Everyone who has had a sore throat, rash, hives, or a sprained ankle knows about inflammation. These are normal and appropriate responses of the immune — your body’s defense system — to infection and trauma.
This kind of inflammation is good. We need it to survive — to help us determine friend from foe.
The trouble occurs when that defense system runs out of control, like a rebel army bent on destroying its own country.
Many of us are familiar with an overactive immune response and too much inflammation. It results in common conditions like allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune disease, and asthma. This is bad inflammation, and if it is left unchecked it can become downright ugly.
What few people understand is that hidden inflammation run amok is at the root of all chronic illness we experience — conditions like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, dementia, depression, cancer, and even autism. That is right, inflammation is the root of all chronic sickness and disease.
A study of a generally “healthy” elderly population found that those with the highest levels of C-reactive protein and interleukin 6 (two markers of systemic inflammation) were 260 percent more likely to die during the next 4 years. The increase in deaths was due to cardiovascular and other causes.
We may feel healthy, but if this inflammation is raging inside of us, then we are in trouble. Just because you look healthy on the outside, does not mean you’re healthy on the inside.
The real concern is not our response to immediate injury, infection, or insult. It is the chronic, smoldering inflammation that slowly destroys our organs and our ability to function optimally and leads to rapid aging.
Common treatments such as anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen or aspirin) and steroids like prednisone — though often useful for acute problems — interfere with the body’s own immune response and can lead to serious and deadly side effects.
In fact, as many people die from taking anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen every year as die from asthma or leukemia. Stopping these drugs would be equivalent to finding the cure for asthma or leukemia –- that’s a bold statement, but the data is there to back it up.
Meanwhile, the real effects of statin drugs like Lipitor in reducing heart disease may have nothing to do with lowering cholesterol, but with their unintended side effect of reducing inflammation.
But is taking medication the right approach to addressing the problem of inflammation? No. It is DOWNSTREAM medicine.
How to Locate the Causes of Hidden Inflammation
So if inflammation and immune imbalances are at the root of most of modern disease, how do we find the causes and get the body back in balance?
First, we need to identify the triggers and causes of inflammation. Then we need to help reset the body’s natural immune balance by providing the right conditions for it to thrive.
As a doctor, my job is to find those inflammatory factors unique to each person and to see how various lifestyle, environmental, or infectious factors spin the immune system out of control, leading to a host of chronic illnesses.
Thankfully, the list of things that cause inflammation is relatively short:
- Poor diet—mostly sugar, refined flours, processed foods, and inflammatory fats such as trans and saturated fats
- Lack of exercise
- Hidden or chronic infections with viruses, bacteria, yeasts, or parasites
- Hidden allergens from food or the environment
- Toxins such as mercury and pesticides
- Mold toxins, allergens and chronic hidden infections
By listening carefully to a person’s story and performing a few specific tests, We can discover the causes of inflammation in most people.
It’s important to understand that this concept of inflammation is not specific to any one organ or medical specialty. In fact, if you read a medical journal from any field of medicine, you will find endless articles about how inflammation is at the root of problems with the particular organ or area they focus on.
So what’s the problem?
There is almost no communication between specialties. Everyone is treating the downstream effects of inflammation, but addressing the causes of inflammation that are upstream could help people who have multiple problems that are really linked together by this common root cause.
Take, for example, a man who came to see me recently. He wanted to climb a mountain and asked for my help to get healthy. He was 57 years old and took about 15 medications for six different inflammatory conditions: high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, colitis, reflux, asthma, and an autoimmune disease of his hair follicles called alopecia.
Yet when I asked him how he felt, he said “great”. I told him I was surprised because he was on so many medications.
Yes, he said, but everything was very well controlled with the latest medications prescribed by the top specialists he saw in every field. The lung doctor for his asthma, the gastroenterologist for his colitis and reflux, the cardiologist for his high blood pressure, the endocrinologist for his pre-diabetes, the dermatologist for his hair loss.
But did any of those specialists ask him why he had six different inflammatory diseases and why his immune system was so up-regulated? Was it just bad luck that he “got” all these diseases — or was there something connecting all these problems?
He looked puzzled and said “no”.
I then searched for and uncovered the cause of his problems: gluten. He had celiac disease, an autoimmune disease related to eating gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats.
Six months later he came back to see me. He had lost 35 pounds, had no more high blood pressure, asthma, reflux, or colitis, and said he had normal bowel movements for the firstme in his life.
His hair was even growing back. And he was off nearly all his medications. I encouraged him to take 7 steps to heal his life. That is right, there are a minimum of 7 steps to living an anti-inflammatory life.
7 Steps to Living an Anti-inflammatory Life
Once you have figured out the causes of inflammation in your life, gotten rid of them, the next step is to keep living an anti-inflammatory lifestyle. But how do you do that?
Here is what I recommend. It’s alarmingly simple but an extraordinarily effective way to transform your health:
- Whole Foods — Eat a whole foods, high-fiber, plant-based diet, which is inherently anti-inflammatory. That means choosing unprocessed, unrefined, whole, fresh, real foods, not those full of sugar and trans fats and low in powerful anti-inflammatory plant chemicals called phytonutrients.
- Healthy Fats — Give yourself an oil change by eating healthy monounsaturated fats in olive oil, nuts and avocados, and getting more omega-3 fats from small fish like sardines, herring, sable, and wild salmon.
- Regular Exercise — Mounting evidence tells us that regular exercise reduces inflammation. It also improves immune function, strengthens your cardiovascular systems, corrects and prevents insulin resistance, and is key for improving your mood and erasing the effects of stress. In fact, regular exercise is one among a small handful of lifestyle changes that correlates with improved health in virtually ALL of the scientific literature. So get moving already!
- Relax — Learn how to engage your vagus nerve by actively relaxing. This powerful nerve relaxes your whole body and lowers inflammation when you practice yoga or meditation, breathe deeply, or even take a hot bath.
- Avoid Allergens — If you have food allergies, find out what you’re allergic to and stop eating those foods—gluten and dairy are two common culprits.
- Heal Your Gut — Take probiotics to help your digestion and improve the balance of healthy bacteria in your gut, which reduces inflammation.
- Supplement — Take a multivitamin/multimineral supplement, fish oil (omega 3 fatty acids), and vitamin D, all of which help reduce inflammation.
Taking this comprehensive approach to inflammation and balancing your immune system addresses one of the most important core systems of the body.
In the future, medicine may no longer have specialties like cardiology or neurology or gastroenterology, but new specialists like “inflammologists”.
But by understanding these concepts and core systems that are the basis of healthy living now, you don’t have to wait. You can be healthy today if you follow these simple steps.