Chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on the body, says Dr Leigh Erin Connealy. Here’s how to dampen the flames and improve your overall health today
Inflammation is a healthy and normal immune system response to injury, pathogens and toxins. For example, in wound healing, the inflammatory response rushes white blood cells to the injury site to help repair and regenerate tissues and promote healing. This type of acute inflammation, characterized by redness, heat, and swelling of tissues and joints, is temporary and vital to the healing process.
Similarly, if you have a cold, flu or other illness, the immune system is triggered. It sends those same white blood cells to fight and destroy the virus and clean up the aftermath to restore balance and wellness.
Chronic inflammation is another story. Long-term inflammation can wreak havoc on your body, resulting in serious health conditions such as heart disease, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, cancer and even Alzheimer’s disease. When that “army” of white blood cells settles in one area for long periods, healthy cells, tissues and organs can be damaged. If left untreated, chronic inflammation can even alter the DNA of previously healthy cells.
So, how do you know if chronic inflammation is happening in your body? And what can you do about it?
One of the easiest ways to determine whether you have chronic inflammation is to ask your doctor to check your C-reactive protein (CRP) levels using a simple blood test. Produced in the liver, CRP is churned out whenever there is inflammation anywhere in the body, and the higher the level, the more inflammation is present.
Generally, in healthy adults, less than 0.3 mg/dL is considered normal. Slightly elevated levels, 0.3 to 1.0 mg/dL, can be caused by conditions such as pregnancy, diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle, the common cold, cigarette smoking, periodontal disease and obesity. Moderate elevations in the range of 1.0 to 10.0 mg/dL point to systemic inflammation possibly caused by rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, other autoimmune diseases, malignancies, heart attack, pancreatitis or bronchitis.
CRP levels of 3.0 mg/dL are considered high risk for developing cardiovascular disease. Levels greater than 10 mg/dL are critical and can be caused by major trauma, acute bacterial infections, viral infections and other life-threatening conditions.
Leaving inflammation untreated can have lasting detrimental effects on all aspects of your health. Here are some of the most common conditions associated with chronic inflammation.
In my book The Cancer Revolution, I discuss how more than 30 different risk factors cause cancer. Still, the top three categories boil down to infections (bugs), toxins and biological factors. Each of these factors can disrupt the body’s balance, or homeostasis. One way this happens is by the generation of oxidative stress and subsequent inflammation, which damage the genetic material inside cells (RNA and DNA). The mitochondria, also known as a cell’s energy-producing furnace, can be damaged by inflammation and oxidative stress as well.
When the mitochondria are compromised, they can no longer efficiently produce energy for the cells. They adapt to a far less efficient mode of energy production called glycolysis, which uses sugar as an energy source. This inefficient method doesn’t allow the organs and body systems to function correctly and can lead to further DNA damage, less energy for normal cells and, ultimately, more fuel for cancer cells.
Though high cholesterol levels have long been thought to trigger heart attacks and cardiovascular disease, newer research shows inflammation may be the culprit. In landmark research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers tested a drug for lowering lipids (canakinumab) on about 10,000 patients who had suffered a previous heart attack and had high CRP levels. They found it greatly reduced CRP levels, leading to “a significantly lower incidence of recurrent cardiovascular events than placebo” even though it didn’t lower their cholesterol levels.1
In other words, lowering CRP levels led to fewer repeat heart attacks. Lower your CRP, and reduce your risk of heart attack and cardiovascular disease.
Several forms of arthritis are linked to inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and gout. According to rheumatologist Dr Robert Shmerling, “In a common type of inflammatory arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis, a variety of immune cells can be found in the lining and fluid of the joint. These cells attract other immune cells and together lead to thickening of the joint lining, new blood vessel formation, and—ultimately—joint damage.”2
In rheumatoid arthritis, stiffness, swelling and pain typically arise in the hands, wrists and feet, though the heart, lungs and eyes may also be affected. Psoriatic arthritis, characterized by scaly, raised patches of skin on the knees, ankles, wrists and fingers, develops in approximately 30 percent of people with psoriasis.
Gout occurs when excess uric acid levels accumulate and form crystals, often in the big toe but occasionally in the hands, wrists or knees. The crystals promote an inflammatory response, which, left untreated, can become chronic.
Taking steps to reduce inflammation can improve joint health and reduce arthritic symptoms.
Type 2 diabetes
Ironically, inflammation can both contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes and be intensified by the disease itself. Living a sedentary lifestyle, eating a poor diet and carrying excess weight—particularly around the midsection—are all risk factors for type 2 diabetes. And extra fat hanging around the abdominal area is loaded with inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that can alter the effects of insulin and cause blood sugar problems, including diabetes.
Researchers have long known that individuals with type 2 diabetes have more inflammation in their bodies than their non-diabetic counterparts. As the body becomes less sensitive to insulin, inflammation levels rise. Insulin resistance eventually leads to higher blood sugar and can progress into full-blown diabetes if lifestyle changes, supplements and other therapies are not employed.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
For decades, researchers have examined the role of inflammation in the brain, or neuroinflammation, in cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). While there’s no definitive link between Alzheimer’s and inflammation, chronic inflammation can lead to the formation of amyloid-beta plaques that appear in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The plaques themselves appear to increase neuroinflammation and are linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline.
