Cooling Chronic Inflammation

Lifestyle adjustments that can help us tame the pain and access the benefits of a healthier body
By Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc

Chronic inflammation can progress unnoticed for years. Sure, there can be symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, increased wrinkles, or aches and pains, but most people write these off as normal signs of aging.

Acute, short-term inflammation is different. We notice it right away because it’s a rapid response to injury and infection, but the pain cools down as the body repairs itself. Ongoing inflammation, on the other hand, advances over time as stress, toxins, pro-inflammatory foods, inactivity, weight gain, and other factors come into play. Unlike the acute variety, chronic inflammation can lead to a wide range of serious health problems.

To put it in perspective, virtually all major degenerative diseases involve chronic inflammatory processes in the body. Heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, kidney conditions, and neurodegenerative diseases—particularly Alzheimer’s—all have direct links to long-term inflammation.

Although all of this can be worrisome, it can also be somewhat reassuring because it gives us an effective therapeutic target. Now that we understand the importance of treating chronic inflammation, we can address it using natural approaches.

Inflammation’s Split Personality

When we stub a toe, encounter dangerous bacteria, or face other threats to the system, the body responds with inflammatory proteins called cytokines, which isolate the injury or pathogen and begin the repair process. This is a rapid response that addresses the problem and then recedes.

Unfortunately, modern lifestyles can trigger acute inflammation that turns chronic over time, essentially tricking the body into thinking it’s always under attack. Long-term exposure to toxins and heavy metals, low-grade infections, digestive problems, food sensitivities and allergies, chemicals in processed foods, chronic stress, smoking, and obesity can all act like injuries to the body. Over time, the constant flow of cytokines and other inflammatory proteins damages cells and tissues. It’s as if we’re continually stubbing our toe over and over. As long as the body perceives an injury, it will respond with inflammation.

Chronic inflammation is dangerous because it can harm cells and tissues the same way heat and friction degrade materials over time. Inflammation scrambles cell signals, mutates DNA, threatens cardiovascular health, impairs immunity, acidifies the body, fuels fibrosis (uncontrolled scar tissue build-up), and promotes growth and metastasis of cancer cells.

The inflammatory process also produces highly reactive forms of oxygen and nitrogen, which can directly damage our genes—but it gets worse: Inflammation can also turn off mechanisms associated with DNA repair. Damaged DNA can lead to many different health issues—most notably cancer and reproductive problems—so it’s critical we find ways to put out these fires that can burn uncontrolled throughout the body.

Cooling the Summer Heat

Chronic inflammation is a problem all year long; however, we can really do damage during the summer months. Hot weather and excess sun can dehydrate us and stress the cardiovascular system, which in turn can hinder circulation and make chronic inflammation even worse.

Our favorite summertime activities may have inflammatory results, as well.

Take grilling for example: The process of charring meat and other food produces a variety of toxic chemicals, such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These compounds have been shown to cause cancer in animals, particularly pancreatic, colorectal, and prostate cancers. Another dangerous family of chemicals is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are produced by burning fat. The smoke that hits us full force as we stand over the grill is full of PAHs, which can go deep into our lungs. PAHs are also associated with cancer.

Another grilling danger is the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), particularly in grilled meats. In addition to being highly inflammatory, these compounds have negative effects on the cardiovascular system, blood sugar regulation, and cellular health, and can accelerate the aging process.

Longer daylight hours can translate into less sleep, irritating the body. Sunburns also generate an inflammatory response, and the warmer weather means more allergies, which are highly inflammatory. Because summertime fun can produce a fiery cocktail of risk factors leading to chronic illness down the road, it’s a good time to cool off with anti-inflammatory foods, supplements, and health-promoting practices.

The Anti-Inflammatory Diet

There are many ways to help mitigate inflammation this time of year. The first is incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into our diet, which are more abundant during spring and summer seasons.

First, let’s address the grilling issue. Marinades and antioxidant herbs such as rosemary help protect meats from high heat damage, limiting the production of inflammatory compounds. They also control fat drippings, which are a big factor in grill smoke. Try precooking before putting an item on the grill. This is especially helpful for chicken and other cuts that take longer to cook. Be sure to also steer away from processed foods, trans fats, sugar, and alcohol.

On the other hand, there are many foods that can help us keep inflammation at bay. Start with lean proteins, sprouted whole grains, and lots of organic fruits and vegetables. One of summer’s many advantages is the increased availability of fresh produce. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables tend to be high in antioxidants and phytonutrients to help alkalinize and cool inflammation in the body. Peppers, carrots, melons, greens, tomatoes, summer squash, cherries, and berries are all good examples.

