Dr. Doni Wilson, N.D. explains what inflammation is, how it can make us ill, and how we can help our bodies heal from inflammatory illnesses without drugs.
These days, so many doctors – especially naturopathic doctors – toss around the word “inflammation.” The problem is, despite how commonly used this word is, I have noticed that patients don’t always know what their doctors mean when we talk about inflammation. In fact, patients may be baffled as to how inflammation could possibly have anything to do with diverse problems like:
- Skin rashes
- Decreased memory
- Recurring infections
- Sleep irregularity
- Methylation problems
- Heart disease
- Anxiety and depression
As a naturopathic doctor, I know that inflammation is one of the most common underlying factors in all these – and many other – health issues. Because it is such an amorphous term for so many, and yet it is so crucial to your health, today I will be answering many key questions patients have about this misunderstood health problem, including:
- What Is Inflammation?
- Why Does It Happen?
- When Does It Become a Bad Thing?
- How Can You Know You Have It?
- How Can You Recover from It?
What Is Inflammation?
Most people associate the term inflammation with swelling that occurs as the result of an injury or an infection. For example, if we sprain our ankle or an open wound becomes infected, we use the term inflammation to describe how our skin becomes red, swollen, hot, and (typically) painful with loss of function. While these classic signs of acute inflammation are easy to recognize when we’ve hurt ourselves, what many people don’t know is that inflammation can occur anywhere in the body – including our internal organs.
We describe each specific condition according to which part of the body is affected. Terms to describe inflammation always end with the suffix “-itis.” Some examples are…
- Sinusitis (sinus)
- Arthritis (joints)
- Thyroiditis (thyroid)
- Dermatitis (skin)
- Gastroenteritis (intestines)
- Gastritis (stomach)
- Appendicitis (appendix)
- Cystitis (bladder)
- Vaginitis (vagina)
- Prostatitis (prostate)
…just to name a few.
Why Does Inflammation Happen?
Inflammation isn’t just a state of being swollen; it is also a normal and healthy process your body uses to recover from an injury, infection, or an “invader” (such as allergens and toxins) in the body. It uses inflammation to bring blood, white blood cells, and other elements of the immune system to the injured area. The immune system not only promotes healing, but also protects tissue from harmful bacteria.
So, a certain amount of inflammation in the body is a good thing because it helps the body recover. But if infection or recurrent injury occurs, inflammation can become a chronic condition that can lead to other, more serious, health issues.
What Terms Are Used to Describe Chronic Inflammation?
While there is an “-itis” for just about every part of the body, there is no term for inflammation throughout the body (systemic) – a sort of “body-itis.” In my experience, “body-itis” is the underlying cause of many chronic diseases such as fibromyalgia, heart disease, depression, diabetes, autoimmunity, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer:
- Fibromyalgia is body-wide inflammation.1
- Heart disease is inflammation in the blood vessels and heart.2,3
- Depression is inflammation in the brain.4
- Diabetes is inflammation in fat cells and blood vessels.5
- Autoimmunity (Hashimoto’s, Rheumatoid arthritis6, Celiac, and others) is inflammation in the area defined by the autoimmune condition (thyroid, joints, intestines, for example).
- Cancer is caused by chronic inflammation pretty much anywhere in the body.7
- Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease involve inflammation in the nervous system.8
- Osteoporosis is inflammation in bones.9
Inflammation can also trigger symptoms caused by methylation issues, which are more likely if you have an MTHFR mutation (see my past articles about MTHFR). Troublesome symptoms can include anxiety, headaches, low energy, low mood, poor sleep, and an overall feeling of being unwell.
Methylation is an important process in our bodies that essentially turns B vitamins (folate and B12) into substances that protect our DNA, make healthy cells, produce neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and dopamine), and create energy for us to function. Inflammation, however, slows down methylation. It’s sort of like a traffic jam, making it less likely for your body to benefit from B vitamins – and more likely to make you feel worse.
One way to know whether inflammation is involved in your methylation issues is if you feel worse after taking methyl-folate. Another indicator could simply be the fact that you have had your symptoms for a long time, and they never improve. The reason you never seem to get better is that, like all other inflammatory conditions, the methylation process will only start working well again when the inflammation, oxidative stress, and toxin exposures have been assertively addressed (things we will explore later in this article).
When Does Inflammation Become a Bad Thing?
Chronic inflammation causes certain substances in the immune system (I call them “messengers”) to tell other parts of the immune system to kick into action. Once the immune system receives these messages, it will get to work by attacking bacteria and viruses, starting to increase blood flow, clearing out dying cells, and repairing unhealthy tissue. We call this an “inflammatory response.”
