Inflammation can happen to us all. This particular medical condition is typically a combination of heat, redness, soreness, pain, and/or swelling that can happen both externally and internally. It’s not always a bad thing; inflammation is part of your body’s natural defence while it tries to return to its normal state.
The problem with inflammation
Inflammation is often overlooked. We find it boring; it’s something that slows us down when we’re training or dieting. Something that makes us feel unwell or sore, and is just, overall, a nuisance. The reality is, inflammation is the thing that makes us feel awful, it is a sign that we should listen to.
Inflammation makes our workouts feel poor, makes us make poor diet choices and keeps us in bed when we could be doing much healthier activities. So, what causes it?
Let’s start this section off by talking about inflammation in-depth. A lot of people gloss over inflammation as being a healing response, but we don’t want to do that here. What we want to do is give you the proper knowledge to arm yourself with so that you can figure out what is causing your own inflammatory response and help your body heal.
For example, imagine you’re walking or hiking, and you twist your ankle. This happens to a lot of novice hikers for various reasons, which makes it a good example to include here. Ankles get strained and twisted a lot. Your body will react to any harmful stimulus by inflaming – or swelling – around the area of a cut, an infection, or an injury. This is your body’s attempt to remove what is harming it naturally.
When an area is swollen, what is actually happening is there are sentinel cells that roam your body identifying injured areas. Once the area is identified they trigger a response prompting more blood plasma to leak into that area delivering a massive amount of fluid, white blood cells, macrophages and proteins to start the healing process. This is inflammation. Then, in the recovery process, inflammation starts to subside because the proteins have completed their job. Finally, there is a last surge of inflammation produced by cytokines (specialised fighters of germs), that come through to make sure that the job has been done right. Broadly speaking, until those cytokines have come in and “checked out” the originally injured area, your body won’t be fully healed and ready to go.
Chronic internal inflammation is like millions of continuous micro injuries inside your body at the cellular level. At the cellular level, you don’t really have pain receptors, you only have a feeling that something isn’t quite right. The inflammatory response designed to heal injuries in our body is tremendously energy consuming. The body is mobilising many resources to address the injuries and fix it. If there are millions of micro injuries, your body will go into overdrive and will consume tons of energy and resources trying to fix itself. This may lead to a host of issues, the most obvious one being lack of energy for anything else. By understanding that, you can hopefully understand how terrible chronic internal inflammation can be, even though it is a process designed to heal your body.
The top five causes of inflammation
Starting from the top with the simplest, but most common: The diet.
It’s not any ordinary diet, it’s not a particular food or drink that you might consume. Nothing like that, no. When we talk about diet causing inflammation, we’re focusing on something that is known as “Advanced Glycation End products”, or “AGEs”. More commonly, you may have heard them under the name “Glycotoxins”. These are, broadly speaking, the non-enzymatic breakdown of proteins and sugars (and sometimes lipids).
When we consume food, there are two ways our body breaks that food down. Enzymatic and non-enzymatic breakdown. Non-enzymatic breakdown is the denaturing of the food we’ve taken in, at the molecular level. This process may happen naturally, but the problem is when it doesn’t happen naturally, meaning that non-enzymatic breakdown of food is not always a good thing. The process of repeatedly heating food (especially with processed foods) increases the presence of AGEs, through something called the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is basically a series of chemical reactions that happen when you cook food (mainly involving the reaction of sugar and protein or sugar and fat). It is responsible for making food tasty. That brown crisp tonality of your perfectly cooked steak? Maillard reaction. The lovely brown tone of those cupcakes you baked or your toast in the morning? Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is extensively used in cooking to provide us with the delicious flavours we have learned to crave.
However, the Maillard reaction leads to the increase of AGEs in the food. These AGEs trigger inflammation in many ways. Without delving too deep into the specifics, let’s broadly say that when ingested, these glycation end products produce a response that leads the body to react with the molecules of the food ingested. For lack of a better way to put it, let’s say that the AGEs lead to proteins around your body becoming “trapped”. These AGEs are trapping proteins throughout your body, and when they’re trapped, it triggers a low-grade white blood cell immune response throughout your entire body.
To combat this, you should attempt to cook foods at a lower heat, avoid combining sugars with proteins and sugars with fats, and opt for food that has been flash frozen, where possible. Processed foods are constantly heated, re-heated and topped up with starches, molecules and hydrogenated compounds until they are consumed. It is these constant changes that make processed food so harmful to us.
Second on our list: Decrease the size of your fat cells.
