Inflammation: the Root of Illness and the Basis for Healing
Nearly every modern health problem can be linked in some way to uncontrolled inflammation.
At its basic level, inflammation is the body’s natural, healthy response to cellular injury. It’s actually part of the healing process, and the redness and swelling associated with it are evidence that blood is rushing to the area, carrying its reparative components. The inflammation then naturally subsides as the cells are repaired and health is restored.
It’s when this process becomes systemic, chronic, and out of control that health problems and illness develop.
It’s important to understand just what inflammation is. Most of us have a general idea that it involves symptoms like pain, swelling, or some other form of discomfort. While this is true to an extent, the real definition of inflammation is much deeper and more complex.
Inflammation is the body’s response to an injury, infection, or other abnormality on a cellular level. Rate of blood flow increases to the injured or infected area and adjacent tissues, followed by an increase in microcirculatory permeability. This permeability allows a protein-rich fluid to leak from the small blood vessels, causing the familiar swelling. At that point, a process called leukocytic exudation takes place, where leukocytes (immune cells) gather at the injury site and destroy any invading microorganisms.
Hormones such as cortisol help regulate this process, working as anti-inflammatory agents to keep the inflammatory process in check.
When this system is running smoothly, inflammation actually plays a significant role in the healing process, and is called to a stop when healing takes place. Problems arise, however, when this process is thrown off balance by poor diet and other unhealthful practices.
What Causes Inflammation?
Simply put, the root cause of inflammation is imbalance. Something upsets the normal functioning of a given group of cells, such as an injury, repetitive compensatory motion, inflammatory foods, and so forth, and the inflammation process kicks in. If these causes are not corrected, inflammation continues unchecked.
The Role of the Individual’s Health State
Interestingly, what makes a substance inflammatory has much to do with the individual’s state of health. For example, repetitive motion may not cause inflammation if the motion is correct, aligned, and offset by regular breaks that involve healthful motion. Or an individual whose system is imbalanced by excessive sugar consumption may find that red meat and dairy products aggravate inflammation, while an individual who does not consume much sugar finds these same foods beneficial and anti-inflammatory.
This brings us to a very important nutrient group that needs clarification (and, in some circles, justification): fats.
Balancing Fat Intake
If there’s one nutrient that everyone has an opinion about, it’s fat. In the 1980s and early 90s, the “fat-free” campaign was in full swing, and products boasted their fat-free status all over the grocery aisles. Then fats enjoyed a comeback when research began to reveal various health benefits from eating certain types of fats. Unfortunately, this gave rise to some very imbalanced fad diets that over-emphasized fat and protein to the neglect of other healthful foods.
The TrueHealth approach to fat is one of balance and individual consideration. If an individual has ingested an excessive amount of fats over time, then he or she will need to back off and reduce fats in order to recover systemic balance. On the other hand, someone who has eaten very little fat (or unhealthful fat) may need to increase his or her healthful fat intake to restore balance.
And of course, the kind of fat the person is consuming makes all the difference.
Trans Fats are Always Bad
This group of fats is never healthy and should not be consumed under any circumstances.
Trans fats, or hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated fats, are made by bubbling hydrogen gas into ordinary liquid fats at very high temperatures. This infuses the fat with microscopic bubbles of hydrogen, thereby changing the consistency of the fat from liquid to solid and increasing the shelf-life to an extraordinary degree.
This means that trans fats not only last a long time in your pantry; they also last a long time in your body. The half-life of hydrogenated fat in the body is 51 days. That means that almost 2 months after eating trans fat(s), half of it still remains in your body, where it blocks your natural anti-inflammatory processes. But it doesn’t block the inflammatory process, setting the stage for rampant inflammation that can’t be controlled even by ingesting healthful fats. This is why trans fats should be avoided altogether. There’s no amount small enough you can consume and still maintain optimal health.
Make sure you read labels – trans fats can “hide” behind manufacturers’ labels that are allowed to claim “Zero trans fats” even when their products contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. These dangerous fats can go by other names, too – watch for terms like hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, monoglycerides, diglycerides, shortening, and margarine on labels. All of these denote trans fats.
Inflammation and Fats
Most people know that there are “good fats” and “bad fats.” But what many people don’t realize is that the source of the fat makes a difference, and that the individual’s state of health influences whether a fat will have an inflammatory or anti-inflammatory effect.
At the most basic level, reducing bad fats while increasing good ones is important for controlling inflammation. But just how this is accomplished – and why some fats are good and some are bad – is poorly understood.
Understanding why fats are important and how they affect inflammation begins with an explanation of arachidonic acid, a polyunsaturated, Omega-6 fatty acid that is considered essential only under certain circumstances. (“Essential” fatty acids are so-called because the body cannot manufacture them and they must be derived from outside sources.) Arachidonic acid is manufactured by the body if it has the right “building block”: linoleic acid, which is essential. Linoleic acid is found in oils such as safflower, evening primrose, grape seed, and sunflower oils.
