We’ve written many times about the chronic disease epidemic that is ravaging this country—but did you know that, of the ten leading causes of death in the US, chronic, low-level inflammation contributes to the development of seven of those diseases (heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s diabetes, and nephritis)? Low-grade inflammation isn’t something a conventional doctor will discuss with you, but having it is like a ticking time bomb for your health.
Inflammation is linked with immune function. When your body encounters a pathogen, the immune system sends out inflammatory cells to attack the pathogen or heal damaged tissue. In these situations, like a sore throat, you experience the classic symptoms of inflammation: redness, swelling, heat, pain, and loss of function. This is “acute” inflammation and is healthy and normal. What isn’t healthy—but becoming all too normal—is when your body sends out inflammatory cells when you are not sick or injured. Symptoms of chronic inflammation may include body pain, chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders, gastrointestinal complications, or frequent infections.
This chronic inflammation is the commonality between many chronic diseases, but the problem is that inflammation is not something that is generally tracked by mainstream healthcare providers until it’s too late. For example, to meet the criteria for a diagnosis for Addison’s disease, an autoimmune condition, 90 percent of your adrenal gland has to have been damaged. But it’s not just Addison’s disease or other autoimmune conditions; conventional doctors are missing the chronic inflammation that leads to heart disease, diabetes, respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s and more.
Conventional medicine also fails to recognize the spectrum of inflammation and disease: some people may have “silent inflammation,” where lab tests show some signs of high antibodies circulating in your blood, but there are no symptoms. Other patients higher on the inflammation spectrum don’t feel well and have some symptoms, but they don’t fit the standardized criteria for a disease. It is only when symptoms progress that conventional doctors start treatment. Not only do these treatments not address the root cause of the inflammation that led to disease; doctors miss an opportunity to detect and address the inflammation far earlier.
That is the conventional model: wait until the disease progresses to a stage where expensive and dangerous drugs are given rather than acting earlier to prevent the disease from progressing further with diet, lifestyle changes, and supplementation with targeted nutrients.
A number of factors can lead to chronic inflammation.
Exposures to environmental chemicals causes mitochondrial dysfunction and inflammation. When mitochondria aren’t functioning properly, more free radicals are produced which cause inflammation in the body.Stress. Inflammation is the body’s response to a threat, whether it’s a pathogen or an emotional stressor. In this state, the immune system sends out pro-inflammatory cytokines to deal with the threat. These cytokines usually deal with the invader then disappear, but when stress is chronic, they don’t go away. Prolonged stress means we are overexposed to the stress hormone cortisol, reducing its effectiveness at regulating inflammation.Poor sleep. Sleep deprivation is associated with markers of inflammation. Blood pressure drops during sleep and the vessels relax. When sleep is restricted, blood pressure doesn’t decline, which could trigger cells in blood vessel walls that activate inflammation.Sedentary lifestyle. Physical inactivity promotes adipose tissue (body fat) accumulation; adipose tissue produces pro-inflammatory cytokines.Periodontal disease is another factor that can cause system wide inflammation.Diet is another important cause: the standard American diet, high in ultra-processed foods, sugar, and starch, promotes inflammation. Sixty percent of the calories in the typical American diet come from ultra-processed foods.Related to diet, a dysregulated gut also promotes inflammation: 70 percent of our immune system resides in the gut. A healthy microbiome allows us to regulate our immune system properly. Poor diet and food sensitivities (such as to gluten) cause permeability in the gut and intestinal lining allowing undigested food and toxins to enter the blood stream, triggering inflammation.Silent infections. Many people have an infection but don’t have any symptoms, as we’ve seen with COVID-19. But, as discussed above, even without symptoms the body can be on the inflammation spectrum.Long standing physical injuries. We can see the effects of inflammation when we have a physical injury, usually in the form of redness and swelling. But that inflammation can become chronic if the injury doesn’t heal properly or is repeatedly injured.
These causes of inflammation indicate the solutions. Diet is a major component. Consider that the human genome hasn’t changed in 10,000 years, but only recently have we seen an explosion of chronic diseases. Genetic predispositions to these diseases have been around for thousands of years, so why is this happening now? This trend just happens to coincide with major changes in the food we eat, with our industrialized food system and ultra-processed foods, and an explosion in our exposure to environmental chemicals (read our previous Health from the Ground Up articles on avoiding and removing toxins and the basics of detoxification).
Stunning changes can be achieved by altering diet. One of the effects of chronic inflammation is to cause a disconnect between our ancient, limbic brain that controls emotions and the fight or flight response, and our frontal lobe, the “adult in the room” that controls executive function. Inflammation, then, can lead to anger, aggression, and violent acts. Studies in prisons and juvenile detention centers have found that swapping out pro-inflammatory foods for anti-inflammatory foods, or including a multivitamin supplement, can dramatically reduce violent incidents.
As mentioned above, when conventional doctors address inflammation, it’s usually with drugs that are not fixing what is actually causing your inflammation. This is different for everyone, based on your genetic predispositions, chemical exposures, stress levels, diet, sleep, the status of your gut, etc. An integrative health practitioner will consult with you to determine the cocktail of influences that are causing inflammation.
Integrative doctors will also test for the presence of biomarkers for inflammation like C-reactive protein and interleukin-1, 6 and 8. There is also exciting research in this area. Companies like Edifice Health are identifying even more biomarkers of inflammation to identify the markers common to many chronic diseases.
While an integrative doctor will individualize your care, fixing your gut and your diet, regular exercise, meditation, yoga, and other stress relieving activities, and getting enough sleep are common factors in addressing inflammation.
There are also a variety of supplements that help with inflammation like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, probiotics, curcumin, green tea, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and more.
Health from the Ground Up: