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Exposing America's Silent Killer: Chronic inflammation

When it comes to inflammation, most of us think of a specific injury that causes a part of the body to become painful and visibly swollen and red such as a sprained ankle, knee or wrist. And rightfully so; this is the body’s response to an acute injury or traumatic event.

Most healthcare practitioners learned of inflammation in this same context: Infection or some traumatic injury to the body such as a sprain, broken bone or pulled muscle. Inflammation was rarely discussed as a “chronic, low-grade simmering swelling” affecting every cell in our body. However, inflammation now is characterized as the “Silent Killer” that is known to promote cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, wide-spread musculoskeletal pain and achy, sore joints.

Chronic inflammation does not manifest itself like an acute injury or infection. It can take place in all of the cells of the body from the foods we eat, stress, lack of sleep and sedentary living. And the scary thing is we do not necessarily know or feel its effects. It can take 20 to 30 years before the symptoms appear.

Most of us during our teens, 20s and even 30s consumed large amounts of sugar, flour and omega-6 oils in the form of pastries, doughnuts, cakes, cookies, chips, pretzels, breads, pastas, crackers, salad dressings, packaged and processed foods without necessarily feeling any negative effect. Yes, we would gain some extra layers of fat and weight, start to notice some energy loss and begin to experience more muscle aches and pains. But the real consequences of diet and lifestyle would not catch up with us until we entered our 40s. What we had consumed for many years triggered chemical processes in our bodies that turned on pro-inflammatory, hormonal-like substances called eicosanoids, cytokines, growth factors and adhesion molecules.

In a healthy, steady state referred to as homeostasis, we have a normal balance of anti- and pro-inflammatory chemicals. However, when we eat a typical American diet consisting of 60 percent refined sugar, refined grain products, trans fats and oils from soybean, sunflower, corn and peanut, we produce too many of the pro-swelling chemicals. These chemicals can create swelling in our muscles and joints, inflame and bloat our stomachs, narrow our blood vessels and increase fat storage and weight gain.

Eating too much sugar and refined grains and flour also causes spikes in blood sugar, which increases beta cells in the pancreas to pump out increased amounts of insulin. It has been discovered that beta cells also have an additional response to high blood glucose by perceiving that the high sugar is a form of “biochemical injury” and responds by releasing these inflammatory chemicals. So in essence, eating large doses of sugar and flour stimulates the same immune or inflammatory response as an infection. Wow!

Research now shows that there is a complex link between inflammation, insulin and fat — either in our diet or in the large folds under our skin — and that fat cells behave a lot like immune cells, spewing out inflammatory chemicals, particularly as we gain weight.

Think about coronary artery disease and the narrowing of the vessels carrying blood flow to the heart. We now understand that it is not fat clogging the arteries but inflammatory changes along the arterial wall turned on by increased circulating inflammatory chemicals from diets high in sugar, processed foods and fats, along with stress, lack of exercise and smoking that thicken, harden and narrow our arteries. This is why chronic inflammation is called the “Silent Killer.” We do not feel our arteries closing up until there is no blood supply and thus no oxygen to the heart muscle. We then experience a heart attack.

The same thing can happen to our joint and muscle cells. For example, autoimmune diseases occur when our immune system attacks our own tissues. The body thinks the cells are foreign and releases inflammatory chemicals to neutralize or kill them. Basically, the body attacks its own tissues through a barrage of pro-swelling immune cells producing pain and disfigured joints.

Like it or not, what we put in our mouths either turns on the pro-inflammatory chemicals in our bodies or turns them off. The choice of eating healthy along with physical activity and avoidance of smoking is critical to fighting the war against weight gain, chronic diseases and chronic pain, which is the number one cause of long-term disability in the United States.

It is difficult sometimes for patients to understand that their diets of fast food and sugary treats can contribute and even cause their back pain. I have worked with patients with full-blown diagnosed autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis who go off all medications by cleaning up their diets and losing 75 pounds.

While all of us should be concerned about decreasing our body fat, we should also concentrate on decreasing our body’s inflammatory response by the foods we consume. Yes, there is a genetic component to inflammation, but the process of gaining weight is often a process of inflammation. When you decrease your body’s inflammatory response, you will decrease your weight and increase your opportunity for a healthy lifestyle.

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