Common allergens like casein and gluten (proteins found in dairy and wheat) are quick to spark the inflammatory cascade. Anyone suffering from celiac disease knows how inflammatory wheat can be. Foods high in trans fats create LDL’s, or “bad cholesterol,” which feeds inflammation in the arteries. Trans fats also create renegade cells called free radicals that damage healthy cells and trigger inflammation. For more on trans fats, see our article, “Balancing Your Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Essential For Health and Long Life.”
The first step in cooling inflammation on a cellular level is to pay attention to your diet, in particular your Glycemic Load (a measure of the Glycemic Index and portion of a food), essential fatty acid intake, and food sensitivities. As we get older, foods that never bothered us before, like dairy and wheat, may trigger chronic low-grade indigestion or other seemingly minor symptoms that put our immune system on guard — with additional inflammatory concerns to follow. Probiotics (supplements containing the “good” bacteria that support healthy digestion) have been proven to be as effective in treating symptoms of irritable bowel as medications like Zelnorm and Lotronex. Click here for Women to Women’s formulation, Biotic Support.
If you think you might have a food sensitivity, we recommend going on an elimination diet for two weeks to see how you feel. You may find that avoiding certain foods restores more than just your digestive health. But your digestive tract is only the beginning of the story. Let’s take a look at some other causes of chronic inflammation.
Inflammation and menopause
Changing levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone have a role to play in age-related inflammation. We still don’t understand all the connections, but it appears that a decrease in estrogen corresponds with a rise in the cytokines interleukin-1 and interleukin-6. This changes the rate at which new bone is formed, a leading indicator of osteoporosis.
We suspect that before menopause the balance of hormones has a calming effect on inflammation, but hormones work on so many levels that it is difficult to identify the exact process. What we do know is that symptoms of chronic inflammation often become more apparent during and after menopause.
The hormonal changes leading up to menopause also contribute to weight gain. And there is clear evidence that extra fat cells, especially around the middle of the body, add to systemic inflammation by creating extra cytokines and C-reactive protein. Just one more reason to lose those extra pounds!
Environmental causes of inflammation
I once walked into a giant office supply store, and within two minutes I had a numbing headache, my eyes were swimming, and my throat felt dry and tight — typical signs of an allergic response. I noticed an odor and asked the checkout clerk what it was. He didn’t know, but when I told him how I felt, he said he went home with a headache everyday — and often a bloody nose!
Synthetic fibers, latex, glues, adhesives, plastics, air fresheners, cleaning products — these are just some of the vast array of chemicals we are exposed to every day. Many of us work in hermetically sealed office buildings with re-circulated air that only increases our exposure. Sick buildings make sick people.
As do pesticides, pollution, and heavy metals. Lead and mercury are just two of the 30 heavy metals in our environment that our bodies must detoxify. And these toxins are in everything: our drinking water, our food, even our breast milk. Many of these chemicals are fat-soluble, meaning they are stored in fat and accumulate in our bodies until they reach toxic levels. Chemical sensitivity is just the most visible end of the spectrum. Constant exposure to noxious chemicals and airborne irritants — even if it’s a low dose — makes your immune system crazy.
Some people are naturally better detoxifiers and can withstand more exposure before they have symptoms. Others need more support. Learning as much as you can about the products you use, the buildings you live in and the water you drink is crucial to preventing or fighting inflammation.
Psychological stress — cortisol and inflammation
Have you ever had a panic attack? Woken from a scary dream in a cold sweat with your heart pounding? These vasoreactions are initiated by a perceived threat that dilates your blood vessels — just like inflammation. Wider capillaries mean more blood and nutrients to your organs to better ward off an attack or deal with a situation. This “fight or flight” response is orchestrated by your HPA axis and triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol from your adrenal glands.
Cortisol directly influences your insulin levels and metabolism. It also plays a role in chronic inflammation and your immune system. I’m sure you’ve seen this relationship in your own life: how many times have you worked endless hours only to go on vacation and get sick? Your body is good at keeping a lid on things, but it can’t do it forever. Coping with persistent stress takes a steady toll on your immune system, your adrenals, and your central nervous system. Your body reacts to stressors universally, whether they are biological or psychological.
The more acute the threat feels, the more dramatic the response will be. With inflammation, painful emotional baggage is as incendiary as physical stress. Think about asthma. An emotional shock will trigger an attack in some people as often as physical exertion or an allergen. Thoughts and internalized feelings are very powerful — and they manifest themselves physically all the time with symptoms of inflammation. Stress makes your skin break out. Your intestines go into revolt during a painful break-up.
But the good news is that your feelings can — and should — be enlisted as allies in the healing process. With all the other factors contributing to inflammation, coping with stress and emotional pain is often overlooked — but it’s really important. And it can play a big part in restoring your immune system’s balance before it gets overloaded.
Why chronic inflammation is on the rise
Our bodies weren’t designed for a daily barrage of toxins, infectious agents and stress, seen and unseen. This kind of demand requires a lot of support to maintain your immune’s system resilience. Our go-go lifestyle just doesn’t make room unless we pay attention to everything: what we breathe, eat, drink and absorb and feel. It all has a pro- or anti-inflammatory effect, and for most of us, the factors are skewed toward inflammation.
Well-documented research links depression and stress to a rise in the inflammatory markers, such as CRP, signaling an increased risk for atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease (CHD). One study showed that a depressive state increases the odds of developing CHD by 50%. For more on CHD, please see our articles on heart disease.
And one thing is certain about society today: we appear to be more stressed and depressed than ever. While the incidence of inflammation and inflammatory disease is rising in all developed countries, it’s important to remember that each of us has an individual response to the stressors in our life. Some of that unique response is determined by genetics. But much of it is within our control — if we understand how our choices affect our health. You can see that countering chronic inflammation takes a combination approach because it arises from a combination of causes. The good news is that so much of it is in your control. For more information on what you can do, see our articles on reducing inflammation.