Inflammation - What's the big deal?
Inflammation is the body’s mechanism for healing such problems as infections, wounds, and tissue damage. It is the foundation of the body’s system of healing. But when it continues, or serves no purpose, it damages the body and causes disease.
When the immune system detects harmful stimuli, it increases blood flow to an affected area, and sends white blood cells to digest and destroy disease-producing agents. It is recognisable with symptoms such as a fever and fatigue, in the case of an infection; swollen, red skin and pain, in the case of a wound; and other swelling, such as joint pain. These responses are rapid, and can last for a few days. Once the stimuli – the infection, wound, or tissue damage – has been resolved, the body ‘turns off’ the inflammatory response, and the symptoms disappear. This is known as acute inflammation.
Acute vs chronic inflammation
Acute inflammation, as described above, is beneficial. It is part of the body’s natural defence.
Chronic inflammation is a different story, involving a longer-term response that can last for months or years. A chronic inflammatory attack extends beyond the initial stimuli, and can cause tissue death and thickening or scarring of connective tissues. Chronic inflammation in the body, triggered by the immune response, is at the heart of chronic disease.
“It has become clear that most, if not all, typically Western chronic illnesses find their primary cause in an unhealthy lifestyle and that systemic low-grade inflammation is a common denominator.” Ruiz-Núñez, et al., Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 2013
The triggers of chronic inflammation are plentiful in our modern world. These include:
Exposure to toxins
Sugar and refined / simple carbohydrates
Diet high in meat and low in oily fish
Imbalanced gut bacteria
Minor food allergies and intolerances
Excess weight or obesity
There are a number of reasons why inflammation may become chronic. One is extended exposure to a low level of a particular irritant, as listed above. Another is an inability to resolve whatever was causing an acute inflammatory response, to “turn it off”.
The role of healthy fats
There is a strong link between omega-3 fats and the reduction of inflammation.
Omega-3 essential (so-called as the body cannot produce them - they must come through the diet) fatty acids come mainly from marine sources, and are anti-inflammatory. Conversely, omega-6 fatty acids from animal sources tend to be pro-inflammatory.
As mentioned above, chronic stress produces chronic inflammation, which causes damage to the body, until it is “switched off”. Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation by controlling that “off” switch.
Furthermore, omega-3 and omega-6 compete for enzymes in the body, which affect this “on-off switch” for the inflammatory response. A diet rich in fish and seafood, and low in animal products, helps to maintain an optimal level of omega-3’s, and helps to allocate enough enzymes to help them in their protective role.
Free radicals and antioxidants
Free radicals are produced unhealthy diet and lifestyle factors, such as exposure to environmental toxins, smoking, alcohol, rancid vegetable oils, infections and physical inactivity. They are also a natural by-product of the body’s metabolic functions. Technically, free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons in its outer shell, making them unstable. These molecules scavenge the body seeking electrons to complete this pair, for stability. And in the process, free radicals cause a chain reaction of damage to cells, proteins and DNA.
The body uses antioxidants to neutralise free radicals. Antioxidants protect cell membranes, circulating lipids, cells, and tissues from oxidative stress. Oxidative damage occurs when there is an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body's ability to counteract their damage with antioxidants. Oxidative stress impairs regulation of the inflammatory response, triggering further oxidative stress and damage, in a vicious cycle.
Antioxidants are best obtained through whole foods and anutrient-dense diet, rather than supplements, as foods provide cofactors and enzymes that enhance antioxidant action and absorption. Food sources of antioxidants include fruits, vegetables and other plant-based, whole foods. Vitamins C and E, carotenoids, flavonoids and glutathione are powerful antioxidants.
“A diet rich in natural antioxidants supports health, is associated with lower oxidative stress and inflammation, and is therefore associated with lower risk of cancer, CVD (cardiovascular disease), Alzheimer's disease, cataracts, and some of the functional declines associated with aging.” Ruiz-Núñez, et al., Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 2013
How to dampen the inflammatory response
The key is reducing the triggers of inflammation.
An anti-inflammatory diet is a great way to start. Include oily fish, veg for antioxidants and fibre. Reduce pro-inflammatory processed foods, refined carbs & sugar and saturated fats. Reduce alcohol, stop smoking and keep hydrated.
Lifestyle factors also affect inflammation. Managing stress is vital, and optimising sleep should be a priority. Move your body and watch your weight.
These are general guidelines. For personalised recommendations that are tailored to your unique issues and needs, get in touch!
The take-home message
The triggers of chronic inflammation can be linked to our modern lifestyle: chronic stress, toxins, unhealthy diet, insufficient sleep, a sedentary lifestyle. The empowering news is that we can improve these factors, through what we eat and do.
“As most chronic (inflammatory) diseases have been linked to diet, modifying it could prevent, delay or even heal these diseases.” Ruiz-Núñez, et al., Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 2013
Scotti McLaren Personalised Nutrition email@example.com