18 Jul Your body’s finest superhero may also be the most horrifying supervillain
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again – Our body is the most amazing and intelligent computer on this planet, which relies on internal forces to save the day. When faced with a complication (whether it be a cut, infection, cold, virus, disease or the consuming of a sausage roll) your body sends any number of internal superheroes to the rescue. Calling on forces as powerful as Superman, Wonder Woman and Thor to repair any ailments we may have, your body has the most incredible ability to heal itself. Recently, an internal superhero has caught my attention. Both a friend and foe, ‘Inflammation’ has the power to not only the power to save you – but to kill you as well. It is this mighty hero, who is not only our best friend, but also – our body’s most dangerous super villain!
What is inflammation?
When acting as a superhero, inflammation acts as our saviour and demonstrates a very impressive activation of cells within our bodies. It is the body’s natural healing response to trauma, infections and allergens. Without getting too technical, the inflammatory process is our way of addressing threats within the body. Imagine inflammation like Captain America, fighting off foreign invasions like infections, illnesses, blemishes or injuries and swooping in to clear out any damaged cells. Inflammation knows the perfect recipe to tackle threats, it uses the impressive superpower of ‘acute inflammation’ to release compounds which fight infection. Then soon after the threats have been addressed, it quickly releases anti-inflammatory compounds to reinstate balance. Without inflammation on the scene, your body is like a defenceless city or town. No protection or armour, totally incapable of fighting off injury or illness. We all need inflammation in our lives – just not too much of it.
Yet when called upon too often, this superhero can start to get a little too useful and offer us help too often or in places we don’t need it. Think about what could happen if you were to seek the support of The Hulk too often. Things turn bad when inflammation decides to stick around for longer than we need it or when it get’s the wrong message when we rely on it more than we need to. If we aren’t doing all the things we need to do to keep our internal superheroes in check (like eating well and resting), they quickly turn against us, become irritated and begin to do more harm than good.
Things turn bad when your inflammatory response continues to release pro-inflammatory cells in your body when it isn’t needed. Inflammation begins to exhibit villain like behaviours and similar to our burglar foe Cat Woman, starts to constantly rob you. Soon you are susceptible to serious damage to healthy tissues and cells. Over time, low levels of inflammation and/or prolonged stress weakens the body, causing problems such as illness, allergies, intolerances or worse…disease. This is when your body is confused between what it knows it should be doing and constantly reacting to real and perceived stress threats.
This is when inflammation turns dangerously bad…Let me introduce you to inflammation’s nasty and evil alter ego ‘chronic inflammation.’ This villain wreaks havoc on your body and is the root cause of most diseases. In more serious cases, this supervillain convinces your body (almost like mind control) to attack its own tissues.
This visual shows us that when our bodies responses are balanced, we see a lot more superhero powers like superhuman endurance and invulnerability. Inflammation does it’s job and doesn’t evolve into Doctor Evil. But with modern diets (rich in sugar, refined carbohydrates, trans fats and excessive alcohol), ongoing stress, poor sleep etc, we are turning on inflammation far more than what our bodies are used to. While it is true we inhabit some of the most intelligent machines, we have almost evolved past their capacity and constantly demand they rid us of (often self-imposed) threats. Instead of maintaining a healthy balance, we irritate our superhero response so much that it morphs into supervillain status and like The Joker or Doctor Doom, chaos takes over and suffering takes place.
What unwanted inflammation does to body….
As we build up low levels of inflammation in your body, we slowly cause damage. You won’t notice this kind of thing overnight. Sometimes this is a slow process that can take decades of poor choices for chronic inflammation to sneak up on you. An example is when you hum along and are all of a sudden hit with a heart attack or perhaps you catch a bug that can’t be fought off because inflammatory responses have been busy at work in any number your organs. Here, a key event shines light on a body that is falling apart.
Chronic Inflammation can result in:
- Ageing of the body (faster than desired)
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Heart Disease
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammatory conditions (often ending in “itis”)
- Cancer (Unfortunately, everything that upregulates inflammation simultaneously increases cancer cell proliferation)
What causes ongoing inflammatory responses in the body?
While the above ailments are scary, it is important to understand the causes of unwanted inflammation. This may help you to begin making choices to improve your health, decrease inflammation, prevent health issues and take care of your wellbeing and ensure longevity.
With high levels of stress, comes a hormone cortisol. This talks to inflammation to get it all fired up. Studies show that runaway inflammation and can lead to mental health disorders such as depression and (scarily)in some cases, the formation of Alzheimer’s disease.
