What do acne, fatigue, depression and IBS have in common?
Most people think of these and other chronic health conditions as separate and unrelated illnesses.
But they share one underlying factor, and that is - inflammation.
Conventional medicine doesn’t always recognise this, and often aims to suppress symptoms rather than address the underlying cause.
To help put that in perspective, we can think of chronic inflammation as a slow burning fire.
We could use a lot of water and energy running around putting out spot fires, or we can remove the fuel and target the blaze.
Chronic inflammatory diseases have become the most significant cause of death in the world. The problem is so widespread that the World Health Organisation (WHO) now ranks chronic diseases as the greatest threat to human health.
It is estimated that one in three Australians is living with at least one chronic inflammatory disease, and many of them have multiple conditions related to chronic inflammation.
Worldwide, three out of five people die due to chronic inflammatory diseases like stroke, respiratory diseases, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes.
At Melbourne Functional Medicine, we can help you identify if inflammation is an underlying factor in your health challenges, and guide you on the best ways to bring it under control.
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is actually a normal immune response that acts as a defence mechanism.
Acute inflammation can stimulate immune cells to help the body begin the healing process after trauma such as a burn or impact injury, as well as in response to pathogens, allergens and irritants. It can also occur in response to certain food and damaged cells.
If you’ve ever had a hard bump or burn, you would have noticed swelling, redness, pain and heat. These are the physical responses of inflammation, which occur when blood flow rushes to the area. The immunoprotective components of white blood cells are released, removing damaged cells and initiating healing.
This process enables the restoration of homeostasis, and the inflammation can then subside.
But what if it doesn’t?
Chronic inflammation is that which lasts for prolonged periods of months or years. This occurs when the body is no longer able to stimulate an adequate immune response to heal the damage.
This is the type of inflammation that infiltrates internal organs of the body, and is often at the core of many of the health conditions and diseases we see today.
How do I know if I have inflammation?
Inflammation plays an underlying role in most chronic health conditions. Some conditions can be triggered or exacerbated by inflammation, and some conditions may cause inflammation. Often there is a vicious cycle at play.
The five signs of inflammation are redness, swelling, pain, heat and loss of function. But these signs aren’t always immediately obvious to us when they’re happening internally.
A range of pathology tests are available to measure inflammatory markers in the blood, such as C-reactive protein, homocysteine, and erythrocyte sedimentation rate. But often you’ll be experiencing symptoms of inflammation before a blood test tells you.
Just some examples of inflammatory conditions include:
- Autoimmune disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic pain
- Coeliac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Digestive issues
- Hormonal imbalances
- Mood disorders and depression
- Thyroid issues
- Ulcerative colitis
What causes inflammation?
Chronic inflammation results when acute inflammation can’t be mediated by normal physiological processes.
This can occur when:
- The aggravating agent isn’t eliminated or the body continues to be exposed to low levels of it over a period of time, such as mould in a home, inhaling chemicals at work, or regularly consuming a food you’re intolerant or allergic to, such as gluten or dairy.
- An autoimmune disorder causes the body to attack healthy tissue, such as arthritis, lupus and coeliac disease.
- A defect in the cells responsible for mediating inflammation leads to auto-inflammatory disorders.
- Recurrent and ongoing episodes of acute inflammation create long-term inflammation.
- Oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction is triggered by free radicals, uric acid, homocysteine and other inflammatory molecules, often resulting from lifestyle factors like poor diet, alcohol, smoking and lack of sleep.
- Medications such as antibiotics, antacids and NSAIDS lead to inflammation of the gut and body.
How can I reduce inflammation?
The key to reducing inflammation lies in extinguishing those flames, and restoring balance to the body.
While addressing the wide array of inflammatory conditions might seem complex and multifaceted, a functional medicine approach to reducing inflammation is always very similar.
Just some of the ways you can reduce inflammation with the support of your functional medicine practitioner include:
Eat anti-inflammatory foods
When it comes to reducing inflammation with food, healthy fats are your friend. Think salmon, avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil, chia seeds, flaxseed oil, hemp seeds. Foods rich in polyphenols like colourful non-starchy vegetables. And antioxidants from foods like green tea, apples, turmeric, grapes, rosemary, broccoli and garlic.
Avoid inflammatory foods
Foods that create and feed inflammation include sugar, refined carbohydrates, high-glycemic foods, hydrogenated oils, trans fats. Think - soft drinks, lollies, breads, pasta, baked goods, dairy, white potatoes, deep fried foods, processed foods, preservatives, colours and artificial flavours. There are also a lot of other potentially inflammatory foods depending on your personal intolerances and allergies, which can commonly include gluten, grains, corn, soy and nuts.
Natural supplements and herbs
Supplementing high quality essential fatty acids in the form of omega 3 EPA/DHA supplements is highly recommended for reducing inflammation. Other natural anti-inflammatories which may be beneficial include turmeric, white willow, boswellia, resveratrol, cats claw and others.
Restore gut health
The gut and digestive system is nearly always involved in inflammatory responses in the body, and treating the gut can bring about dramatic resolutions of symptoms. Restoring gut health can involve modifying the microbiome with probiotics and prebiotics, while reducing inflammation with supplements like glutamine.
Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs
It probably comes as no surprise that avoiding alcohol and cigarettes is recommended for reducing inflammation. But why exactly is that?
Scientists have discovered smoking increases inflammation when nicotine activates white blood cells called neutrophils, which release molecules causing an inflammatory response.
Similarly, alcohol contributes to inflammation throughout the body. This is because alcohol impairs gut and liver function, and disrupts signalling in the central nervous system. These organs and systems play a critical role in detoxification and inflammatory regulation, which is why chronic alcohol use leads to fatty liver, hepatitis, and ultimately organ failure.
Ironically both prescription and illicit opioids can create inflammatory responses in the body. Pain relievers are particularly harsh on the gut, and also contribute to generalised systemic inflammation.
Just one night of poor sleep can significantly increase inflammation in the body. While the occasional late night probably won’t cause any long-term damage, chronic sleep disturbance can contribute to tissue-damaging inflammation leading to heart disease, autoimmune disorders, obesity and diabetes.
Stress leads to the release of cortisol, which is the driver of our flight and fight response. That is helpful when we need to take immediate reaction in response to a physical threat. However the mind can’t differentiate between real and perceived risk, so when our stress levels are consistently high, cortisol is continually pumped throughout the body. This leads to disordered hormone function, impaired digestion and inflammation.
Practicing yoga, meditation, breathwork and mindfulness can all help with managing and reducing stress.
When we’re feeling unwell, in pain, stiff or fatigued, exercise is the last thing on our minds. Yet moving our bodies can be an effective way to reduce inflammation. Don’t go too fast, too soon, because over-exercising or exercising beyond your limits can cause muscle damage. Just twenty minutes a day of moderate exercise has shown to reduce inflammatory markers.
Being unwell is frustrating and exhausting. Finding solutions and getting the right support can be too. Our unique model of care - functional medicine combined with health coaching - was designed with you in mind. Find out how here.
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