In the aftermath of a overly ambitious attempt to move a large quantity of heavy rocks in a short amount of time, I’ve spent much of the last week thinking about inflammation, while being careful not to move very much, or very quickly.
Fortunately, the June 17 issue of New Scientist arrived with an article about inflammation: what it is, why it’s a problem, and why nothing we usually try can fix it. Fascinating.
The article gives an overview of how inflammation works, as our natural response to injury or infection, or stress. The short version is that the symptoms of inflammation are the product of our immune system at work. But the system isn’t working as well as it should for more and more people, especially anyone who carries around more body fat, has type 2 diabetes, eats a lot of sugar, or has an autoimmune disease. What happens is that the system ramps up, but the natural process is designed to ramp down after its work is done, and for many, this step doesn’t happen.
However, inflammation that occurs as part of the body’s response to exercise—a good run, for example—does still seem to work just fine. The molecule that summons the immune response also summons the next wave of chemicals, called resolvins, that trigger the liver to clean up, reducing inflammation in turn.
The amount of fat we carry affects inflammation levels because cytokines—the signaling cells that are released by stress, injury, or infection—are stored in body fat; the more fat we have, the more extreme our inflammation response. Also, when there’s a lot of body fat, the cytokines are more likely to leak into surrounding tissue, triggering the inflammation response.
Why is it a big deal that the inflammation response is active when it’s not needed? Cold symptoms are produced by the body’s attempts to deal with the virus. If the inflammation persists, the symptoms persist. That’s the simplest effect. Longterm, chronic inflammation has been linked with more serious effects: persistent infections, depression, and cardiovascular disease.
This is a very incomplete picture of what is doubtless a much more complicated issue—as new research comes along, there will likely be more and more theories about how and why inflammation acts as it does. But for now, this new knowledge doesn’t answer the question of “how do I deal with the aches and pains, the fatigue, or the high blood sugars related to chronic inflammation?”
But the article does give us a place to start. We can make sure our bodies get what they need to support a healthy inflammation cycle. (Of course, the first step should include talking to your doctor about this information and how it may affect you.)
We might as well start with the easiest thing first, and then find ways to add in the rest of the list, one step at a time:
- Take a daily low-dose aspirin, if your doctor agrees it’s a good fit for you. It could protect your cardiovascular system, and aspirin is the one over-the-counter anti-inflammatory that doesn’t inhibit the production of resolvins.
- Stretch—this doesn’t have to be hard. By all means, take a yoga class. But if you’re not a budding yogi or yogini, why not just stretch whenever you get up from a chair during the day?
- Eat foods with omega-3 fats. There’s some discussion about what kinds we metabolize most effectively, but let’s just do the best we can with what’s available to us.
- Get some physical activity—it stimulates production of anti-inflammatory chemicals, and cues the liver to metabolize fat. As little as 20 minutes has a beneficial effect.
- Get motivated to keep fat below about 25-30% of body weight—a certain amount is protective, but more than about 25-30% body weight provides a lot of storage for the cytokines that fire up inflammation.
What’s really significant about this research is not that it reveals the workings of inflammation—this is just the beginning. It’s that it tells us what we can do about inflammation with the choices we make on a daily basis—it’s the usual suspects, the things we already know support all-round better health. And it’s motivation to keep on that path.
If you are fighting your own personal battle against inflammation, a step you might find helpful is to use this list as a focus for a morning self-hypnosis session, just to affirm your intention to be good to your body each day. Also, since the immune system generally responds really well to hypnosis, why not include suggestions to calm the inflammation response?