While an inflammatory response is well and good when we need it, if it becomes too prolonged – due to things like ongoing stress, infection, leaky gut, and/or elevated blood sugar – it can become a health problem. Rather than the tissue being restored to health, our bodies become even more susceptible to infection and stress-related illness.
This is what makes chronic inflammation so difficult for so many. Whenever we are at our most stressed, tired, and run down, we become more susceptible to developing a seemingly endless cycle of inflammatory responses.10
You may catch a cold or bronchitis, or develop a bladder infection. Your doctor might prescribe antibiotics – perhaps even steroids – but it still seems to take forever to get better. Then, just when you think you’ve recovered, and life resumes its “normal” pace, you catch yet another cold or flare of auto-immunity, get even more run down, and the process ensues again. Now the doctor might prescribe anti-inflammatory pain meds, immuno-suppressant medications, or even anti-depressants. Yet, your health issues never seem to stop for good. You feel frustrated because it seems like there is no way to get ahead of your health problems, and you start to wonder if you’ll ever feel better.
At this point, your health problems have become a case of inflammation piled on inflammation piled on inflammation. And with each layer of inflammation comes more oxidative stress, which, in turn, causes more and more damage to your cells and tissue. Then, as inflammation and oxidative stress build up, methylation (the process by which your body makes healthy cells, energy, neurotransmitters, and many other vital substances) becomes seriously impaired.
The reason your body struggles so much to heal itself in this scenario is that the underlying causes of your ongoing inflammatory responses have never actually been addressed.
How to Know If You Have Inflammation
There are a few blood tests that can give you a sense of whether you have inflammation in the body. The SED rate (sedimentation rate) test has long been used to identify inflammation. A newer and potentially more useful measure of inflammation and heart disease risk is the C-reactive protein (CRP) test.3 However, even if your tests show high levels of inflammation, you still need to figure out the source of the inflammation and why it is happening. It is also possible for your CRP results to come back low, and still have inflammation present.
Because blood tests can tell us only part of the story, I also use other means to identify inflammation:
- I look at chronic symptoms, such as pain, infection, or any kind of physical or psychological discomfort.
- I use food sensitivity testing to identify whether the immune system is actively protecting a person from certain inflammatory foods (a sign of inflammation response in the digestive tract) and to identify the presence of leaky gut (intestinal permeability).
- I look at the bacteria in the large intestines (microbiome). If they are imbalanced, I know there is inflammation being produced.
- I also look at salivary or urinary cortisol levels (throughout a day). Cortisol is our own internal steroid and anti-inflammatory hormone. When inflammation is present in the body, cortisol will increase because it interprets the inflammation as stress (see my previous article on this subject).
- Histamine levels (in urine or blood) also indicate inflammation is present (see my previous article on this subject).
It’s important to remember that inflammation in the gut can spread throughout the body7, like a drop of ink in a gallon of water, with the potential to cause a plethora of health conditions. Even teeth and gums (essential to the digestive tract) can become inflamed and spread signals of inflammation throughout the body.
How Can You Recover from Inflammation?
Relief and recovery from chronic, inflammation-related health conditions can only happen when we take steps to end the inflammation, eliminate oxidative stress, and address underlying infections. It takes time to recover, and requires changes in diet, lifestyle, and – for many people – a change in lifestyle. Reducing the triggers of stress and inflammation could entail changes in your job, your relationships, or your home.
Healing permanently from chronic inflammatory illness is quite a commitment, and can elicit soul-searching at the deepest level. Growing up, most of us were taught to rely on medicine to make us well, rather than how to make intelligent choices to support our health. But in the case of chronic inflammation, anti-inflammatory medications and immune suppressing approaches are only a way to delay the inevitable, and will never lead back to optimal health. In fact, they can only serve to prolong our condition, and could potentially make things worse.
If we don’t make a complete 180-degree shift to take our bodies away from what is harming them and give them what they need to heal, we can only expect to experience more of the same.
NOTE: If you are currently taking a medication to address chronic inflammation, don’t stop. It is of course important that you check with your prescribing doctor, and to begin to implement healthy changes first, or else you may experience negative effects from stopping the medication.
Here’s a checklist of things you should do to reduce and reverse chronic inflammation:
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. This means avoiding sugar, processed foods, gluten, grains, and dairy products, as well as any other inflammatory foods to which you have a food sensitivity. These foods all increase inflammation in your body; avoiding them will allow inflammation levels to decrease and your body to heal. My Stress Remedy Programs support you to make these kinds of dietary changes.
- Drink more water. The amount of water you need depends on your body weight and activity level. To get a sense of how many ounces to drink each day, multiply your weight (in pounds) by 0.66. When you experience inflammation (in any form), increasing your water intake helps your body to clear out the inflammatory messages.
