Maybe not, but there sure is compelling evidence that points to inflammation as the cause of a multitude of health conditions and diseases. We live in a society where high levels of stress are common, insomnia affects more than one in three of us, and the standard diet for most of us consists of a drive-thru line or food that contains a laundry list of ingredients often unrecognizable and unpronounceable.
So how to understand inflammation as it relates to your health, and what can you do about it?
Hormone imbalances, GI problems such as irritable bowel, constipation, and diarrhea, headache, weight gain, and cardiac conditions are just a few of the disease processes related to chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can present in so many different ways, so much so that we can't view different diseases as separate conditions anymore (for that matter, we never should!). Nearly all degenerative diseases have similar underlying causes, and many of these are linked strongly to inflammation.
The inflammatory process, our body's natural response to imbalances in the system or foreign invaders, is a natural and necessary part of health. Some level of inflammation is a normal and necessary part of maintaining good health. The problem arises when the system is overwhelmed by so much inflammation that it can no longer respond, and normal defense processes breakdown or become skewed. Organ function is impacted, health deteriorates, and multiple disease processes and autoimmune conditions can and do result. The concept of autoimmunity is strongly related to chronic inflammation. A significant body of research exists linking chronic inflammation to a host of disease processes including the ones mentioned above.
Our current healthcare system isn’t structured to address or treat chronic inflammation from a “whole body” perspective. Let me give you an example: Say you're having problems with fertility, and you also have IBS. You may see a fertility expert for the fertility issues, and you may see your general practitioner or a gastroenterologist for IBS. Each condition is treated as unrelated to the other, when in fact there can-and often is- a significant connection between the two.
One of the first areas I evaluate with a patient dealing with hormonal or fertility issues is gastrointestinal health. Think about the connection- if your gut isn't healthy, you're not absorbing the nutrients necessary to produce the hormones necessary to enable the process of egg production, release and implantation.
That's why Functional Medicine is so helpful. We view the body as a complex system with interconnected parts, not the “silo of organs” our typical Healthcare System is structured upon. While the example above is really quite simplistic and many other components of health are involved in fertility, hopefully you get the idea that focusing on the organ/system providing symptoms isn't good enough to address health and treat disease. Taking into account all of the components of health- “mind, body, and spirit”- from a Functional perspective is really the key to appropriate identification and treatment of so many health conditions. Functional Medicine employees a specific evaluation process and advanced diagnostics to uncover and treat dis-ease- in this case inflammation. Individualized treatment plans are then recommended and implemented, often resulting in a complete resolution of symptoms.
How can I reduce inflammation in my own body? As a Functional Medicine provider, I generally recommend detailed diagnostics to better understand the inflammatory process in my patients. This allows for a more precise, individualized treatment plan. That said, there are a number of general guidelines that you can incorporate to help control inflammation in your body.
First, evaluate your stress levels and sleep. Volumes of research show that significant stress and lack of sleep contribute directly to inflammation and disease processes. While reducing stress and improving sleep is not easy to do, it is so important that I recommend my patients to actually schedule time for meditation, prayer, and incorporating healthy sleep hygiene into their daily routine. Why not try it- you deserve it and your health will thank you! I’ve added a link with some recommendations for sleep hygiene. More about the benefits of meditation and good sleep in future blogs.
Second, consider regular exercise and increasing levels of activity. Did you know that even mild to moderate exercise can help with sleep and controlling inflammation? Moving around with purpose, often called mindful movement, can have a profoundly positive effect on health. My autoimmune patients often find significant relief from pain and inflammation simply by incorporating gentle moderate exercise into their daily regimen. Mindful movement and exercise will be covered in a future blog.
Third, evaluate your current dietary consumption. Food is Medicine! Do you regularly consume fast food, processed foods, sugars, and preservatives? Unhealthy foods contribute significantly to the inflammatory process. Some general guidelines to incorporate include eating mostly plant-based, organic, minimizing sugars, gluten, and preservatives. Apples, peaches, brazil nuts, and dietary fibers are some examples of foods that help to control inflammation (organic of course!). There are a multitude of dietary plans purporting to reduce inflammation, and many are quite valuable. That said, I do believe each patient is an individual, and therefore most dietary plans need some level of modification in order to be effective. I have included a link to a list of inflammatory foods to avoid and anti-inflammatory foods to enjoy.
Fourth, consider dietary supplements/nutraceuticals for significant inflammation. Nettle, curcumin, quercetin, and Vitamin D are just a few. As with any medication, however, I don’t suggest you head on out to the local store and buy several bottles without first obtaining recommendations from a licensed healthcare provider. Supplements, like medications, are concentrated forms of something that have to be metabolized by our body somehow. They are not without the potential for side effects or interactions with other supplements or medications. And on top of that, the industry isn’t regulated, so what it says on the bottle may not be what is in the bottle. And the fillers and binders used to make many of the low-end supplements have been found to contain heavy metals and carcinogens! That’s why, when I do recommend supplements, I only recommend professional grade supplements from trusted sources. Did you know that some of the professional brands are actually experiencing copy-cat products made outside the U.S. but appearing on online ordering sites with labels that look like the brand but contain who knows what? More about supplements in a future blog- there is much to learn about this industry and the huge variability of ingredients among sources.
The three major takeaways I would like to leave you with regarding inflammation are;
1) Understand your level of inflammation. There are a multitude of diagnostic tests that can provide insight here, and simply moving to a short term anti-inflammatory diet can help you to understand whether inflammation is a key component in how you feel.
2) Don’t ignore it! Inflammation has a well-known role in the disease process, and the importance of controlling inflammation is critical to good health!
3) You can do something about it! Making even small dietary and lifestyle changes can greatly reduce your risk of developing disease.
I welcome your feedback, questions, and recommendations for future topics!
Be well and God Bless!