Inflammation has been demonised in recent years, and not without good reason, especially when you are suffering with a chronic illness such as an autoimmune disease. However, from an evolutionary perspective, inflammation has got us to where we are today. Humans probably wouldn’t be ruling the planet if our superb immune systems weren’t capable of this sophisticated defence system against pathogens and trauma.
So, we are right to praise the good in our immune inflammatory response in an acute setting, but I will focus the rest of this article on when the immune system becomes disrupted due to peer pressure from other sources and as a result behaves badly – that is when things for you get ugly!
What causes the immune system to misbehave?
A lot of the functions in the body make perfect sense when reflecting on the hunter gatherers who roamed the world 70,000 years ago, but in the world we live in today, they are rather outdated. Running from lions and tigers isn’t something that most of us must deal with day to day, but unfortunately your body doesn’t realise this and is still adapted to a fight or flight stress response.
When you are stressed, you release adrenaline which stimulates the receptors on your immune cells to get ready for an attack which puts your body in a proinflammatory state. This is good if you are in fact under attack, but if you are stressed chronically because you are under pressure a lot then staying in this state can cause more harm than good.
Luckily, when you do have small spurts of stress, cortisol is released to settle the inflammation triggered by the adrenaline and your body returns to a normal state. If this cycle is repeated and repeated, again and again, then your body may stop responding to the appeasing effects of cortisol and you are in a vicious cycle of stress and inflammation without the turn off switch.
This is why stress relieving techniques are an important factor in lowering inflammation in the body which should be considered if you are suffering with symptoms of chronic inflammation such as swelling, redness, heat or pain in parts of your body.
The gut factor
Inflammation in the body is intrinsically linked to stress and inflammation. Intestinal permeability, often referred to as leaky gut, is normally a factor when someone is suffering with chronic low-grade inflammation in their body. Leaky gut is a condition where the digestive tract has larger openings in it than it should which lets food and other gut bacteria into the blood stream. As more particle are entering the blood stream, which may be pathogenic, then they are more likely to create an immune response in that person, causing inflammation.
Leaky gut may be caused by various factors such as a low fibre diet, food sensitivities, gut parasites or viruses, or a meal heavy in calories or saturated fats. Also, in a stressed state, adrenaline causes the gaps (called tight junctions) to widen because if you were running from a lion you would need all your fuel resources as quick as possible. However, if you are stressed continually and adrenaline continues to increase the leakiness of your gut, then you carry on being inflamed!
Eating a high fibre diet is particularly important for closing the openings in the gastrointestinal tract. A variety of different fibres feed the beneficial gut bacteria which produce immune-supporting and gut healing molecules called short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs are incredibly helpful for gut health and decreasing overall inflammation in the body, so eating a diet rich in healthy fibres such as apples, spinach, broccoli, flaxseed and chia seeds can help to bring down inflammation in your body.
What happens when things get ugly?
You might be thinking, why does it even matter if I have systemic inflammation? Well, there are lots of reasons why systemic inflammation can cause havoc within our bodies.
For example, the damage to your vessels in cardiovascular disease, is due to inflammation of the vessels which impairs their internal walls. This allows cholesterol and calcium to build up and form plaques in pockets of the vessel which under pressure can lead to cardiac arrest.
Systemic inflammation is also a key driver for chronic health conditions such as autoimmune disease. If the immune system is already switched on in the body due to proinflammatory factors like leaky gut and stress, then it is more likely to start damaging your own body as well.
In addition to this, inflammation may disturb other biological systems working properly such as blood sugar regulation and hormone balancing. In diabetes, inflammation can play a significant factor in how responsive a person’s cells are to the hormone insulin, which is a key factor in removing sugar from the blood.
So, as you can see, finding ways to lower inflammation and eating an anti-inflammatory diet shouldn’t be a temporary diet fad but a way of life. Anti-inflammatory foods encompass a delightful assortment of foods including berries, ginger, garlic and omega 3 rich foods such as oily fish and flaxseed oil. Vitamin D is a crucial component of living an inflammatory free life, so make sure you get this checked regularly by your doctor and, if you are deficient, supplement appropriately.
And roll on to the last scene…
As you can see, there is the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to inflammation. And if you are familiar with the film, the saying goes ‘if you work for a living, why do you kill yourself working?’ By analogy, we could say the immune system works so diligently to keep us alive, but in the wrong setting, it can end up getting the better of us in the process.
In next week’s article, as we move closer to the Christmas period when temptation is around every corner, we will look at the link between food intolerances and autoimmune disease, to understand if there really is a link?