Omega-3 fatty acids from wild sardines, flax and chia seeds, and walnuts also help fight inflammation. Green tea is another wonderful anti-inflammatory beverage to incorporate with multiple health-promoting benefits. Additionally, a squeeze of fresh lemon in your water adds a refreshing and alkalinizing and anti-inflammatory effect.

Spices

When making that savory marinade,  include a number of anti-inflammatory spices for added protection. For centuries, many spices have led a double life as both food and medicine, and research shows that many of them contain powerful anti-inflammatory compounds.

GINGER shares a number of mechanisms generally found in non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as COX 1 and COX 2 inhibitors. Ginger also turns off genes associated with inflammation.

ROSEMARY has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, boosts immunity, and can improve circulation.

TURMERIC contains a compound called curcumin, which has been shown to reduce inflammation throughout the body.

OREGANO, in addition to reducing inflammation, is a rich source for antioxidants and antimicrobial compounds.

GARLIC has been proven to help people suffering from arthritis and contains sulfur compounds that inhibit inflammation.

In addition to everyday herbs and spices, there are other medicinal herbs that help protect against chronic inflammation, and provide additional health benefits. Boswellia and willow bark are two good examples.

I also recommend a supplement derived from the pith of citrus peels called modified citrus pectin (MCP). This unique ingredient has an affinity for the inflammatory protein galectin-3. A number of studies have linked elevated galectin-3 levels to cancer, heart disease, chronic inflammation, and fibrosis of organs and tissues. Galectin-3 levels can also be tested with a simple blood test for the screening of cardiovascular disease. MCP works by binding to excess galectin-3 and blocking its pro-inflammatory and pro-cancer effects. MCP is also an excellent detoxifier that safely removes heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium.

Probiotics

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the role of friendly bacteria in our bodies. Turns out, bacteria influence more than digestion, assisting with immunity, nutrient absorption, weight control, and even emotional well-being.

The bacteria in our guts have also been linked to inflammation. Several studies have shown that probiotics can help reduce inflammation in the gut. Evidence also shows that probiotics can reduce the inflammation associated with psoriasis and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, kimchee, sauerkraut, and miso, are great sources of probiotics. It’s also a good idea to incorporate prebiotic nutrients found in prebiotic supplements, as well as foods such asparagus, dandelion greens, onion, garlic, burdock root, and others. Prebiotics feed beneficial bacteria and encourage their growth in the digestive tract.

Reduce Stress

Whether we like it or not, our bodies aren’t well-suited for our hyper-busy lifestyles. Chronic stress, lack of sleep, and mental/emotional burnout increase stress hormones that can fuel chronic inflammation. Although slowing down is easier said than done, it’s critically important in order to suppress inflammatory stress hormones.

The first step is to exercise more. We should all be walking at least 30 minutes a day. Some of us may adopt more strenuous workouts, which is OK, but don’t overdo it. For reducing inflammation, gentle exercise trumps vigorous workouts that are hard on the body. Walks in nature are especially beneficial, as they can help calm the mind. In addition to reducing stress, consistent activity can help keep our weight in check, and excess body fat has a strong link to inflammation.

Meditation is also a great way to reduce stress. Even just a few minutes in the afternoon, perhaps right after lunch, can help reset our minds and leave us refreshed for the rest of the day. Getting enough sleep is also key.

Hot Health Topic

Chronic inflammation is associated with so many dangerous conditions that it has become a “hot topic” in the health world today. But the focus on inflammation may also be because it points us to a substantial therapeutic target. By making a few lifestyle adjustments, we can put out the fires of chronic inflammation and reap the benefits of more energy, greater mental clarity, improved mood, better immunity, and long-term protection against chronic disease.

 

Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath, has a MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.

 

5 Foods to Fight Inflammation

Want to tame aches and pains but can’t decide what to buy? Think about tossing these treasures into your shopping cart.

ALMONDS

Not all fats are bad when consumed in moderation, and almonds are full of the good kind. Fiber, calcium, and vitamin E make this crunchy nut a go-to snack.

SOY

Switch to organic soy milk or add tofu to your dinner menu. Some isoflavones—organic, estrogen-like compounds found in soy—have antioxidant properties thought to reduce female inflammation.

EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL

Swap store-bought salad dressings for a DIY variety, and replace vegetable oil with it when cooking; olive oil’s monounsaturated fats are natural anti-inflammatories, and its oleocanthal compounds can reduce the risk of developing heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

PINEAPPLE

Athletes, in particular, can reap benefits from this juicy treat. Packed with vitamin C and bromelain—an extract drawn from the fruit’s stem—pineapple can help improve digestion, swollen muscles, and blood circulation.

BROCCOLI

Linked to joint health and arthritis prevention, this cruciferous veggie is a great source of vitamin C, vitamin K1, calcium, and beta-carotene.