It was the early 2000’s when I first began to hear about anti-inflammatory superfoods. Claims of miracle cures which help you live disease free, long, and healthy lives. Since then, a very lucrative industry has grown around the idea of foods and lifestyle choices which reduce inflammation in the body. But, what does inflammation mean and why does it matter in the context of chronic disease?
It’s rather complex but from clinical practice I’ve learned that the one fundamental thing driving this whole movement is that inflammation is the root of most diseases.
So, what is inflammation, how does it begin, and why does it stay?
According to the NIH (National Institute of Health) inflammation is defined as “…the body’s immune system’s response to an irritant. The irritant might be a germ, but it could also be a foreign object, such as a splinter in your finger.” The most common causes of inflammation are:
- Pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi)
- Injury (emotional or physical)
- Environmental exposures (chemicals, allergens)
Our body’s immune system exists to prevent or limit infections. It has the ability to differentiate between what is normal and healthy versus a foreign danger. When a threat to normal bodily functions is detected, the immune system becomes activated and responds. There are several things that take place after this, including but not limited to:
- Releasing inflammatory mediators (histamine, serotonin, bradykinin, thromboxanes, leukotrienes, and prostaglandins).
- Blood vessel dilation which allows more blood flow to affected areas making them red and hot
- Pain signals becoming activated
- Fluid entering inflamed tissue and causing swelling
- Temporary loss of function of inflamed area
- Feeling ill or feverish as a response to a very active immune response
Inflammation which occurs can be either acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). Short term inflammation is good and goes away after the cause is successfully eliminated, while long term inflammation inappropriately persists. Long term inflammation doesn’t really help the body and can be caused by chronic conditions such heart disease, diabetes, allergies, sleep apnea, and some types of cancer. It can cause neurological decline and has been linked to dementia too.
Some of the common symptoms that develop during chronic inflammation are:
- Mood changes
- Trouble sleeping
- GI issues
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Frequently occurring infections
In some cases of chronic inflammation the immune system gets confused and begins to attack its own cells. This is worrisome and can lead to lifelong autoimmune conditions such as:
- Rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis – which can affect the joints
- Psoriasis – which can cause skin changes
- Ulcerative colitis and crohn’s disease – which can cause extensive GI issues
- Lupus – which can affect tissues and organs
What are common medications and treatments for inflammation?
With the very long list of problems inflammation can cause, no wonder there’s so much focus on eliminating it. Lifestyle changes which will help reduce inflammation in the body include:
- Exercise and weight loss
- Stress management
- Eating a balanced diet filled with low-glycemic foods, small amounts of saturated and trans fats, a good amount of fruits and vegetables, eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and avoiding highly processed foods
- Drinking green and black tea
- Taking curcumin, an ingredient found in turmeric
- Eating vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc
- Adding herbs and spices like coriander, ginger, garlic, turmeric, cinnamon, and fenugreek to your diet
Some medications which are commonly used for inflammation include:
- Antihistamines or leukotrienes such as diphenhydramine or montelukast
- NSAIDS such as ibuprofen or naproxen
- DMARDS (Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs) such as hydroxychloroquine
- Biologics such as adalimumab
- Corticosteroids such as prednisone
What’s on the horizon for inflammation reduction and treatment?
In recent years there’s been much progress made towards understanding inflammation pathways. However, one of the most interesting things driving this research is a statement which was made more than 2000 years ago by Hippocrates. He is said to have stated ‘all disease begins in the gut’. Research focused on the role of inflammation and the gut is at the center of many current clinical trials. The goals of which are to better understand how to stop it before it starts. One such study explores how anti-inflammatory diets and improved gut health prevent the progression of chronic disease.
So much of the research that’s being done for the treatment of chronic disease focuses on how to heal your gut and keep it healthy. Essentially, entering into a state of remission which means your chronic disease is at rest and is no longer harming you. You may have a diagnosis for life, but can become symptom free. In my opinion, this is why anything which has been proven to help control inflammation in the body should be your new best friend.
By Nadia Bhatti