Inflammation is a case of your body on high alert. It’s sparked by your immune system whenever you have some kind of damage, such as a cut or infection. As a response, your immune system sends white blood cells and other chemicals to the damaged area to repair tissue, fight off bacteria or other pathogens, and promote healing. Once healed, other cells move into the affected area and clear the inflammatory substances out.
Inflammation is your body’s natural defense system when you have an acute injury. Normal inflammation is a good thing, but inflammation can become an issue when it doesn’t clear out or the process stays switched on for too long. Then it can become a chronic problem. Chronic inflammation can cause all kinds of conditions, such as autoimmune illnesses, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and hundreds of other illnesses.
Why Doesn’t Inflammation Turn Off?
Infections that haven’t completely resolved. Bacterial or viral infections that continue to linger can keep your body on inflammatory high alert without relief. Infections such as herpes simplex, Hepatitis C, Epstein Barr (the virus behind chronic fatigue syndrome), H Pylori, and Lyme disease can trigger chronic inflammation.
Prolonged stress ramps up inflammation. When you’re stressed, your body undergoes a number of changes, one of which is a rise in the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol tells your immune system to ramp up for fight or flight, which produces inflammation. In a perfect world, your stress is short-lived, but in many cases, that’s not the case. A stressful co-worker, broken refrigerator, or financial problems can be long-term stressors that cause inflammation to stick around. In traditional Chinese culture, it is said your emotions are the cause of a hundred diseases. When it comes to stress, this is certainly true.
Diet can make inflammation worse. In Chinese medicine, your diet is also the source of your well-being or illness and eating the wrong foods or what would be considered contaminated foods are considered to be a source of illness. This is as true today as it was in ancient times, even though the ingredients are different. The nature of our food supply has changed dramatically in the past 100 years to favor convenience over nutrition. Processed foods, sugar, and foods with unpronounceable additives have become a regular part of our diet. Eating these sugary, chemical-laden foods promotes inflammation as well as obesity.
Gut problems can lead to inflammation. How well you digest your food is key in determining the state of your health. When it comes to your digestion, a condition called leaky gut is one of the top offenders in promoting inflammation. Leaky gut occurs when your intestinal wall develops cracks and openings that allow bacteria and toxins to bypass the digestive process and get into your bloodstream. Once there, these substances are seen as foreign invaders which spur your immune system to ramp up the inflammatory process. What causes gut permeability? Some offenders are sugar, alcohol, NSAIDs like aspirin or ibuprofen, low fiber intake, stress, harmful bacteria, and a kind of yeast overgrowth called candida. All fo these can harm the good bacteria in your gut and damage your intestinal walls.
Environmental toxins are also a source of chronic inflammation. Plastics, medications, heavy metals, smoke, smog, and even the products you put on your body can be toxic when used long term. Smoking is one of the worse offenders. With enough exposure, your immune system identifies these toxins as outside invaders, and fires up the inflammatory response just as it would for a bacteria or virus. Over time and repeated exposure to these toxic chemicals, your immune system can shift into high alert and cause chronic inflammation.
The good news is that there are a number of steps that you can take to reduce the likelihood of inflammation. Working to reduce your stress (acupuncture and meditation can help), eating a diet free of processed foods and sugar, reducing your exposure to toxins, and getting the care you need when you have any kind of infection, can all help limit your risk for chronic inflammation.
Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on Acupuncture Twin Cities.