A recent study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences confirmed that inflammation can trigger dementia. Scientists concluded, “Ecologically adjustable risk factors of AD, including obesity, traumatic brain damage, and systemic inflammation, can cause dementia through the continued neuroinflammatory drive.”3
Now that we know how dangerous it is to have all that excess inflammation in our bodies, let’s look at natural ways to dampen the flames.
Cleaning up your diet is the easiest and most obvious place to start. Begin by cutting out added sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, alcohol and processed foods (most anything in a package).
According to Eric Rimm, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, “White flour leads directly to a pro-inflammatory state.”4 White bread, white pasta, cereal and other items made with refined flour are no-nos. Other foods that you may not realize are heavily processed include juices, butter, cheese, processed and cured meats, salad dressings and jarred tomato sauces.
Focus instead on antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources like fish and poultry, nuts, seeds and a little olive oil. Anti-inflammatory spices and herbs, including ginger, cinnamon and turmeric, may also be beneficial. We recommend that most of our patients at the Center for New Medicine follow a modified ketogenic diet (minimal carbs, moderate protein and healthy fats, lots of vegetables), which incorporates many of these anti-inflammatory foods.
Supplements are another natural treatment option. Here are my top five recommendations.
Very few people get the five to nine servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies they need for optimal wellness. That’s where a multivitamin steps in. Multivitamins help fill the nutritional gaps, shore up our nutrient stores and prevent disease—including chronic inflammation.
Studies show that in individuals with elevated CRP levels, regular multivitamin use can significantly reduce those levels, which means multivitamins can combat inflammation. Furthermore, they are safe and inexpensive, and they have few (if any) adverse effects.5
Suggested dosage: Take as directed on the label.
Curcumin, the compound derived from the spice turmeric, has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine. A potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, curcumin may well be one of the most powerful natural weapons available for curbing inflammation and its associated conditions.
A recent study concluded that curcumin helps manage oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety and high blood cholesterol levels. It can also help with muscle soreness after a workout and let you recover faster and get stronger. Whether you’re healthy or have chronic health problems, it’s a win-win!
To increase the bioavailability of curcumin, supplements should contain the agent piperine (from black pepper). Intravenous (IV) curcumin is another potent treatment option. Talk to your integrative physician about this effective and safe therapy. If you don’t already work with an integrative doctor, you can find one near you at ifm.org or acam.org.
Suggested dosage: 500–2,000 mg daily.
Fish oil supplements contain the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These potent compounds have multiple total-body benefits, from cardiovascular, brain and eye health to improved skin and mental health.6
Researchers have long linked regular fish oil supplementation to reduced inflammation, and a recent study suggests EPA and DHA work differently to combat this chronic condition. DHA was found to have a stronger anti-inflammatory effect, but EPA did a better job of balancing pro- and anti-inflammatory proteins in the body. Either way, omega-3s are an excellent natural treatment for inflammation.
Suggested dosage: Because of the broad benefits of omega-3 supplementation, everyone should take 2,000 mg EPA/DHA daily regardless of health status.
Green tea is brewing—pun intended—with beneficial plant-based compounds called polyphenols. The most potent is the catechin epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a powerful antioxidant known as an excellent free-radical scavenger. Research also suggests EGCG lowers markers of inflammation.
A recent meta-analysis of patients with type 2 diabetes found that drinking green tea significantly reduced CRP levels.7
Suggested dosage: Drink several cups of green tea daily or take 400 mg of green tea extract daily.
Most people consider zinc an essential immune system booster, and they are correct. But this mineral is also an anti-inflammatory powerhouse. Zinc is involved in the process that modulates the pro-inflammatory response. It also helps reduce oxidative stress and regulate inflammatory cytokines.8
Suggested dosage: Look for zinc supplements online or in health food stores and take 12–150 mg daily.
In addition to dietary changes and targeted nutritional supplements to reduce systemic inflammation, noninvasive therapies can do wonders.
Biofeedback is “a process whereby electronic monitoring of a normally automatic bodily function is used to train someone to acquire voluntary control of that function.” It is a noninvasive therapy for a wide variety of health concerns, from high blood pressure and migraines to urinary incontinence and chronic pain.9 It’s particularly helpful for reducing chronic stress and anxiety—a major cause of inflammation.
At the Center for New Medicine, we regularly prescribe a biofeedback treatment called EVOX therapy, which uses “perception reframing” to reduce stress and anxiety. When a person speaks, the energy in their voice corresponds to how they feel about specific topics. The EVOX records that voice energy, plots it on a Perception Index graph, and chooses the best frequency signatures to reduce a patient’s particular stressors.
These signatures are then transferred to a hand cradle and transmitted to the patient as they listen to relaxing music and concentrate on a certain subject. EVOX therapy is a remarkable tool that “remaps the brain” and does an incredible job of combating stress and anxiety. It is such a powerful therapy that we recommend EVOX to every new patient.
The health benefits of exercise are myriad. And several aspects of regular physical activity contribute to decreased inflammation. Regular exercise reduces body fat and regulates weight, while being overweight increases the risk of chronic inflammation and its resulting diseases. Exercising regularly also protects against chronic inflammation-associated diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, COPD, dementia and depression.
One study showed that just 20 minutes of moderate exercise was enough to decrease the body’s inflammatory response.10 For optimal health and wellness, aim for 30-plus minutes of moderate activity most days of the week, whether or not inflammation is an issue for you.
Here’s a “cheat sheet” for combating inflammation that you can start working on immediately: