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Tuesday
May052015

The Insidious Story of Inflammation: What It Is and Why It Matters

Inflammation - it’s a technical process but not a complicated story.

In short, a long time ago our bodies evolved the incredible ability to respond to injury and infection through a rather ingenious process of self-repair.

What a lucky development, huh? But wait! Now we see inflammation all over health news with the media equivalent of emergency sirens blaring and public health officials’ urgent calls to action.

What gives? How did something so necessary to human survival become public enemy #1?

Are we really talking about the same bodily process? Is the media just inflaming the inflammation headlines?

In short, yes and no, respectively. Let’s back up a bit, however, and look at how A becomes B - how healthy inflammation becomes unhealthy inflammation - and what it all has to do with you.

Inflammation: What It Is and How It Works

Our bodies are complex biological systems that can withstand an amazing variety of extreme environmental conditions. We can adapt positively to so many forms of stress and still maintain our resilience. We’re constantly balancing demands of our environment (which can be damaging) with our ability to repair and restore physiological equilibrium. Inflammation is part of that adaptive ability. 

In short, inflammation is the physical process by which the body responds to an injury or infection.

When we sustain a knee injury, for example, the body sends more blood, nutrients, and cells to begin the repair processes. For our part, we notice the redness, the swelling, the throbbing pain and inconvenience of it all. For our body’s part, however, it’s all about getting us to stop the damage (e.g. pain signals to spur us to protect or stop using the injured body part), isolating the risk or spread of infection, and preparing to grow back stronger. 

In this way, inflammation is a helpful, natural process the body goes through that signals our innate healing mechanisms to go into action and repair whichever tissue suffered damage.

Blood flow to the site increases, nutrients and immune cells surround the injured site, and localized heat creates a hostile environment to prevent the spread of infectious invaders. In other words, inflammation (on the cellular level) is needed to start the process of building a new cell. 

The same term (inflammation), however, is also used to describe a more chronic and nagging problem affecting us throughout our entire body with no end in sight.

Think about that for a second: is it possible you encounter so much damage on a regular basis you can’t possibly keep up with the repair work?

How irritating would it be if you got a paper cut in the same spot every day? Now, what if that paper cut was happening in dozens of areas inside of your body each day, but you couldn’t heal it? Any way you slice it, inflammation is the term that describes the relationship between the damage one encounters and the body’s ability to effectively repair such damage before the next encounter.

Why It Matters for Health

Every individual is unique in his/her ability to cope with inflammatory processes. Some people may not feel anything at all when their inflammatory response is out of control. Others will notice symptoms commonly attributed to “old age.” Some may feel excessive inflammation as pain or stiffness in their joints, see it as redness or puffiness in their faces, or more likely measure it as increased cholesterol in the blood. 

That’s right: cholesterol - the antioxidant substance the body makes to protect inflamed arterial walls - elevates as a result of inflammation.

It’s sent to various sites in the body to put out the “fire” we refer to as inflammation. When the source of inflammation is left unidentified but we artificially lower our cholesterol, it may leave us at an even higher risk for damaged arteries! 

It may surprise you to know that even some of the body’s essential, natural processes to maintain internal equilibrium, such as the process to regulate blood glucose concentrations with the help of the hormone insulin, can be a source of inflammation at times.

For example, the more violently our blood glucose levels increase (as often happens with Standard American Dietary patterns), the more aggressively we’ll release insulin to regulate the rise in sugar. The surge in insulin and corresponding glucose crash are aggressive adaptations needed for the body to maintain balance, but these compensations come at a cost.

Elevated glucose and insulin levels tend to increase the pressure on arterial walls. Rapidly decreasing blood sugar concentrations tend to stimulate hormones such as cortisol in efforts to prevent glucose from dropping too low. Increased blood pressure and more abundant stress hormones over time can be inflammatory and cause damage to otherwise healthy tissues. 

An inflammation pattern as just described isn’t isolated to a single body part, however. This kind of response is system wide or “systemic.”

Both acute (e.g. stubbed toe) and chronic/systemic (e.g. erratic blood sugar or blood pressure) inflammation can be measured in the blood with a simple, reliable, and highly sensitive test called C-Reactive Protein or CRP.

C-Reactive Protein is a natural response the body has to any sort of inflammation. When it’s measured higher than normal on a routine blood test, it generally means the person is constantly dealing with damage he/she can’t fully recover from, and something needs to be done! CRP is widely accepted as a cardiovascular disease risk multiplier – an indicator that independently increases one’s risk of cardiovascular events.

What to Do about It

Most of the time a well-designed lifestyle and exercise plan can improve this rhythm of damage to help us increase our resilience and fitness - our ability to remain healthier longer. Although we’ll encounter things every day that break us down a bit, it’s our job to not make the situation worse and to bolster our overall health through good daily lifestyle choices.

Consume higher quality food with proper balance.

We need adequate protein as building blocks to rebuild damaged tissues. We rely on certain dietary fats to help us maintain cell membrane integrity, to counteract inflammatory chemicals produced by our own bodies and to be used for energy necessary in completing repair work. 

An abundant intake of colorful vegetables and some (preferably lower glycemic) fruits provides us with a host of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which help us resist damage in the first place. Concentrated carbohydrates (especially refined grains and added sugars) can set off inflammatory alarms if overconsumed on a regular basis and are subsequently best avoided.

Become a more restful sleeper.

Our time at rest is our best time to grow, repair, and reset whatever has been thrown out of balance during our waking hours. Cut sleep short, and we’re asking for a delay in any processes related to healing. A good rule of thumb is to sleep when it’s dark outside. You should wake feeling rested and refreshed in the morning. If you’re not, then you’re probably at higher risk for worsening your inflammation patterns today.

Be more intentional with your exercise program. 

When it comes to the common rhythm of breakdown/re-build in fitness, too often we come up short on the re-building. In Mastering the Art of Stress & Recovery, we outlined important considerations for some of the most controllable factors you have to protect against unnecessary physical damage in your fitness program.

Essentially, many people who exercise regularly exceed the minimum effective dose for positive change and possibly induce unnecessary damage without allowing extra care for better repair. If a half an hour of intensive exercise per day is enough to stimulate your desired change, what’s the need to exercise for an hour or more? 

The extra care to live a less “inflammatory” lifestyle includes managing all life stressors more effectively, getting adequate and restorative rest between hard training sessions, and providing an abundance of nourishment for your body to heal itself. Your overall inflammation impact largely depends on you - one choice at a time.

Are you interested in learning more about the role of inflammation in your health and weight loss? In what ways are you ready to improve your ability to rest, repair, and restore your body’s natural resilience today? Talk with one of our dietitians or fitness professionals today. Thanks for reading, everyone.

In Health, Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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