Most of us know that inflammation is bad. But most of don't know exactly what inflammation is. Nor do we know how and why it's bad. In this post, we will answer the questions what is inflammation and how does inflammation affect health.
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is essentially an immune reaction. Most of us are familiar with inflammation associated with a wound or injury. There is redness, swelling, heat, and pain. But inflammation is much more complex than this example of acute inflammation.
During an inflammatory response, our immune cells are releasing chemicals, called inflammatory mediators. There are many different inflammatory mediators such as cytokines, kinins, histamine, and eicosanoids. These mediators are made by many different cells in the body and have many different functions. They may act to increase blood flow and make blood vessels more permeable so immune cells can get into the tissue. They may act to attract other immune cells to the site. Or they may act to activate certain immune cells.
Inflammation is very complex and multifactorial. What you need to understand is that it is not one thing but a complex physiological process in your body.
How does inflammation affect health?
To understand how inflammation affects our health, we need to understand the cause and type of inflammation.
For example, acute inflammation is good. This is the swelling, heat, and pain we experience with an injury. In this case, the inflammation is acting to repair the body or defend against pathogens. While this inflammation can be quite painful, it is healing. It is a sign of the body fixing itself. Sometimes, this type of inflammation can become prolonged or excessive, which is not good, but for the most part, acute inflammation is serving a very important purpose in the body and should not be halted.
Chronic inflammation, however, does have health risks. In fact, chronic inflammation is connected to many chronic diseases:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Depression & PTSD
- Autoimmune disease
In these diseases, an inflammatory process becomes prolonged. Stress, infections, leaky gut, oxidative stress, nutrient deficiencies, and genetic mutations (such as MTHFR) all play a role in developing chronic inflammation.
Signs of chronic inflammation
Signs that inflammation is affecting your health are:
- recurrent infections
- frequent colds & flus
- chronic pain
- mood imbalances
- chronic digestive issues
- chronic skin issues
- fatigue & lack of energy
Testing for inflammation
There are several blood tests that you can use to assess inflammatory markers. Two of the most common are sedimentations rate (ESR) or C-reactive protein (hs-CRP or CRP). Most doctors use these tests to assess for inflammation. But remember how I said that inflammation is complex and involves many different mediators? Having a normal ESR or CRP does not mean you don't have inflammation. CRP is only looking at one inflammatory mediator. (Note: I recommend getting a high sensitivity CRP, not CRP.)
You can get blood tests for many of the other inflammatory markers such as IL-10, IL-6, IL-17a, and TNF-alpha. These labs are more specialized and may not be used by all doctors.
If you are concerned that your inflammation may be autoimmune in nature, appropriate blood tests may include ANA, anti-CCP, RF, anti-TPO, anti-TG, antiphosolipid antibodies, anti-Sm, anti-Ro, and others depending on your symptoms. You may be referred to a rheumatologist to get this testing done.
From an integrative medicine perspective, we don't just want to know what inflammation is present, we also want to know why. Is there a dysbiosis in your gut bacteria driving this inflammation? Are you ingesting foods or substances that are causing inflammation? Is stress or genetic mutations promoting the inflammation?
So additional testing may include:
- Food sensitivity testing
- Advanced cardiovascular inflammation markers (see this article for more info)
- Microbial testing of the stool to identify pathogenic bacteria
- Inflammatory testing of the stool to identify inflammation & leaky gut
- Salivary cortisol levels to identify stress as a contributing factor
- Micronutrient testing to identify nutrient deficiencies exacerbating inflammation
- Organic acids test to identify oxidative stress, neurotransmitter imbalances and mitochondrial dysfunction involved in inflammation
How to heal inflammation
I could give you a set of generic recommendations to quench inflammation and repair the damage it has caused. But it probably won't be effective for you, even if you follow the recommendations. Because, as I tried to stress, inflammation is very complex. It requires an individualized approach to heal it. For example the recommendations to heal from an autoimmune disease will be very different from the recommendations to heal from cardiovascular inflammation. And it also depends on what is the root cause of your inflammation. Is it because your diet, for lack of a better word, sucks? Or is it because you have toxic exposures that triggered an autoimmune disease?
So the best way to heal your inflammation is to work with a doctor who will give you more than a prescription. If all your doctor wants to do for your inflammation is prescribe prednisone, then you know it is time for a different doctor.
With all that said, here are the generic recommendations.
- Identify your inflammatory process (a doctor skilled in physiology can help with this).
- Identify the cause of your inflammation (diet, infections, toxins, stress, etc)
- Remove inflammation triggers (if possible)
- Eat an organic diet that is high in omega-3 fatty acids (low in omega-6 fatty acids)
- Consider a fish oil supplement (see this article for more info)
- Consider getting more turmeric in your diet (see this article for more info)
- Drink plenty of water to support proper lymphatic flow to clear inflammatory cells from organs & tissues
- Manage your stress
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I'm Dr. Carly and my mission is to create a health revolution. I believe that another prescription is not the answer. I believe in using natural therapies that go beyond the symptoms. And I believe that doctors should spend way more than 7 minutes with a patient.