An over-consumption of the wrong kinds of Omega 6 fatty acids
While fats have been demonised, the truth is we need them. We just need the right kinds and a balance (more on this in upcoming posts). More recently, we have moved away from traditional fats (found in meats, eggs, nuts, high quality butter, olive oil etc) to an overconsumption of fried foods or those cooking in hydrogenated oils high in Omega 6 (think refined soybean oil and vegetable oils). These oils typically increase inflammation and cancer cell proliferation if consumed in high amounts. Most western diets are too high in the wrong kinds of Omega 6!
An over-consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugar
The debate is ongoing into the place of carbohydrates in the diet. The key thing to note is the rapid increase of consumption of refined carbohydrates in the form of pulverised grains (white flours, white bread, poor quality breads, pastas etc). When not eaten in whole grain form, they digest rapidly and/or have a high glycemic index convert to blood sugar rapidly. Regular spikes to your blood sugar leads to inflammation.
Ongoing exercise beats your body down. Excessive long distance cardio, extreme heavy weight lifting with no time for rest is a recipe for inflammatory disaster. Naturally, these forms of exercise cause inflammation at a variety of levels and your body is under mammoth amounts of pressure to provide support to many areas. It is little wonder that our bodies become taxed and often, other health problems follow.
Lack of exercise
Similarly, a lack of exercise can be detrimental as well. Staying active daily, keeps your body strong and makes it easier for your body to pump around those healing powers. Light to moderate exercise is advised and promoted as opposed to a more sedentary lifestyle.
Sleep allows your body to rest, recover and heal. Without access to adequate sleep, your good inflammatory responses are less likely to work in your favour. As cortisol and stress responses are activated to keep you going through the day, the likelihood of inflammation increases.
Smoking is the leading cause of death. If you smoke – expect nasty ramifications. Smoking triggers an immune response and vascular injury, which is associated with increased levels of inflammatory markers in the body. You are killing yourself with every breath. Enough said!
Pollution and environmental toxins
Unfortunately, we live in a world riddled with toxins. While we can’t escape much of what is in the air. We can be vigilant with what we use in our homes, on our skin and in our food. Everything that you are exposed to has to be processed by your body and increases your likelihood of inflammation. This includes pesticides, herbicides, air pollutants, household chemicals and cleaners, food additives, flame-retardants in your furniture and perfumes.
Some people do just become inflamed more easily than others. Heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema and allergies all have some genetic link. Although, many people attribute their health issues to their family history, I am sorry to tell you, that although you may be genetically predisposed to certain ailments, it is the choices you make that led you there!
Many cultures avoid or alter the preparation of certain vegetables as they can have nasty effects on inflammatory markers in the body. For some, consuming nightshade vegetables (such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and potatoes) can lead to inflammation. Sadly, I only just realised I was one of these unlucky people.
Some of the signs which may indicate inflammation is present in your body
- Excess weight around your waist
- High blood glucose levels
- Digestive problems – gas, diarrhea, bloating, constipation
- Burping or reflux
- Regular joint pain
- Water retention
- Skin problems – (e.g. eczema or psoriasis)
- Puffy face or bags under your eyes
- Gum disease or swollen gums
- Depression, anxiety or brain fog
- Autoimmune disease or symptoms
- Blood tests which indicate high levels of the C-reactive protein (CRP) which is a measure of inflammation in the body
Working with a Health Coach is an excellent way to assess many areas of your life and identify whether inflammation is currently a problem for you or likely to rear it’s ugly head in the future. A Health Coach can be a great support person as you work through a number of these issues. If you feel as though inflammation could be a big problem for you, it is advised you seek the advice of a registered health professional.
Inflammation is a big topic! One that I will continue to explore in upcoming weeks. While I will move into some tips for positive changes you can make to address, reduce and/or prevent inflammatory responses in the future. In my next post, I will move into anti-inflammatory dietary choices and following that will spotlight some of the best anti-inflammatory food choices.
For now, it may be wise to consider if any of your current lifestyle choices may be leading to inflammatory conditions or future problems associated with inflammation.
Are you currently making any choices that could contribute or lead to inflammatory responses?
Based on what you have learned today, what small changes you can make today to steer towards better health in the future?
References and Bibliography
IIN Health Coach Course Resources, ‘Anti Inflammatory Diet Guide’
IIN Student Resource. Lecture. ‘A Healthcare Call to Action’ – Dr Andrew Weil MD
IIN Student Resource. Lecture. ‘Traditional and Alternative Medicine’ – Dr Frank Lipman MD
IIN Student Resource, ‘Food For Life’ Lecture by Neal Bernard
IIN Student Resource, ‘The Nutrients You Need to Know’ lecture by Joel Furhman MD
IIN Student Resource, ‘The Wellness Zone’ lecture by Dr Barry Sears MD
Book: The Clever Gut’s Diet – Michael Mosely