The study of inflammation has evolved rapidly in the last decade, and the results have overturned much of what today’s physicians learned in medical school about the origins of diseases as diverse as atherosclerosis, cancer, autoimmunity and Alzheimer’s disease.
The literal definition of inflammation is to “set on fire.” Inflammation has long been recognized as the body’s principal line of defense against infection, causing a constellation of local and systemic signs and symptoms: redness, heat, swelling, and pain. It is one of the many life-saving components of your immune system that helps protect and support you. It also helps damaged tissue repair itself from injury. Without inflammation, we would be sitting ducks in a very hostile world, with no way to repair the damage constantly being inflicted upon us. As I’ve said many times, the body already has all of the innate intelligence it needs to not only help us survive, but to allow us to thrive.
Acute inflammation is our brilliant body’s initial response to injury, illness, infections, and stress. When you cut yourself with a paring knife, you want:
- To stop bleeding
- By constricting blood vessels
- By increasing fibrinogen and clotting factors
- White blood cells to fight infection
- Pain to remind you not to play with knives
Acute inflammation is essential to our survival, and when the inciting event has been resolved, we want acute inflammation to resolve immediately.
Excess inflammation on the other hand, is an over expression of the inflammatory response. Excessive inflammation causes or contributes to most diseases including high blood pressure, heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, asthma, autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis & systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and allergic diseases. Interestingly, patients with autoimmune diseases like SLE, characterized by systemic vascular inflammation, tend to develop arteriosclerosis at a younger age and more severely than people without these disorders. The link between inflammation and heart disease comes from the observation that people with chronic inflammatory diseases have earlier and more severe atherosclerosis and that vascular plaques contain inflammatory markers like white blood cells and macrophages.
Mediators of Inflammation
Inflammation is mediated by a class of hormone-like substances known as eicosanoids. Eicosanoids are local hormones and do not circulate through the bloodstream. Every cell in the human body produces eicosanoids and there are currently hundreds that are known to exist. Eicosanoids control nearly everything from inflammatory processes and immune function, from the brain and heart.
Eicosanoids allow specialized inflammatory cells (neutrophils and macrophages) to mobilize and squeeze between the linings of blood vessels. Mast cells, at the first sign of a foreign invader, release the chemical histamine, which signals the immune system that it should launch an attack. Histamine circulates through your bloodstream and attaches onto certain cells, causing a cascade of reactions to occur, starting with a burst of pro- inflammatory eicosanoids. Blood vessels dilate in response to these eicosanoids, allowing more immune cells (neutrophils and macrophages) to reach their target as quickly as possible. This dilation of blood vessels, mediated by eicosanoids, causes the trademark signs of inflammation: swelling, heat, redness, and pain.
There are two general categories of eicosanoids, those that promote inflammation (pro- inflammatory) and tissue destruction and those that stop inflammation (anti- inflammatory) and promote healing. Pro-inflammatory eicosanoids are frequently referred to as “bad” and anti-inflammatory eicosanoids are referred to as “good.” This thinking is flawed because everything in our bodies is ultimately about balance. You need to have both kinds in the proper equilibrium in order to be in a state of optimal wellness or homeostasis. Unfortunately, most of us produce too many pro-inflammatory eicosanoids, which leads to increasing levels of silent inflammation and eventually to chronic disease. For more on eicosanoids and how they are made check out this article.
When Inflammation Persists
You probably think of wellness as simply the absence of chronic disease. If you are not sick, then you must be well. That definition simply is inadequate because it can take years, if not decades, for diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune disease to finally emerge. Having increased levels of silent inflammation means you are not in a state of wellness. It just means there is a fire igniting beneath the surface waiting to be fueled by unhealthy foods, imbalanced emotions, unresolved trauma and halted energetic flow.
