I wasn’t always an empowered participant in my health. But when I started connecting the dots between my diet and lifestyle, chronic inflammation, and disease, a light bulb turned on. Why? Because our daily choices are at the root of chronic inflammation.
Over the past decade, I’ve renovated everything from my grocery cart to my makeup bag to my mind in an effort to upgrade my immune system. And as I moved from a stressful life full of fast food, toxins, and bad boyfriends to a more balanced existence filled with plant-passionate nourishment, inner growth, and conscious living, I started experiencing the perks. Chronic inflammation decreased and my body started working with me to heal and rebuild.
Want to start connecting the dots in your own life? First, let’s learn about acute and chronic inflammation, since they play very different roles in our everyday health. Then, we’ll cover the causes of chronic inflammation and how to reduce its impact on your health.
Acute inflammation is your body’s natural and helpful immune response to tissue damage. When you fall off your bike, the cut swells, reddens, and feels inflamed. These are all signs that your immune system is busy at work sending white blood cells to the site of your injury to repair the tissue. In this situation, inflammation is your friend—you couldn’t live without it.
Chronic inflammation is your body’s confused and damaging immune response to a barrage of environmental, physical, and mental invaders, which come in the form of things like poor diet, toxic chemicals, and stress. I’ve written about chronic inflammation in all of my books because it’s such a huge piece of our health challenges today. It’s also the type of inflammation we’re focusing on in today’s post.
“There’s a silent (yet violent) kind of inflammation that can take place without you even knowing it. What you eat, drink, and think (stress!), environmental toxins, smokin’, booz- in’, and even a couch-potato lifestyle can create a fiery cascade of inflammation in your body. When your body hits an inflammatory overload, your defense system gets so overwhelmed and confused that it literally doesn’t know the difference between the invader and you. As a result, your well-meaning immune system turns on itself, destroying healthy cells, tissue, and everything else in its wake. It’s like when Al Pacino played Tony Montana in Scarface. He mows down everything in sight, yelling, “Say hello to my little friend!” In a word: shit.”
Chronic inflammation is triggered by numerous factors, but most of them are within your control and can be avoided or replaced. Take a look at this list. Anything sound familiar?
There are countless other causes of chronic inflammation, but these are some of the biggies. If you don’t think that these things are a risk to your long-term health, think again. Next stop, the toll they take on your well-being.
Over time, chronic inflammation wears out your immune system, leading to chronic diseases and other health issues including cancer, asthma, autoimmune diseases, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, osteoporosis, and even (gasp!) appearing older than your years.
Unfortunately, these challenges are often only treated with drugs and surgery, which may provide temporary relief from the symptoms, but do not treat the root of the problem. In addition, these drugs—and their side effects—sometimes only add to your health problems.
Could it be that many of the pills in your cabinet are just Band-Aids and that the key to health lies in your daily diet and lifestyle choices? That’s certainly what I’ve found to be true.
The integrative MDs I know and trust are helping their patients identify and address their health issues by looking at the way they lead their lives and nipping their inflammation-happy habits in the bud. If possible, find an integrative doctor who can help you along the way and target your unique needs. They can also test your blood for inflammation—make sure your doc requests a CRP—C-reactive Protein test.
Although this may seem overwhelming, it’s actually the opposite. The following tips will empower you and help you reduce inflammation over time. Try a few (or just one) of these suggestions on for size and see how you feel. As always, slow and steady wins the race, or in this case, puts out the fire.
1. Eat more plant-based, whole, nutrient-dense foods.
Crowd out the inflammatory foods we discussed above (refined sugar and flour, processed junk, animal products, etc.) by adding a variety of plant-based whole foods to your diet. These foods will flood your body with the vitamins, minerals, cancer-fighting phytochemicals, antioxidants, and fiber it needs to recover from chronic inflammation.
2. Focus on gut health.
Your gut holds approximately 60 to 70 percent of your immune system, so it stands to reason that it would be a great place to reduce chronic inflammation. And if your gut is in bad shape, you can only imagine that your immune system is in some serious trouble. . A great way to start is by taking a daily probiotic. Just make sure it’s high quality.
3. Identify and address food allergies and chronic (or hidden) infections.
You could be fighting a losing battle if you’re ignoring potential food sensitivities and/or infections. If your body is working to cope and fight these challenges every day, you can bet that you’re stoking the fires of inflammation on a regular basis.
Gluten, soy, dairy, eggs, and yeast are common food allergens that might be distracting your immune system every time you sit down for a meal. These allergies can be identified with a blood test. Ask your doctor about testing for food allergies.
Become a symptoms detective. Only you can determine how you feel when you eat, which is where an elimination diet comes in handy. While following the elimination approach, you remove all common allergens from your diet and then slowly reintroduce them, one by one. Talk to your doc about these options, and do some independent research at Google University.
Another possibility worth exploring is chronic infection (bacteria, viruses, yeast, parasites). These guys could be hiding out in your body just under the radar and dragging your immune system down. You have a couple options for testing—look at your bloodwork and/or your poop. It may not be pretty, but knowledge is power, so be brave and have your stool checked. You can have your stool analyzed—this analysis will identify parasites, abnormal bacteria, yeasts, and other gastrointestinal issues, which will help you create a game plan that targets the infection, ideally with the help of an integrative MD or naturopath.
You may also want to look into Leaky Gut Syndrome, a condition that can result in damage to your intestinal lining. When this occurs, bacteria, undigested food, and other toxins can literally leak into your bloodstream, triggering an autoimmune response and a host of painful inflammatory symptoms. A simple urine test can tell you if you need to plug up those leaks, so to speak.
4. Relax and rest more.
Your body is hard at work repairing and restoring your glorious cells while you sleep. Most doctors recommend 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. If you’re cutting corners in the snooze department, you’re cheating your immune system, which means it needs to kick into high gear in an effort to keep you well (hello, inflammation).
Stress goes hand in hand with a lack of sleep and a laundry list of demands from daily life. Unfortunately, when you’re stressed out all the time, you’re also producing more of the hormone cortisol—inflammation’s BFF. It stands to reason that you can easily reduce chronic inflammation by focusing on stress reduction, whether it’s through more sleep, yoga, meditation, long walks, less technology, or a much needed vacation. You know I love to take every opportunity I can to remind you to take a chill pill.
5. Reduce toxins in your food, home, and personal care products.
Your body’s alarm system goes off when you absorb toxic chemicals and pesticides through your digestive tract and your skin. Cut down your exposure by eating organic foods whenever possible and choosing non-toxic personal care and cleaning products. The Environmental Working Group has great resources, including the Skin Deep Database, tips on homemade cleaning products, and Clean Fifteen/Dirty Dozen charts to help you determine the healthiest choices for you and your family.
There are many more ways to reduce chronic inflammation, but these five suggestions are a great place to start.
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