I think that like Nancy, we are all vulnerable to chronic inflammation. I think it’s safe to say that most of us in this country are walking around on “simmer” — which means setting ourselves up for problems as we age. Our ballooning rates of allergies, obesity, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and chronic pain don’t lie. I’m seeing such a spike in patients with symptoms of inflammation that it’s becoming the norm, not the exception. The good news is, once we understand what causes inflammation and see how quickly our actions can either fan or cool the flames, we can begin to make better choices every day that bring us back into balance.
At our medical practice we are convinced that the seeds of chronic inflammation (and a lot of other health issues) start with the gut. Two-thirds of the body’s defenses reside in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract — yet it is often the last place traditional practitioners look. Intestinal bloating, frequent bouts of diarrhea or constipation, gas and pain, heartburn and acid reflux are early signs of an inflamed digestive tract. It’s not surprising that your immune system first clicks into hyperdrive in your digestive tract — it was designed to eliminate viruses and bacteria in your food before they infect your body. It has to glean the wheat from the chaff: taking sustenance from the food you eat and ridding your body of the rest.
And we give our digestive systems plenty of work to do. Our evolution from the hunter-gatherer diet to convenience and fast food is overwhelming our metabolism and GI tract. The deck is now stacked in inflammation’s favor. The modern diet offers us an upside-down ratio of fatty acids (omega-3, -6, and -9), too much sugar and carbs, and high levels of wheat, dairy, and other common allergens. For more information, read our many informative articles in our Digestive Health section of our Health Library.
Foods that cause inflammation
Most polyunsaturated vegetable oils like safflower, sunflower, corn, peanut and soy, are high in linoleic acid, an omega-6 essential fatty acid that the body converts into arachidonic acid, another omega-6 fatty acid that has a predominantly pro-inflammatory influence. These same oils contain almost no omega-3s (found in rich supply in coldwater fish, phytoplankton, and flaxseed), which soothe inflammation. Our prehistoric ancestors ate a diet with an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 1:1. Our current ratio is anywhere between 10:1 and 25:1!
For most people, high-carb, low-protein diets are inflammatory. We’ve seen repeatedly that low-carb diets reduce inflammation for most women. But you will need to listen to your own body and carefully observe which foods fuel inflammation for you. You may also want to consider our tips for following an anti-inflammatory diet.
Refined sugar and other foods with high glycemic values jack up insulin levels and put the immune system on high alert. The Glycemic Index (GI) measures the immediate impact of a food on blood sugar levels; surges of blood sugar trigger the release of insulin. For more information on how the Glycemic Index works, read our article, “Understanding Carbohydrates – Let’s Take Away The Confusion.” Short-lived hormones inside our cells called eicosanoids act as pro- or anti-inflammatory compounds depending on their type. Eicosanoids become imbalanced — that is, skewed toward pro-inflammatory — when insulin levels are high. As if this weren’t enough, high insulin levels activate enzymes that raise levels of arachidonic acid in our blood.
There’s also a complicated interaction between the inflammatory messengers, cytokines and prostaglandins, and insulin and glucose levels. In some cases, depending on what other stressors come into play, insulin inhibits the inflammatory agents and in other cases it fuels them. Studies are currently underway to unravel the links between obesity and type 2 diabetes and this mechanism. To learn more, see my articles on the links between inflammatory imbalance and your weight, or read about these pathways in more depth in my book, The Core Balance Diet.