Inflammation tends to be a buzz word these days, and rightfully so. It is the root cause of so many preventable diseases. However, this concept is really complicated and confusing. So I’m breaking down the basics of inflammation, how it is related to autoimmune disease, and what you can do to start reducing your inflammation.
What is Chronic Inflammation?
Inflammation is the process your body goes through to protect and bring itself back to normal, or otherwise known as homeostasis. There are two types of inflammation, acute and chronic. Both of which follow the same series of steps:
- A harmful substance and/or damage is detected in the body.
- Cytokines, proteins and enzymes (or mediators) are released to help fight inflammation.
- Immune fighting white blood cells flood to the areas of damage to repair tissue and remove bacteria.
Acute inflammation is a short term event, like a virus or spraining an ankle. With this type of inflammation comes swelling, fever and/or redness. It usually takes a few days to a couple of weeks for the inflammatory process to run its course to repair and return your body to normal.
On the other hand, chronic inflammation is a sustained inflammatory process where your cells are unable to repair damaged tissue. White blood cells settle into the damaged areas and continue to produce inflammatory chemicals, creating a vicious cycle that generates more tissue damage (1).
How is Chronic Inflammation tied to Autoimmune Disease?
There is a close relationship between inflammation and autoimmune diseases. In many diseases, chronic inflammation triggers an overactive or dysregulated immune response. When this happens:
- The body cannot clear out the harmful substances in the body
- Autoantibodies may be created that attack your body’s tissues and organs
- Immune cells become unbalanced and may trigger attacks on tissues and organs (2)
While it remains unclear whether or not autoimmune disease cause inflammation or inflammation causes autoimmune diseases, it is important to keep in mind that inflammation can exacerbate symptoms and may lead to disease progression. In addition, this chronic response can also suppress the immune system and lead to further tissue damage (3).
The Link Between Diet & Chronic Inflammation
Diet may play a large role in the development or progression of chronic inflammation. Eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates (white flour, sugar, low fiber foods), trans-fatty acids, salt, highly processed foods and alcohol can put you at a higher risk of developing chronic inflammation. Additionally, certain foods can alter the gut microbiome and may lead to intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut). When this occurs, foreign invaders can more easily enter the body and trigger an immune response that may also lead to more inflammation. Food sensitivities may also increase inflammation as your body recognizes these foods as invaders.
Below is a quick summary of specific foods and their effect on chronic inflammation:
- Refined carbohydrates: Consuming large amounts of refined carbohydrates may initiate inflammatory processes in the body and alter gut microbiome (4).
- Saturated and Trans-fatty acids: These fats are well documented to increase risk of cardiovascular disease. They may also alter gut microbiome and initiate inflammatory pathways in the body. High intakes can also contribute to excess fat tissue which has inflammatory properties (5).
- Salt: This mineral can change your gut microbiome and alter white blood cells to behave in a more pro-inflammatory manner (6).
- Processed foods: Food additives used in processed foods may affect the gut microbiome and impair intestinal permeability (6).
- Alcohol: Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol can also change the gut microbiome, inflame cells in the gastrointestinal tract and liver, and lead to systemic inflammation (7).
Specific micronutrient deficiences such as zinc and magnesium, and consuming a low ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids can also contribute to an increase in systemic inflammation. Zinc and magnesium are anti-inflammatory regulators in the body and can help initiate processes to inhibit inflammation. When these nutrients are not present in adequate amounts, the signaling mechanism these minerals use to reduce certain inflammatory pathways fail. Omega 3 fatty acids can also inhibit inflammation in the body, while high levels of omega 6 fatty acids may promote inflammation. Most Americans consume a diet that is very high in omega 6s and low in omega 3s (6,8,9).
What Can We Do to Reduce Chronic Inflammation?
Managing inflammation is something that we can control. Diet and lifestyle both contribute to the reduction of systemic inflammation. Below are several changes you can make now to start reducing inflammation and boosting your immune system.
- Eat whole foods. This dietary pattern will automatically reduce your consumption of processed foods and increase vitamins and minerals to prevent deficiencies. Shop the perimeter of your grocery store to find the best whole, fresh foods. Frozen fruits and vegetables are also included in this category.
- Eat the rainbow. The more colors you eat, the more antioxidants you consume. Antioxidants stop free radicals from damaging your cells and initiating the inflammatory response. Aim for each color of the rainbow every day.
- Include fatty fish in your diet. Salmon, sardines, mackerel, oysters, and anchovies are all rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Eating these from cans is totally acceptable. Look for wild fish and sustainably caught options.
- Eat high fiber foods. Fiber is wonderful for managing blood sugar and for gut health. Women should aim for 21-25 grams and men should consume 30-38 grams per day. High fiber foods include fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans.
- Micronutrients to consider:
- Zinc: Not only does zinc reduce inflammation but it also supports your immune system. The best sources include shellfish, nuts and seeds, whole grains, mushrooms, lean beef and poultry and beans.
- Magnesium: Foods high in fiber are also good sources of magnesium. These include legumes, whole grains, vegetables like broccoli and leafy greens, almonds and chocolate.
- Vitamin C and E: These are powerful antioxidants and important for proper immune function. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, vitamin E in nuts, seeds, and nut/seed oils
- Vitamin D: This vitamin helps to protect against infections. The best source of Vitamin D is sunlight, but it’s also found in fatty fish, beef liver and egg yolks.
Making lifestyle changes can also help boost your immune system and reduce inflammation. Getting quality sleep every night may help reduce inflammation and thus boost your immune system. Managing stress and practicing mindfulness can also help reduce inflammatory markers in your body. Exercise has also been shown to improve inflammation and also may reduce body fat which aids in reducing systemic inflammation in the body (10,11).
Chronic inflammation does not have to have a permanent place in your life. Modifiable factors such as diet and lifestyle may help you reduce inflammation, improve health and boost your immune system. If you need more help reducing your inflammation, contact me to learn how I help my clients heal their chronic diseases with diet and lifestyle.