Inflammation: A Big Word for Stress

You may be surprised to know that there is one unifying, underlying cause for almost all illnesses we struggle with today, from cancer to the common cold. The cause is called inflammation, which is just really a technical term for the reaction the body has to stress. The body can be stressed by a variety of things we encounter regularly in our modern life: food, physical injury, our own negative thoughts and actions, emotions, the environment, products we put on our bodies, and even the clothes we wear or the furniture in our house. Pretty much anything that our body sees as a potential threat, can increase stress. Every day we are exposed to an incredible amount of these stressors because our environment is full of them that leads to the eventual development of chronic diseases, constant exhaustion, difficulty losing weight, and just feeling terrible overall. First, we must understand why our bodies react in this way, and what triggers this response.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is a naturally occurring process of the immune system, which is actually quite useful if you get injured or sick. It is how the body heals itself. When you have an acute injury, let’s say you cut your finger making dinner, once the bleeding stops you begin to experience swelling, warmth, redness, and immobility in that area over the next few days. That experience is “inflammation” at work, bringing together immune cells to help heal the cut as quickly as possible.

First, the immune system releases compounds called cytokines, which are emergency signalers that tell the rest of the body to send resources to help fix the problem. Blood flow increases in the area, bringing with it white blood cells, hormones, and nutrients to help heal the injury. Most of the symptoms such as swelling, warmth, and redness are related to the increased flow of blood. It feels uncomfortable for a bit, but your body is working hard to prevent infection and repair the skin.

When you have an acute injury, like a cut, this is an amazing and necessary system. The body jumps into action right away and usually the area is completely back to normal within just a few days. After the area is healed, the inflammatory process will be turned off and the immune cells should go into a dormant state, waiting for the next signal from the cytokine cells.

When inflammation goes wrong

In our current environment, due to all of those lifestyle triggers and external stressors previously mentioned, the immune system never has a chance to go completely dormant and turn off. It is constantly being triggered or stressed to react and this is where problems arise. Since most of the triggers are not acute injuries, or “emergencies”, it is usually just reacting all the time at a low level.

The macrophages or white blood cells, which seem to be the key cells involved, begin to produce compounds that lead inflammation system-wide. They do this because when they are signaled by some type of stress, but have nowhere to go, they are not quite sure how to react. They just know something bad is out there, so they begin to respond in the only way they known how to start the inflammatory process.

When the immune cascade is triggered, with no specific target, this in turn cause an enormous amount of chaos. The macrophages begin to attack the body’s own tissues and organs. They are like little bored kids with nothing to do, who end up becoming destructive. Over time, this cumulative, low level destruction leads to the development or susceptibility to almost every known chronic or acute disease.

Known causes of inflammation

Inflammation can be caused by anything that puts stress on the body, which is why at the end of the day inflammation is our body’s reaction to stress. As we mentioned, the stress can be physical, mental, emotional, or environmental. When you are physically injured, inflammation goes up. When you are emotionally hurt, inflammation goes up. When you are exposed to a toxic chemical, inflammation goes up. Your body doesn’t really know how to differentiate its reaction to a physical injury or emotional pain or an environmental toxin, it just knows that things are bad and it needs to react.

Here are some of the most common culprits of inflammation that many of us are commonly exposed to in our day to day life:

Poor Diet

The effect of diet on inflammation is an enormous topic, which we will cover in more detail in future articles. But, most of us are aware of the impact of the Western diet on our health. The Western diet is traditionally filled with processed foods, trans fats, and way too much salt and sugar. Highly processed foods loaded with preservatives, stabilizers, and dyes, are also almost completely devoid of any real nutrition. Eating food with no nutrients, but full of chemicals, is a sure trigger for inflammation as your body has no idea what to do with these fake foods. On the other hand, a whole food diet, based around fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, legumes, nuts, and seeds has been consistently shown to reduce inflammation.            

Alcohol and Smoking

There is no real argument that smoking is bad for you and has been connected to the development of multiple inflammation-related diseases, such as lung cancer and emphysema. Even second hand exposure to smoke can increase inflammation.

Although certain types of alcohol may have some beneficial properties, at the end of the day alcohol is a toxin and therefore highly inflammatory. The breakdown of alcohol releases a toxic compound called acetaldehyde, which promotes inflammation, damages cells, and causes the body to produce free radicals.