This may sound strange, but you should know that the body finds it more efficient to grow existing fat cells rather than producing new ones all the time. The simplest way to do this is to lose body fat. Fat is one of the biggest drivers of inflammation in our bodies, creating a cycle of inflammation and healing.
Here is how it works: fat cells are constantly producing hormones. It produces inflammatory hormones as well as anti-inflammatory hormones. Normally these are in balance and cancel each other out, therefore not generating an inflammatory response. However, when the person starts accumulating fat, those fat cells start growing and becoming bloated or engorged, and this leads them to produce more of the wrong (inflammatory) hormone. This leads to a series of processes that eventually trigger a bunch of inflammatory components such as white blood cells, macrophages and interleukins. These are all directed to the site of that fat cell. Naturally, millions of fat cells will be producing the same inflammatory response and will trigger inflammation across the body. It should be said that as a part of this inflammatory response produced by fat cells, there is an up-regulation of a compound in the body known as jnk1, and this up-regulation leads to insulin resistance, which leads to higher blood sugar levels which in turn leads to more cellular damage, more organ damage and more inflammation. So basically, your body goes into overdrive mode and starts attacking everything it can because it can’t understand what it’s supposed to be doing.
So, therefore, becoming leaner is a great way to combat inflammation in the body.
Third: Gut health.
As the good bacteria in your gut starts going away and you have a higher presence of bad bacteria, the so-called gram-negative bacteria, there is an increase in what are known as lipopolysaccharides. These lipopolysaccharides are essentially intestinal toxins and these eventually get picked up by what are called chylomicrons. These chylomicrons have the job of delivering fat from the intestinal tract to the rest of the body so it can be utilised. The problem is that in this process, the lipopolysaccharide hitches a ride on the chylomicrons into the liver, which means, the unhealthier our gut is, the more of these lipopolysaccharides will end up in the liver. Normally the liver can deal with them, but if the volume of lipopolysaccharides increases too much they will end up not being processed by the liver and will remain in the blood stream, triggering an inflammatory response from the white blood cells.
To control our gut health, we should consume the right prebiotic fibres, the right probiotics, staying away from artificial sweeteners that can kill gut bacteria and ensuring that we’re managing stress as best as we can. Doing all of these things will keep our guts in order.
Number four: Controlling chronic stress.
When we are stressed, we trigger a response of adrenaline, noradrenaline and therefore cortisol. In the short term, a one-off stressful situation won’t have major consequences, the issue happens when we get chronically stressed. Our brains are extremely developed and it can adapt to performing under extreme conditions. Stress is interpreted by the brain as a risky situation, where the individual could be in danger. While life’s stresses today are not generally about physical risk, our emotions (in particular fear) are interpreted by the brain as such. The adrenaline pumped into the body is a response to heighten focus and increase physical response if necessary.
However, the brain will soon adapt to operating in that environment of stress and we will be shielded from “feeling” the stress. The situation in the body is different though. While the brain will shut down the perception of being stressed, the body does not adapt to it and will be constantly dealing with all the outcome of stress.
Prolonged stress results in the build-up of noradrenaline and cortisol in the body, which leads to many harmful things including a self-defence response in the form of inflammation. Because of this, stress has been called the silent killer, where the body suffers while we are unaware of it.
There is no magic hack to combat this. What needs to be done is anything possible to combat stress. Meditation, change of lifestyle, change of jobs and mostly, change of mindset, on how we look at problems.
Last, the part everyone hates talking about: Sleep.
You don’t need to get eight hours of sleep a night. The body’s sweet spot for sleep is actually about seven hours. Lack of proper sleep will affect something called the glymphatic system. The glymphatic system is kind of a waste disposal pathway for the central nervous system. It allows the cerebral spinal fluid to do its job of flushing out toxins from the brain. This flushing is done by specific cells in that fluid that expand and contract as needed. When we are stressed or lack sleep those cells don’t contract, and the flushing out mechanism is compromised because they are not able to absorb toxins such as the beta amyloid plaques. An accumulation of beta amyloid plaques in the brain have been strongly linked with Alzheimer’s disease. To lesser degree, stress and not being able to think clearly (brain fog) have also been linked to the accumulation of these toxins. All of these lead to an inflammatory response.
If you take all of the above together, you are looking at a pretty grim and serious picture. Inflammation is something that is not talked about so much and yet, almost every disease has been linked somehow to inflammation.
So, the path to health necessarily goes through controlling the inflammation in your body. This will enable you to reap the most benefits out of your energy, vitality and body.