Inflammation. You hear about it everywhere, but do you really know what it is?
Inflammation is a vital part of our body’s defense system. Without it, we could die from wounds and infections. However, inflammation can also be debilitating on our bodies and can play a role in some chronic diseases.
Chronic vs. Acute Inflammation
Inflammation in your body is not always bad. There are two different types of inflammation that occur in your body: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation occurs in your body when you have a cut/scrape, infected nail, sprained ankle, sore throat, etc. It is short term and the symptoms subside after a few days. It is your body’s natural response to healing.
Chronic (systemic) inflammation is long-term and occurs for 3 months or longer. It is often associated with conditions that “wear and tear” on our bodies. These conditions may include allergies, asthma, skin conditions (like acne), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Chrohn’s disease or autoimmune diseases such as osteoarthritis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.
We also have some impact on the presence of chronic inflammation in our bodies. Environmental or habitual factors like poor diet, lack of exercise, stress, smoking, too much of the wrong kind of exercise, and excessive alcohol consumption can all lead to chronic inflammation. And in turn, chronic
inflammation can be one of the biggest factors halting us from losing weight and getting the desired health status or physique we are working so hard towards. This is because when your body has an injury, the first thing it is going to focus on is healing itself.
It is also important to remember that acute inflammation is not always “good” and chronic
inflammation is not always “bad”. Dr. Scott Walker, a family practice physician at Gunnison Valley Hospital in Utah said in an article from 2015, “Whether acute or chronic, inflammation is the body’s natural response to a problem, so it makes us aware of issues that we might not otherwise acknowledge“.
What’s going on in your body with chronic inflammation?
Persistent, low grade inflammation (chronic inflammation) occurs when the body sends an inflammatory response to an internal threat that does not actually require an inflammatory response. Cytokines (proteins) are released as “emergency signals” that bring in your body’s defense cells, nutrients and hormones to fix the problem. Then, white blood cells come, just like with acute inflammation; but, instead of ingesting the germs, dead cells and foreign materials that help heal the body in acute inflammation, they instead have nothing to do and nowhere to go. This sometimes leads to the white blood cells attacking internal organs and other necessary tissues and cells.
Another possibility is that we do not feel this chronic inflammatory response occurring and it persists for a long time. This persistent inflammation has been linked to diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. It is also associated with environmental/habitual factors like chronic alcohol consumption and poor diet (refined carbohydrates, sugars and trans fats).
One example of chronic inflammation is with heart disease. Research is showing that a major cause of heart disease is a highly refined carbohydrate² and/or high sugar³ diet (Cheerios anyone?).
Sugar (and refined carbohydrates) act like little razors on your blood vessels, causing damage and inflammation. When your vessels become damaged, cholesterol comes and gets deposited on the lining of your blood vessels, to try and repair the damage done by sugar and refined carbohydrates. Cytokines respond to this cholesterol buildup and cause systemic inflammation. And we all know that inflamed blood vessels and plaque buildup can lead to heart attacks! So when cholesterol levels increase, it means your body is trying to fight internal inflammation.
As you can see, cholesterol is the good guy! Cholesterol is like a fire fighter, trying to put out the fire of inflammation. It is not the cause of the inflammation, it is the hero!
How does my diet affect chronic inflammation?
What we choose to eat and what we choose not to eat can all have an affect on the amount of inflammation occurring in our bodies.
For example, concerning the topic of heart disease, cholesterol often appears. Aggressive marketing has led us to believe that cholesterol-free foods are healthy. Breakfast cereals, bran muffins and egg whites all boast of cholesterol free benefits. This takes away from an important fact. Cholesterol is essential to your body. You need it to survive! In fact, if you don’t eat enough cholesterol, your body will produce it for you. It is masked as a culprit of heart disease, but rather; it is a byproduct of chronic inflammation. Cholesterol continually fights to heal the inflammation occurring in your body. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020) does not even mention limiting cholesterol – as we had believed was essential for many years.
Yet the question remains, what is contributing to high cholesterol? Research is starting to show that the chronic inflammation occurring in your body is what affects your cholesterol and risk of heart disease.
In the end: eating cholesterol does not cause high cholesterol. Cholesterol is like a firefighter coming to heal the chronic inflammation in your arteries occurring from a highly refined carbohydrate, sugar and trans fat diet. (Not saturated fat – read more here) So – eat your egg yolks.
Practical tips to decrease chronic inflammation
- Eat more anti-inflammatory foods
These are foods with:
- Omega 3 fatty acids
- Fatty, wild caught fish, grass fed beef¹, walnuts/other nuts, avocado, chia and flax seed
- Rich antioxidants
- Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts (sulforaphane), kale (think green), onions (quercetin), cauliflower
- Berries: Strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, etc. (anthocyanins)
- Certain spices: ginger, garlic, rosemary, turmeric, oregano, cayenne, cloves and nutmeg (The University of Wisconsin has a great list)
2. Take out the foods causing inflammation
- Refined carbohydrates (white breads, pastas, cereals – yes, even Cheerios, crackers, baked goods)
- Sugar (especiallly from sugary drinks – soda, sports drinks, juice cleanses)
- Trans fats (hydrogenated oils, mono and diglycerides, fried foods and baked goods)
- Processed vegetable oils (soybean, corn, cottonseed oil, etc.)
3. Eat a real food diet
- Real food: try to eat whole foods as often as you can (doesn’t have to be 100% of the time!) and when you eat a processed food, be able to read and understand all the ingredients on the nutrition label (and keep the words above out of the label!)
- Focus on the foods that contribute nutrients to your body and help your body fight off inflammation
- Eat Healthy Fats, protein and carbohydrates (mainly from fruits and vegetables) every time you eat!
- It can be as simple or complex as you would like (here for more)
- Example meal: Chicken, 4-6 oz. (protein) cooked in 1-2 T butter/olive oil (fat) with 2-3 cups steamed broccoli (non starchy carb) and 1/2 cup cooked sweet potato (starchy carb)
- Example snack: 2 oz. leftover chicken (protein) or grass fed beef with 8-10 black olives (fat) and raw veggie sticks (carb)
- It can be as simple or complex as you would like (here for more)
These practical tips can help you fight off inflammation and bring healing to your body. Remember that your body will first seek out healing from inflammation before it is able to focus on things like losing weight.
- Daley, C. A., Abbott, A., Doyle, P. S., Nader, G. A., & Larson, S. (2010). A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal, 9(1).
- Jakobsen, M., Dethlefsen, C., Joensen, A., Stegger, J., Tjonneland, A., Schmidt, E., & Overvad, K. (2010). Intake of carbohydrates compared with intake of saturated fatty acids and risk of myocardial infarction: importance of the glycemic index. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
- Johnson, R. K., Appel, L. J., Brands, M., Howard, B. V., Lefevre, M., Lustig, R. H., . . . Wylie-Rosett, J. (2009). Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 120(11), 1011-1020.
- Johnson, R. J., Sánchez-Lozada, L. G., Andrews, P., & Lanaspa, M. A. (2017). Perspective: A Historical and Scientific Perspective of Sugar and Its Relation with Obesity and Diabetes. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal, 8(3), 412-422.
- Szalay, J. (2015, September 30). Inflammation: Causes, Symptoms & Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Retrieved May 30, 2017, from http://www.livescience.com/52344-inflammation.html