What do heart disease, stroke, arthritis, colitis, fibromyalgia, lupus, MS, diabetes, chronic fatigue, and Alzheimer’s have in common? Well, yes, they’re all diseases, but the A-plus answer is that they are all caused by or associated with inflammation.
Scientists are finding that the common cause in a long list of illnesses is an inflammatory process that’s run out of control. Inflammation is an important way the body deals with injury or disease. It is one way the body combats pathogens and burns off dying or infected cells. It is controlled by a group of hormones called prostaglandins, some of which promote, and others that reduce inflammation. You can affect these hormones through a number of factors, including emotions, lifestyle, and especially through diet.
In Chinese medicine, inflammation tends to be associated with heat. Heat is also a primary sign of inflammation. This heat can be very apparent when you have an infection of red and warm arthritic joints. The heat, however, may not be so obvious and can cause more subtle symptoms such as a mild sensation of feeling warm, chronic thirst for cool drinks, irritability, lots of sweating, restlessness, and constipation.
This inflammatory heat can come from a variety of sources. One is through improper diet, which according to Chinese food therapy includes too many spicy, greasy, or rich foods, and sweets. Similarly, eating unhealthy foods can aggravate the body and stir inflammation from a western medical perspective as well. Heat also occurs from stagnation in Chinese medicine. This simply means that when things don’t move well, it creates a buildup that causes heat.
In your body, anything from your energy or digestion to your emotions can stagnate. If you’ve ever seen someone get hot with anger, that’s an emotional stagnation causing a little heat. While this way of thinking can seem foreign to western minds, this is more than symbolic symmetry. For instance, one common cause of lingering anger is when someone cannot let go of an incident, like an insult. Instead of accepting the situation and moving on with their life, they keep thinking about the situation, fixating on it in an unhealthy manner that stokes their anger.
Western scientists have found that the foods you eat can be pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. Fats are strongly linked to inflammation because your body makes prostaglandins from fatty acids. Similar to Chinese food theory, the fats that promote inflammation include partially hydrogenated oils/fats, and polyunsaturated oils, such as corn, peanut, and safflower. Also, trans fats, such as margarine or vegetable shortening, and saturated fats, as found in animal products (except fish) promote inflammation.
There is a blood test that measures inflammation in your arteries through looking at your levels of C-reactive protein, or CRP. However, if your health insurance plan tends to deny more than approve, a fasting blood insulin test is more likely to be covered and is also an indicator of inflammation. In general, higher insulin levels in your blood means greater inflammation.
Keeping Inflammation in Check
There are several things you can do to keep inflammation under control, or at least reduced.
Maintain an appropriate weight. Fat tissue is an accumulation of dampness, which over time will ultimately turn to heat. Western research specifically links belly fat to inflammation.
Get regular exercise. It gets energy moving and relieves stress, both of which can contribute to inflammation. Exercise also improves the health of your heart and lungs. You don’t need to sign up for a triathlon; walking for 20–30 minutes at least four times a week will do the trick.
If you’re a smoker, quit now. Today. In case you haven’t noticed, smoking creates heat in your body, inflames your lungs, and inhibits your circulation.
Take processed foods off your shopping list. In most cases, processed foods are made with lots of sugars, trans fats, and chemicals—all of which can contribute to inflammation. If an item has a long list of ingredients that you can’t pronounce, put it back on the shelf and roll your cart to the produce aisle.
Get your stress under control. Take a yoga class, do some deep breathing, or visualize your happy place—whatever it takes. Stress is a killer in its own right. Take note of your thinking, as your thoughts have a powerful influence on your emotions and stress reaction.
Floss. That’s right, pull out the dental string or floss sticks and go to town. There is a direct relationship between gum disease, inflammation, and heart disease.
Get medical care for any infection that doesn’t heal quickly. Again, there’s a direct link between chronic infections and systemic inflammation.
Pay attention to food sensitivities. These can cause inflammatory symptoms, not only in your gut but throughout your body. Some common culprits include grains that contain gluten, dairy foods, and nightshade plants, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Sugar is a prime culprit as well. If you suffer from digestive problems, you may want to experiment with eliminating those foods that you suspect are causing problems.