What causes inflammation and how can you fight it? Pharmacist Donna Mazzola breaks it down
By Dr. Donna Mazzola, PharmD
What is inflammation?
When we hear about inflammation, it’s typically associated with a negative connotation. However, did you know inflammation is actually a good thing? Inflammation is the body’s response against a foreign pathogen. A few examples of a foreign pathogen include a virus, bacteria, food allergen, or chemical exposure. Being that this is a normal process, we don’t want to turn it off, but rather support its natural flow. The activation of the inflammatory process by the immune system is quite simple. When a foreign pathogen enters the body, the body immediately identifies it and activates the immune system. As a result, a number of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-1, IL-6, and TNF-alpha are released in order to fight the “invader.” Once this invader is defeated, a signal is sent back to the immune system to turn off this release of fighting cytokines. The problem arises when inflammation is a constant, or what we refer to as chronic inflammation. When you continuously have a foreign pathogen in the body, it continues to produce a pro-inflammatory response and that’s when chronic diseases arise. Chronic inflammation is associated with several diseases such as asthma, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune conditions and cancer.
Diet and Inflammation
A key factor in chronic inflammation can be attributed to diet. In the United States, the standard American diet (SAD) is characterized by an excessive consumption of red meat, simple carbohydrates, high fructose corn syrup (sugar), saturated fats, processed foods, and artificial sweeteners. This dietary pattern has been shown to increase systemic inflammation by increasing levels of high-sensitivity CRP, IL-6 among other inflammatory cytokines. A key contributor to a pro-inflammatory state is an imbalance in fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are the opposite of the beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids, better known to some as fish oil. The highly inflammatory standard American diet is high in omega-6 fatty acids. The excess omega-6 and low omega 3 is a precursor to many diseases. Western society consumes an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 25:1, which is much greater than the 1:1 ratio on which humans evolved. This type of dietary consumption is not only highly inflammatory in nature due to the various components consumed, but it also increases the prevalence of obesity. While poor diet contributes to the development of obesity, obesity as a general condition contributes and adds to this ongoing inflammatory process.
Obesity and inflammation
According to the CDC, the prevalence of obesity in the United States as of 2018 is 42.4%. How does this relate specifically to inflammation? This leads us to a discussion on leptin, a known hormone that is secreted by fat (adipose tissue). Research has shown that leptin negatively influences the balance within the immune system by activating pro-inflammatory cytokines. A study done in 2017 showed that obesity is significantly related to chronic inflammation — the greater an individual’s BMI, the greater the levels of inflammation. Elevated circulating leptin levels in obesity contribute to the low-grade inflammatory background which makes obese individuals more susceptible to increased risk of developing heart diseases, diabetes, or degenerative diseases including autoimmunity and cancer.
Beneficial effects of nutrition and lifestyle
So how can we combat this inflammatory response with nutrition and lifestyle? A diet that is better adapted to our evolutionary needs can improve dysfunction and overall health. A healthful diet is primarily plant based: rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes; high in fiber, essential fatty acids and nutrients; and low in saturated fat, trans fats, refined sugars, and carbohydrates. Frankly, we could stop right there. Changing dietary patterns in the manner just described would go a long way toward reducing chronic inflammation and reversing our epidemic of chronic disease.
In contrast, the Mediterranean diet, a pattern characterized by high consumption of whole grains and fruit (whole grains, fruit, nuts, and green leafy vegetables) was found to be inversely associated with inflammatory markers CRP and IL-6. The high levels of antioxidants found in the Mediterranean diet decrease pro-inflammatory levels. Phytonutrients are substances found in fruits and vegetables each with a role in preventative health through their protective anti-inflammatory effects. Other lifestyle factors that are imperative in reducing the chronic inflammatory response include sleep, exercise, and stress management.
Sleep has an important role to play in the human immune system and it is critical in the restoration and maintenance of homeostasis. Sleep deprivation and disorders may have a profound impact on health, well-being and the ability to resist infection. Studies have suggested that sleep deprivation may lead to immunological disturbance and increases in pro-inflammatory cytokines. Exercise suppresses inflammatory cytokines and increases anti-inflammatory cytokines across several organs. In addition to more rigorous exercise, yoga and meditation have demonstrated a direct impact on inflammation as well. Meditation reduces pro-inflammatory processes, increases the body’s ability to fight infection, and increases enzyme activity that guards against cell aging.
All in all, it’s clear that the American lifestyle is highly inflammatory due to our incidence of obesity, plus our diet, food supply, stress levels, and lack of sleep and exercise. The good news: You’re now armed with an understanding of the immune system, and it’s never too late to make a change towards reducing inflammation and reducing the incidence of chronic disease.
Donna Mazzola is a pharmacist who focuses on functional medicine and nutrition. She currently runs a blog at Drautoimmunegirl.com to share scientific information related to nutrition, functional medicine, and autoimmune disorders. Dr. Mazzola’s mission is to help others identify the root cause of disease and create the balance between nutrition and medicine. You can connect with her on Instagram and Facebook @drautoimmunegirl.