- Get enough sleep. Even when we are not inflamed, we require at least 7.5 hours of sleep for optimal health. When inflammation is present – when you have a cold or injury or a chronic inflammatory condition – you require even more sleep, at least 2 hours more, to allow more time for the healing processes that occur while you sleep (see my previous series on this topic).
- Make necessary lifestyle changes. Do a personal inventory of the things in your life that are creating excessive stress. Then, do whatever you can to eliminate those stressors from your life, so your body has a better change of healing. Conversely, it also helps to ADD activities that reduce stress, such as journaling, meditation, spending time in nature, connecting with friends and pets, and time set aside just to take care of YOU. I call them “stress remedies.”
- Reduce exposure to toxins and infections. Toxic substances like mold, metals, viruses (EBV for example), bacteria, lyme, etc. may be triggering inflammation in your body. An experienced health practitioner – especially a naturopathic doctor – can help you identify which toxins and/or infections are triggering your inflammatory responses, and give you guidance on how to reduce and avoid that exposure.
- Use only NATURAL supplements* for pain/inflammation relief. While NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Advil) can temporarily turn off inflammation, they also turn off our natural anti-inflammatory mechanisms. So, in the long term, our condition never improves. Plus, NSAIDs can cause leaky gut, and damage your liver by making it work harder than it should. Instead of taking these, use herbs and natural supplements known to decrease inflammation without causing these negative effects.A few good choices would be (click the links to see those products in our online shop):
- Omega 3 fats (either from fish oil or vegetarian sources)
- Curcumin (in a form that is well absorbed from the digestive tract)
- Anti-inflammatory enzymes (not taken with food), such as Bromelain and many other enzymes ending in “-ase”; these can be effective alternatives to pain medications.
- Boswellia (alone or in combination with other anti-inflammatory ingredients)
- Increase your anti-oxidants. These will help support your body’s recovery from the oxidative stress (see my previous series on this subject) that occurs as a result of long-term inflammatory issues. A few of my favorites include:
I hope you found this article to be informative and useful. If you’re thinking it’s time to get started in your own recovery from chronic inflammation, I recommend having a look at my Stress Remedy Programs. These do-it-yourself programs include support to make dietary changes, improve sleep, and reduce stress, as well as step-by-step tips and an organic pea protein shake powder.
If you’ve been suffering for a long time, and feel the need for more personal support, I welcome you to contact me about becoming a patient. I run several programs designed to address specific inflammation-related conditions (such as insomnia/sleep irregularity, oxidative stress, and leaky gut). I also offer a special Total Wellness Solutions Package, which addresses the healing needs of your whole body. This package is especially useful if you have multiple inflammatory issues (or conditions mentioned earlier in this article) and nothing you’ve tried has helped you improve.
Healing from chronic inflammation cannot happen overnight, but it can and will happen if you are patient and fully committed to your own healing. You will need to make you and your wellness your top priority (which can be difficult for some), and make conscious choices that support your health. And although the road back to health might seem long and difficult to you right now, I assure you that I have seen patients recover from chronic inflammation again and again, throughout almost two decades of my naturopathic practice. The body can heal from most any situation; it simply needs the right support.
You can do it, too.
31st May 2017
*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.
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- Wellen KE, Hotamisligil GS. Inflammation, stress, and diabetes. Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2005;115(5):1111-1119. Accessed 29 May 2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1087185/.
- Jacques P, Elewaut D. Joint expedition: linking gut inflammation to arthritis. Mucosal Immunol. 2008 Sep;1(5):364-71. Accessed 29 May 2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19079200.
- Rakoff-Nahoum S. Why Cancer and Inflammation? The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 2006;79(3-4):123-130. Accessed 29 May 2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1994795/.
- Russo R, Cristiano C, Avagliano C, De Caro C, La Rana G, Raso GM, Canani RB, Meli R, Calignano A. Gut-brain axis: Role of lipids in the regulation of inflammation, pain and CNS diseases. Curr Med Chem. 2017 Feb 16. Accessed 29 May 2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28215162.
- Yang XW, Wang XS, Cheng FB, Wang F, Wan L, Wang F, Huang HX.Elevated CCL2/MCP-1 Levels are Related to Disease Severity in Postmenopausal Osteoporotic Patients. Clin Lab. 2016 Nov 1;62(11):2173-2181. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28164676
- Tsai J, Shen J. Exploring the Link Between Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and inflammation-Related Medical Conditions: An Epidemiological Examination. Psychiatr Q. 2017 Mar 25. Accessed 29 May 2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28342139