What exactly is inflammation, how does it link with chronic disease and how can you find the balance you need for good health?
Chronic low-level inflammation has become a prevalent health problem1 and is now known to be at the root of many common chronic and degenerative diseases. The explosion in these chronic inflammatory health problems and headlines touting inflammation as the enemy has created the perception that all inflammation is bad and must be halted immediately.
The reality, in fact, is that inflammation is a vital and natural process that occurs to help protect and heal the body from injury, infection and toxin exposure.
As with most things in life, inflammation is fine as long as it is in balance. Without an inflammatory response, health will suffer. Conversely, an excessive or chronic inflammatory response will also cause problems for your health.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation comes from the Latin 'inflammatio' meaning 'to set on fire', so it's no surprise that inflammation is defined by redness and swelling with heat and pain. These symptoms are the result of the complex biological mechanisms that are occurring within the body in response to assault or injury.
When a cell becomes damaged, it sends an alarm signal which triggers an increase in blood flow to the area, and with it an influx of immune cells that work to eliminate the cause of injury and initiate the healing process. Once the threat has been removed and the tissues have healed, the inflammatory mechanisms subside and the body reverts back to its 'normal' state.
This is the response seen in acute inflammation, where the inflammation is often localised to one specific area such as a cut finger or a grazed knee. The problem comes when inflammation is out of control and the inflammatory mechanisms do not switch off. This continuous provocation of inflammation, as seen in chronic inflammation, can damage the body and is an underlying mechanism seen in many chronic and degenerative diseases.2
What causes chronic inflammation
Unfortunately, a typical Western diet and lifestyle is full of factors that can cause inflammation to continue beyond what is helpful to the body. How much we eat, the types of food we consume, how much we move, our stress levels and sleep patterns, as well as our exposure to pollution are just some of the contributing factors that can either heighten or dampen our internal inflammatory state.3
Chronic inflammation is often instigated by a combination of environmental and lifestyle factors. Each exposure to an inflammatory factor can be likened to gradually filling up a bucket. The fuller the bucket, the greater the inflammatory response and the more likely that inflammation will become out of control and increase the risk of chronic disease.
It was once thought that the genes we are born with are set in stone and we would have to accept any consequences of 'the cards we had been dealt'. Although this is partly true – our genes cannot be changed – the environment in which we bathe our cells can influence how our genes respond. This area of research is quickly growing, and shows that different lifestyle choices and environmental exposures can either 'switch on' or 'switch off' our genes and play a role in determining health outcomes.4 The choices we make in how we live our lives affect how likely we are to develop chronic disease.
Natural anti-inflammatory lifestyle changes
What we eat has a powerful effect on our inflammatory state. As a general rule, focusing on a calorie-balanced diet full of unprocessed colourful fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, good-quality proteins and healthy fats such as oily fish and olive oil will go a long way to reducing inflammation.
For an extra anti-inflammatory hit, it's well worth including specific foods such as turmeric, ginger and green tea. On the other hand, the typical Western diet includes high intakes of processed meat, pre-packaged foods, fried foods, refined grains and sugar, all of which can contribute to filling up the inflammatory bucket.5
The well-known phrase 'we are what we eat' is partially true; a more accurate, if less catchy, version should be 'we are what we can digest and absorb'. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet is only half the battle, as we also need to be able to break down and absorb the nutrients within.
This is where digestive health comes in. Chewing thoroughly is a vital first step that many of us miss out, but it's essential for optimal digestion. Mindful eating, or eating in a non-stressed state, also helps to enhance digestion, and practising a couple of deep breaths to engage the diaphragm is a great way to initiate such a state.6
Our environment is a major source of inflammation, and to a degree we have to succumb to the toxins found around us. There are environmental toxins in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, in our homes, workplaces and in the street, so it's impossible to eliminate exposure entirely. That being said, there are simple steps you can take to reduce your exposure. For a start, cut down on plastic usage, go organic, don't smoke, and opt for non-toxic beauty and cleaning products.
Stress is a modern plague, and busy lifestyles mean most people suffer to some degree. Cortisol – our stress hormone – signals the immune system to gear up for 'fight or flight', and the immune system responds by producing inflammation. If our stress response is being continually provoked through a poor diet, sleep deprivation or high workload, then the immune system will never receive the signal to curtail the inflammatory response, allowing inflammation to take over.7
Reducing your stress levels is an important step in reducing inflammation. To help reduce stress, ensure you get plenty of sleep, and include stress-relieving activities in your daily schedule such as yoga, meditation, tai chi or booking in some 'me-time' to prioritise self-care.
Five top tips to reduce inflammation
- Include an additional portion of vegetables in your daily diet - think colour!
- Swap out processed vegetable oils such as sunflower oil for more anti-inflammatory oils such as extra-virgin olive oil
- Increase your organic food consumption and opt for filtered water
- Try to go to bed one hour earlier
- Include 10 minutes of 'me-time' in your daily routine, and do something you love