grams of prebiotic fiber, of which about 3 to 4 grams is GOS.
It's not enough to just live right and eat right. No matter how "good" you are, inflammation is still going to attack you. After all, you can't avoid all stress and the occasional poor sleep and bad nutrition are inevitable. Likewise, so are environmental stressors like too much sunlight, polluted air, maybe cellular transmissions, and probably even Hulk-producing gamma rays.
Even workouts are themselves inflammatory and can exacerbate the bad type of inflammation. Supplementation should be part of your anti-inflammatory diet/lifestyle. Of course, there are lots of them. Opinions vary, but these are the ones that would be on most people's list:
Both of these exhibit powerful anti-inflammatory actions and have shown to be effective in ameliorating a host of diseases ranging from heart disease to skin cancer.
Take for instance fish oil. If you ask 100 cardiologists about heart disease, the only thing 99 of them will agree on is that fish oil's anti-inflammatory effect is a powerful tool in preventing heart attacks. Often, when blood vessels are besieged by low-density lipoprotein (a type of cholesterol), there's an inflammatory response where white blood cells rush to the area.
These cells embed themselves in arterial walls and eat up invading cholesterol, which can cause damage to the arteries that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Curbing that response, via fish oil and/or other anti-inflammatories, can save lives.
Fish oil also appears to play a powerful role in combating depression. Consider that a large part of the depressed or anxiety ridden population gets no relief from anti-depressants, but when you give these same patients fish oil in addition to medication, there's a highly significant improvement in patient mood.
Then there are a few supplements or drugs that should also be on most people's lists:
Cyanidin 3-glucoside (C3G) has potent anti-inflammatory powers, but it also modulates blood sugar by allowing the body to handle carbs better, which is in itself anti-inflammatory.
Statins were added to the list primarily to make a point, and to make some people feel better about using them. They're generally prescribed to fight cholesterol – which might be a questionable practice in the first place – but they actually do save lives, but maybe not for the reason you think. It turns out they're powerful anti-inflammatories and that characteristic is probably responsible for preventing heart attacks.
These three components – lifestyle, diet, and supplements – are the key to fighting inflammation and disease. Embrace them and feel better.