Arachidonic acid becomes essential – that is, you need to obtain it from dietary sources – if you’re deficient in linoleic acid or if inflammation or some other bodily imbalance is blocking the biological pathway required to convert linoleic acid to arachidonic acid. In addition, the conversion of linoleic acid is normally not sufficient to meet your body’s arachidonic acid needs.
And you do need AA – it’s the most abundant fat in the brain and protects your body from oxidative stress. So it’s especially important for good nervous system health.
Dietary Sources of Arachidonic Acid
These foods and the AA they contain are generally considered inflammatory. But here’s the catch: ingestion of AA-rich foods can actually be used to control inflammation.
The Role of Arachidonic Acid (AA) in Inflammation
AA influences inflammation two basic ways: it can be converted into pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory hormones called prostaglandins.
Unlike other hormones, prostaglandins are not secreted from a gland. Rather, they are manufactured at the site in the body where they are needed. Prostaglandins are made when cells at the site of injury release fatty acids, and the resulting chemical reaction produces these hormones.
They “plug in” to various receptor sites to carry out their role, and what role they fulfill is determined by which receptors they come in contact with. Prostaglandins act as messengers, inducing fever and/or signaling the brain to feel pain at the site of injury or infection.
Prostaglandins also play a role in the anti-inflammatory process, regulating body processes like blood pressure and digestion. Interestingly, prostaglandins also curtail the inflammatory process and reduce pain and swelling.
So there are two basic types of prostaglandins: those that inflame and those that kick in to reduce inflammation. You need both types, and once again, an imbalance causes problems. And, once again, diet determines which type of prostaglandin you have more of – specifically, fats and carbs.
Why Not Control Inflammation with Anti-inflammatory Drugs?
It’s important to point something out before we move on to the interaction between carbs and fats and the resulting prostaglandins. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, and so forth work by blocking pain-causing, inflammatory prostaglandins.
The problem is, NSAIDs block all prostaglandins, so the anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving prostaglandins are also blocked when you take NSAIDs. So your pain, fever, and/or inflammation are likely to be even worse when the drug wears off. And that’s not all – even over-the-counter NSAIDs can cause very serious, even fatal side effects, such as:
NSAIDs only mask a symptom temporarily and can actually worsen things in the end. So try to avoid them whenever possible, so they won’t undermine your dietary efforts to bring inflammation into balance.
While NSAIDs indiscriminately block all prostaglandins, the fact remains that which prostaglandins you have more of – inflammatory or anti-inflammatory – is largely determined by your diet.
We’ve discussed the role of fats, but no nutrient works in isolation in the body. Fats participate in the body’s various inflammatory processes, and they also interact with carbohydrates to produce both types of prostaglandins.
Carbs: Another Much-Maligned Food Group That Influences Inflammation
Low-carb diets are currently in vogue, but at TrueHealth we make a point of looking beyond the current trends and focusing on the facts. Regardless of the latest fad diet, carbs and fats interact in certain ways in the body. And they are not governed by trends; they’re governed by biological processes that are simply the way the body works.
When you consume simple carbohydrates, particularly sugar, it increases inflammation.
First, they upset your blood sugar balance. Sugar’s quick absorption into the bloodstream causes a sudden imbalance in the body (high blood sugar), which requires a significant release of insulin in order to process the sugar out of the blood and into various cells. This can cause you to feel a rush of energy, but it’s short-lived, because there is suddenly too much insulin in circulation and no more sugar after the initial influx. So then you feel tired and sluggish as your body tries to correct this second imbalance of low blood sugar.
Secondly, unstable blood sugar causes Omega-6 fats (like AA) to be converted into pro-inflammatory versions of compounds called eiosanoids. Like prostaglandins, to which they are related, eiosanoids are produced from AA and can be inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. In the presence of imbalanced blood sugar, your body will produce more inflammatory eiosanoids from AA than anti-inflammatory.
So you can see how a person’s state of health influences inflammation and the resulting treatment. If you eat a lot of sugar, AAs will cause or exacerbate inflammation. So for that individual, cutting way back on sugar (or eliminating it entirely for a time) and increasing AAs will ease inflammation and restore balance.
Cutting out AAs because they seem inflammatory misses the point. AAs are only inflammatory when the body is in a particular state of imbalance.
In addition, there are times when the pro-inflammatory effects of AA can be beneficial, just as chiropractic manipulation can induce inflammation at the body’s trigger points [a good idea would be to make the words “trigger points” a hyperlink to the page that discusses them].
When Inflammation Heals
There’s no question that inflammation is part of the healing process, as discussed above. There are times when inducing inflammation sets the healing process in motion, and activates the body’s natural anti-inflammatory response.
Healthful induction of inflammation taps into the body’s natural processes; it does not hinder them or throw them off balance the way eating a lot of trans fats or sugar would do. Ingesting AA-rich foods actually restores balance by giving your body the AA it needs to practice healthful inflammation, which leads to a natural kick-in of the body’s anti-inflammatory processes (that also require AA).