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What is inflammation, and how does it affect us?

Inflammation has been getting a lot of bad press lately, but it’s important to understand that inflammation is the bodies natural response to any harm and is essential for the body to protect & heal itself from injury, infections and stress. There are two types of inflammation: acute & chronic. Acute inflammation is something that all of us can relate to; swelling, redness & pain following a bee sting/insect bite. Our immune system responds to injury and infections by releasing pro-inflammatory compounds (cytokines) to fight the injury/infection, following which it produces anti-inflammatory compounds (prostaglandins) to assist in the healing process. Without this inflammatory response injuries would take longer to heal and a simple infection could be fatal.

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As your body heals, this acute inflammatory response gradually subsides. However in certain situations the inflammatory response goes awry, and there is a continued release of anti-inflammatory compounds resulting in chronic inflammation.

A characteristic feature of chronic inflammation is persistent, low-grade inflammation that causes a gradual increase in immune system markers (CRP, ESR) over time as the body is unable to resolve the inflammation itself. Chronic inflammation is what we need to be wary of, because it has been linked to a number of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, IBD, allergies, gout, thyroid dysfunction, depression, leaky gut, fatty liver, psoriasis, and cancer.

We may be triggering an inflammatory response everyday without even being aware of it !

So what are the causes of chronic inflammation?

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  1. Diet: the food we eat can directly trigger inflammation by initiating the release of inflammatory molecules. In fact, a direct relationship has been established between diets rich in processed foods and inflammation. The most common offender being sugars as they cause a spike in insulin and trigger the release of inflammatory molecules. The lack of adequate fibre in the diet can also trigger an inflammatory response. Nutrition is considered one of the most effective strategies to reduce whole-body inflammation, and hence we must avoid the consumption of inflammatory foods such as; sugary drinks, fried foods, processed foods, and foods that contain refined flour (maida),artificial sweeteners, additives & preservatives. The aim is to consume a fibre & antioxidant rich diet consisting of whole grains, fresh fruit & veg, adequate protein and healthy fats.

  2. Environmental toxins & pollutants: Urban air pollution has been associated with systemic inflammation and oxidative stress in humans. Toxin exposure happens most commonly from cigarette smoke, car exhausts and general pollution. It is important to try and ensure fresh air in your homes, especially if you suffer from asthma, allergies or breathing difficulties. Dust mites are another often overlooked factor that can cause inflammation as they can get caught in the nose & throat. Consider getting an air purifier with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter to remove toxins & dust mites from the air in your home. Pesticide residue also comes under the category of toxins and hence you should reduce your daily exposure by eating fresh organic food. Ensure you wash fruit & vegetables with an acidic solution (vinegar or lemon) or salt to get rid of surface chemicals that are applied to increase their shelf-life.

  3. Physical activity: a lack of regular exercise results in the accumulation of visceral fat and further increases metabolic disease risk and inflammation. A 10-year follow up study by Hamer et al found that regular physical activity was associated with lower levels of inflammatory markers. And a review in the ESCI concluded that “Physical activity represents a natural, strong anti‐inflammatory and metabolism‐improving strategy with minor side effects”.

  4. Stress: stress both physiological & psychological, triggers the release of cortisol (the stress hormone). Which in turn can cause an imbalance in your blood sugar and suppress your immune system in an attempt to reduce inflammation. Cortisol secretion is essential in the short-term, however chronic stress can lead to the overproduction of cortisol that leads to persistent inflammation. In order to keep your cortisol levels at bay you need to eat clean and spend some time on stress management.

  5. Sleep: recent studies have shown that short-term sleep loss (as little as one night’s sleep) and long sleep duration (>8 hours) can affect inflammatory homeostasis by activating pro-inflammatory processes. Inadequate sleep and sleep disturbances have been linked to a number of diseases such as depression, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. In addition to a healthy diet and physical activity, sleep quality is an important component to be considered to manage inflammation in the body. It is ideal to try and get 7–8 hours of good quality sleep every night. In order to improve your sleep quality try the following : remove electronic items from your room, avoid blue light (light emitted from smart phones, tablets & computer screens) 1 hour before going to bed, ensure that your room is dark and decide on a fixed time to go to bed and to wake up the next morning.

Key take aways:

  • Focus on consuming an anti-inflammatory diet and choose whole foods that are rich in antioxidants and fibre. Start with the ‘5 day-2 day nutrition strategy’.

  • Aim to incorporate a minimum of 20–30 minutes of physical activity into your daily routine.

  • Get more shut eye! Aim to get 7–8 hours of restful sleep every night.

  • Keep your stress levels in check; meditating and deep breathing are effective strategies.

  • Give ‘grounding/earthing a try’. All you have to do is to make contact with the ground by standing barefoot on mud or grass for 10 minutes a day (preferably in the morning). Research has shown that earthing can positively affect a number of circulating chemical factors related to inflammation.

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