Inflammation: Your complete guide (part 1)
Inflammation: what it is, why it’s bad and how to reduce it.
During our lives, from the beginning to the end, we fall, we incur injuries, we suffer from all kinds of pain, viruses and infections, develop gut issues, suffer from brain fog, anxiety… and while all of this happens, we don’t fully understand or appreciate how our bodies work and mend themselves until the problems get really serious. It’s true, I’m guilty of it, too. I spent most of this new year recovering from severe migraines and dizziness only because I didn’t pay attention to the signs when my body was asking me to slow down!
It is so crucial that we nurture and really care for our body and mind to achieve optimal health today, for a better tomorrow. And to get there, I believe it’s important for everyone to acknowledge and address a very important concept that has been receiving a lot of attention lately and that seems to be at the centre of most modern-day problems: Inflammation!
Let me explain:
Worldwide, 3 out of 5 people die due to chronic inflammatory diseases such as cancer, respiratory diseases, heart disease, diabetes and obesity 1.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) ranks chronic diseases as the greatest threat to human health. (1)
Globally, more than 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression. (2)
Approximately 350 million people worldwide suffer from arthritis and joint diseases , of which 10 million relate to UK
64% of all UK adults are overweight or obese. (4)
1 in 10 people over 40s suffer from type 2 diabetes in the UK alone, with a total of 4.7 million people living with diabetes in all its forms. (5)
These are few examples of inflammatory conditions/diseases but first, let’s take a few steps back to learn about what inflammation is.
What is inflammation?
When we think about inflammation we think of redness, swelling and heat which generally happens when we hurt ourselves. But let’s dive a bit deeper to understand what it really is.
Inflammation is an essential and natural process when our body signals our immune system to react to an injury or a threat, such as viruses, bacteria and infections. During this process, called acute inflammation, our body calls upon our soldiers, the white blood cells, to release a number of inflammatory cytokines and antibodies that not only help to get rid of any foreign invaders but also help with the healing process. The inflamed area often appears red and swollen as the blood vessels expand to allow more immune cells to flow to the area requiring help. Once the area is healed, the inflammatory process subsides, usually in a few days. This is the kind of inflammation that most people are familiar with as we can usually see and feel it.
However, when inflammation occurs in our body for a period of at least 12 weeks, then the problem is referred to as chronic inflammation (or low-grade or long-term inflammation). With chronic inflammation the body constantly releases the inflammatory chemicals in an effort to fix something that has gone out of sync somewhere, leaving your body continually inflamed. This is because, over time, the cytokines have a negative effect on the body and start attacking the body’s healthy cells, tissues and organs. This can manifest in pain and can quite often can also go unnoticed, which is why it sometimes referred to as the ‘silent disease’. The extent and the effects of this kind of inflammation really depend on the cause of the injury or threat and the body’s ability to recover from damage.
Causes of inflammation
If our body perceives anything as a threat, it can trigger the process of inflammation. Some examples include: (6)
Stress, both emotional stress and physical stress (e.g., working out without proper rest).
Untreated acute inflammation or recurrent acute inflammation.
Autoimmune disorders such as psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis.
Long-term lack of sleep or sleep disorders.
Poor diet, primarily high sugar, refined oils and processed foods.
Unhappy gut, for example you might be able to digest certain foods in small quantities, but over time they become a problem and trigger inflammation. This is also known as delayed allergies.
Poor health habits like smoking and drinking alcohol. (7) (8)
Long-term exposure to irritants like toxins or excessive pollution.
Lack of physical activity and exercise.
Problems associated with chronic inflammation
Most of the common health problem we face today such as digestive, autoimmune or hormone problems, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, depression and anxiety, diabetes, cancer, dementia, obesity, heart disease and stroke … are all linked to inflammation!
That’s why it is important for us to acknowledge when something doesn’t feel right and to act on it quickly, especially if the symptoms continue for a while. Sometimes, these symptoms can be generic and subtle and can be difficult to pinpoint. Let’s go through some of them.
Symptoms of inflammation
1. General appearance & experience (9)
Dark circles under the eyes
Excess fat around the stomach
Sudden anxiety/depression/brain fog
Rashes – eczema and psoriasis
If you are feeling very tired even after getting sufficient sleep (7 to 9 hours a night), it might be a sign that your body is working overtime to fight something that the body sees as a threat.
If you experience recurrent pains and stiffness in the muscles and joints over a period of time, it could be a sign of low-grade inflammation in that area.
4. Digestion issues
Digestion issues such as constipation, diarrhoea, stomach pain or bloating can suggest that there is inflammation in the gut. Inflammation throughout the body can also cause a ‘leaky gut’ making the gut lining more permeable which can cause further issues.
How to test for inflammation
Blood tests for testing inflammation & immunity
There are few tests that can help identify the level of inflammation is your body. The two mentioned below are a good starting point to speak to your doctor about.
C-reactive protein (CRP) is a biomarker that determines your risks of developing heart disease along with many other inflammatory diseases. According to Dr Mark Hyman (I love learning from him!), a renowned physician and a functional medicine practitioner, ideally your result should be less than 1.0mg/L where <0.7mg/L is considered optimal! Anything above 1.0mg/L suggests that there is inflammation somewhere in the body. Note: It is important to run blood tests only when you are feeling fine and not suffering from any known illness.
White blood cell count (WBC). You can either request a Complete Blood Count (CBC) test which measures all the cells that make up your blood including red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets, or request just a WBC test, to ensure your white blood cells are working properly and that your immune system can rely on them if needed. A normal result lies between the range of 4.5-11.0 x 103/mcg/L where anything <5.5 x 103/mcg/L is considered optimal, according to Dr Mark Hyman.
If you want to take it a step further, you can test for another inflammatory marker which measures your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. This is directly linked to your diet and will indicate if you are consuming too many omega-6 fats that are pro-inflammatory. The ideal omega 6: omega 3 ratio is 4:1 or less.
How to test
Request tests from your general practitioner (GP). Not many people know this, but you can request for the CPR and other inflammation tests from your GP depending on your symptoms. However, when I had mine tested, my results were communicated within a very broad reference range. All my results suggested that my inflammation levels were <10mg/L, which is at the extreme high end of the scale and I was by no means happy with that result. Provided your GP can give you a clear indication of your inflammation levels in terms of a reading, then this option is useful.
Order a home kit online. You can order tests online, from companies like Thriva, but there are many others. This is my preferred option as these tests are really easy to do provided you don’t feel faint (like my husband, who still hasn’t done his test!) in which case you can easily get someone else to help. You can track and take control of your own health as you are provided a number in terms of your inflammation levels which gives you a clear indication of where it stands on a scale.
For example, with Thriva, my CRP result was above 1mg/L, 1.39mg/L precisely, as I was suffering from an inner ear infection at the time, I took my tests, which would explain the spike in my inflammation level.
Visit a functional medicine practitioner and go on this journey of identifying the root cause of any illness or discomfort you are experiencing. They will assess your symptoms and conduct a wide range of tests including one for inflammation. You can find you nearest practitioner by visiting www.ifm.org.
I’d like to close with Sarah Davenport’s quote from her excellent book, Reboot Your Health: ‘Your body whispers before it shouts.’ So, don’t let inflammation brew in the background unnoticed, undetectable and damage most of your body. Acknowledge it and take control of your everyday health starting today!
(Editor’s note: The content on this blog is based on research and suggestions made by health professionals, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from your medical professional regarding diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Always seek medical advice if you have any concerns).
Dr Mark Hyman – online course on ONECOMMUNE – very informative