The Silent Enemy Burning Within
Anyone who has cut, sprained or burned themselves has experienced pain, heat, redness and swelling – the sure signs of acute inflammation. After an in jury the body ignites with an inflammatory response to ward off infection and jumpstart tissue repair. White blood cells rush to the scene of the trauma to fight the deadly bacteria that can quickly spread. However, in some people, the inflammatory response is triggered inappropriately and never fully shuts off, potentially resulting in a state of chronic inflammation. For example, the “silent” inflammation of cardiovascular blood vessels is believed to play a key part in atherosclerosis.
Chronic inflammation continually drains energy from the body as it persistently tries to put out the internal fire, weakening our immune system and causing other conditions. “Research indicates that the effects of this chronic, low-grade, invisible inflammation are the basis of aging and age related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune disorders. This low grade inflammation can also ignite other problems such as asthma, arthritis and MS.”
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
Women and older people suffer more from inflammatory illnesses. This is particularly an issue for women during and after menopause. The hormonal transition stokes the fire. Inflammation caused by hormonal imbalance could be a key reason why women suffer 75% of all auto-immune diseases. Some medical professionals believe that diet is primarily to blame in the increase in inflammatory illnesses. The typical Western diet today contains at least thirty times more of pro-inflammatory nutrients than just a century ago. “People have become nutritionally and biochemically primed for powerful, out of control inflammatory reactions.” Once your body is primed for inflammation any number of triggers can provide the spark such as: injuries, infections and diet. Additional triggers include allergies and food sensitivities, hypertension, hyperglycemia, imbalances of essential fatty acids or inadequate antioxidant intake as well as obesity (fat cells secrete chemicals such as C-reactive protein and in terleukin-6, that promote inflammation and diabetes (which also has a strong inflammatory component)).
Testing your Inflammation Levels
The simple and inexpensive test called CRP (C-reactive protein) has been used for over 70 years to measure changes in the body’s overall inflammation levels and to track treatment success. Healthy people don’t have high levels of CRP in the blood. If the CRP levels are elevated or begin to increase something is amiss. Another test called “sedimentation rate” test is used and measures how fast red blood cells settle and form sediment. This test is considered to be less sensitive than CRP test but useful for some patients. Both tests however are non-specific, meaning they simply detect inflammation from all sources, including medication and injuries and for this reason cannot always be used to measure “silent inflammation.”
Symptoms of Silent Inflammation
If you answer “Yes” to more than three of the following questions, you could benefit from a CRP blood test: Do you smoke? Do you have diabetes? Do you have gum disease? Are you overweight? Are you always craving carbohydrates? Are you constantly hungry? Are you tired, especially after exercise? Are your fingernails brittle? Are you constipated? Are you groggy upon waking? Do you have difficulty concentrating? Do you have headaches? It is best to discuss these symptoms with your doctor to determine if testing is appropriate for you.
Implications for Disease
Gum Disease and rheumatoid arthritis are among the inflammatory conditions that raise your risk of heart disease. Experts now believe inflammation may be the underlying reason. High CRP levels exist in people who suffer recurrent heart attacks or angina. Other studies have found “silent inflammation” to be a significant risk factor for stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. Those with the highest CRP levels were three times more likely to develop the latter. In patients with many forms of cancer, high levels of CRP correspond to a lower survival rate.
Hormones and Inflammation
The complexity of hormonal effects on inflammation is evident in scientific literature. Estrogens have both anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory roles and estrogens do not function in the same manner in all inflammatory diseases due to “the enormously variable responses of immune and repair systems.”
Depleted cortisol, the “stress” hormone, is also often implicated in furthering a pro-inflammatory state. The problem with cortisol occurs when inflammation does not stop.
“Constant stress means constant secretion of cortisol. As your body adapts to chronic stress you become hyperinsulinemic, thereby creating more visceral fat. This fuels a new round of cortisol secretion, and the end result is you get fatter and wind up with chronic silent inflammation.”
Excess cortisol is also associated with a low level of thyroid hormone, which typically results in difficulty losing weight, chronic infections, fatigue, and a wide variety of other conditions that may further compound the effects of inflammation.
The Fix: Putting Out the Fire
Commonly used anti-inflammatory drug called NSAIDS and synthetic corticosteroids can have serious side effects. Another class of drugs called “statins” has demonstrated effectiveness in lowering cholesterol and CRP levels, however they also introduce the risk of serious side effects.
In search of better ways to “cool off” the body’s pro-inflammatory responses, many patients and practitioners are looking beyond the medicine cabinet to the kitchen and the gym. A healthier lifestyle, specifically quitting smoking and reforming one’s diet and workout habits, such as eating right, getting exercise, losing weight and cutting stress is the key to putting out the burning ember within.
A proper diet and exercise plan devised to stop the overproduction of hormones that fuel chronic inflammation can be designed and it may consist of “anti-inflammatory foods” while stressing the need for moderation in the intake of protein, carbohydrates and dietary fats.
A typical “anti-inflammatory” diet seeks to amplify the body’s own anti-inflammatory substances. One such diet separates foods into “hot” and “cold” groups. “Hot foods,” set the stage for inflammation. They include:
- most vegetable oils and food fried in them
- margarine and most salad dressings
- baked goods
- many packaged foods
- fast food meals
- sugared beverages.
Conversely, “cold” foods help douse inflammation, such as:
- olive oil
- fish, particularly cold water species
- fresh vegetables
- low-sugar fruits
- free-range beef, chicken and game
- mineral water
By replacing “hot” foods with “cold” ones, we boost our levels of anti-inflammatory vitamins, minerals, proteins, and omega-3 fatty acids, while reducing our levels of pro-inflammatory fats. Moreover, an anti-inflammatory diet also reduces body fat and helps to curtail excess insulin levels, providing additional health benefits.
Women’s Health Connections
“Inflammation – the key to chronic disease?”by Marcelle Pick, NP OB/GYN
The Inflammation Syndrome: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Arthritis, Diabetes, Allergies, and Asthma by Jack Wiley & Sons; Hoboken, NJ, 2003
C-Reactive Protein by Scott J. Deron, D. O. FACC, McGraw-Hill; New York, NY, 2004.
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