Silent inflammation is simply inflammation that falls below the threshold of perceived pain. Ironically, while inflammation is the life-saving component of your immune system that helps protect you and helps damaged tissue repair itself from injury, it also has a dark side if it is not turned off. Sometimes the whole complex process doesn’t shut down. Instead, it persists and transforms into chronic silent inflammation. There is a breakdown in communication so that pro-inflammatory eicosanoids continue to be generated, though at a lower level. This constant generation of silent inflammation is due primarily to environmental and lifestyle factors that you can control- such as unhealthy food choices, stress and physical & emotional toxicity. In this internal environment, healthy tissues, cells, and blood vessels come under continual attack.
Silent inflammation, also known as chronic low-grade inflammation, can smolder within your body for decades without causing any obvious outward problems- this actually speaks to the absolute brilliance of your body, always working in the background to keep you alive. Silent inflammation can activate potentially harmful genes. Overall, it erodes your health and takes years from your life. Nearly 80% of the costs for an average HMO go to pay for disease conditions strongly associated with silent inflammation.
Study after study points to myriad ways in which chronic inflammation does great harm to the body. Its damaging effects on arteries can destabilize cholesterol deposits, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Some cancers, notably those of the colon, lung and liver, often begin at a site of long-standing inflammation. It can trigger rapid cell division, causing healthy cells to turn into cancerous ones. Similarly, by depressing the immune system, silent inflammation promotes the formation of cancerous tumors. In addition, it attacks nerve cells in the brains of those predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease. In the last decade, inflammation has also been associated with many other diseases including obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, skin conditions, signs of aging like wrinkles, osteoporosis, and gastrointestinal diseases like acid reflux.
The Evolution of Silent Inflammation
Our Paleolithic ancestors lived a very active lifestyle, consumed high protein diets consisting of wild game and fish, and whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. They were exposed to significant trauma and infections. The threats they faced were “really dangerous”; imagine being chased by a saber-toothed tiger or a mountain lion! Due to the successes of public health measures such as sanitation and immunizations, Americans face far fewer infections and trauma than did our ancestors. Today our threats are more perceived than real; the pressure of preparing for a board room presentation, getting the kids to soccer practice on time, sitting in traffic, etc. In contrast to our early ancestors, the average American leads a comparatively sedentary lifestyle. Our diets have changed dramatically, including a significant excess of carbohydrates in the form of simple sugars (processed sweets, sugary drinks, pasta & white bread). The same is true of our ability to generate a strong inflammatory response. This was previously the only way to survive microbial or parasitic invasions. Those with overactive immune systems had a better chance of survival than those with weaker immune defenses. Thus, we’ve inherited a genetic predisposition for an intense inflammatory response.
While our DNA has changed very little from that of our Paleolithic ancestors (less than 1/2%), we have dramatically changed our environment and the conditions in which we live today. Many factors, which helped our Paleolithic ancestors survive, may be working against us today. For example:
- In the past, insulin resistance may have been a survival advantage by helping store fat and survive during famines. Today famine is almost nonexistent in this country, but rather we have too much to eat. With no shortage of food and a very high percentage of it comprised of high glycemic carbohydrates, insulin resistance is no longer an advantage but rather a distinct disadvantage to our survival.
- Thyroid resistance may have been another survival development for our early ancestors. During times of stress illness or famine, it may have been advantageous to convert the thyroid hormone T4 into reverse T3, which is an inactive form of another thyroid hormone known as T3. The end result is a reduction in metabolism, conserving energy and calories. Today the purpose for thyroid resistance seems nonexistent.
- Anti-inflammation resistance may have helped our ancestors survive acute infectious diseases and trauma. In other words, it would have been advantageous to have a hyper-responsive inflammatory system. With far fewer causes for inflammation today, having an inflammatory system which responds easily works against us. What helped our Paleolithic ancestors make it to reproductive age is killing us now!
So why am I giving you all of this ‘sciency’ information. I want to make one point, and one point only! Ready. Listen closely. It is in your absolute and total control to change certain things in your life so that excessive and silent inflammation no longer exist- ever!
This is huge, and beautiful, and empowering, and doable. So let’s get started right away. Look out for more information in the coming weeks on specific steps to balancing inflammation in your body and saying goodbye to autoimmune disease FOREVER!