Smoking and drinking together seems to exacerbate the problem further. Smoking causes an increase in liver damage caused by alcohol, elevating inflammatory markers in the body.

Drugs

Although street drugs can obviously lead to a significant number of health problems, prescription drugs have the potential to be just as damaging. For example, the acne medication Accutane has been linked to an increase in cytokine production and some studies have shown an increase in inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s for people who have taken this medication. This is just one example of the effect a prescription medication can have on inflammation, but it is likely that other drugs have similar long-term effects.

Environmental toxins

We are exposed to thousands of toxins and chemicals on a daily basis. Some of these come from pollution in our environment, released from factories or cars. But, many are everyday products we use such as plastics, cosmetics, household cleaning products, or pesticides. Unfortunately, this list barely scrapes the surface of the amount of toxic chemicals we are possibly exposed to regularly. Through occupational studies of people who work with toxic chemical we do know there are specific chemicals that can cause health problems and inflammation at very high doses, but most of us will never be exposed at such high levels regularly.

Most of us are exposed to a smaller dose of multiple environmental chemicals at once or a cocktail of toxicity. The sheer number of chemicals in our environment and the interaction between them makes it incredibly challenging to figure out which one or which ones are triggering inflammation and stress. If you want a place to get started with detoxifying your household environment, the Environmental Working Group provides several guides for products to avoid. Their guide to healthy cleaning products can be found here and the list of dirty dozen endocrine disrupting chemicals can be found here.

Viruses and bacteria

The presence of pathogenic viruses and bacteria is an obvious trigger for an immune response because the body will rush in to try to fight any illness.  But, infection with pathogens can also increase inflammation in a more indirect way. There are several theories as to how viruses and bacteria trigger inflammation, one may be that the pathogens carry with them certain proteins that are similar to the body’s own structures. Therefore, the body begins to mount an attack against the similar protein, to fight off the pathogen, and inadvertently also creates an attack against the body itself. Or that in the fight against pathogens, the body accidentally harms itself also, leading to inflammation. These theories have yet to be fully examined, but infection with any type of pathogen does seem to have a long-term effect on health and the development of inflammatory diseases.

Hormonal imbalances

Hormones are chemical signals that tell the body what to do. For example, the hormone insulin signals the body’s cells to take in food after a meal. Hormones are difficult to study since they are chemicals and hard to track, but there is an understanding of a connection between inflammation and hormones. At this time it is unclear if the inflammation causes hormonal imbalance or if the hormonal imbalance leads to inflammation, your classic chicken or egg dilemma. The endocrine system, that controls the hormones, is very susceptible to the damaging effects of inflammation, complicating the ability to determine cause and effect even further.

Women in particular are at greater risk of inflammation caused by hormone imbalances due to estrogen. Too much or unbalanced estrogen levels are believed to trigger or enhance inflammation. High levels of estrogen triggers the immune system to act more aggressively towards perceived threats. Women tend to be diagnosed with inflammatory diseases, such as autoimmune disease, during their reproductive years likely related to fluctuating estrogen levels.

High-intensity exercise

Although exercise is extremely beneficial for overall health and well-being, we have all experienced post-exercise soreness when we push ourselves too hard. That soreness is inflammation. Athletes who engage in very high intensity exercise have been shown to have increased stress-triggered hormones, such as cortisol and corticotropin releasing hormone, both of which are linked to inflammation. Moderate exercise is likely adequate to get the benefits, while keeping inflammation at bay.

Emotional and psychological stress

Inflammation isn’t only triggered by toxins or lifestyle choices, it is also significantly affected by emotions, negative thought patterns, anxiety, and day to day stress. Studies have found that when given a stressful task to complete, inflammatory markers tend to skyrocket because the body believes it is fighting a physical enemy. The first step of the fight or flight response is to increase hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, both of which increase inflammation levels.

The effects of inflammation

As we have mentioned, the problem with inflammation is the fact that when left uncontrolled it causes disease and poor health. Almost every known disease has an inflammatory component and we are learning more and more all the time about how inflammation impacts our health.

We used to believe that heart disease was caused solely by a buildup of fat in the arteries, but it is now believed that heart attacks are actually caused by inflamed blood vessels, not arteries clogged with fat. The inflammation triggers the formation of blood clots, which block the artery leading to heart attacks.

Type 2 Diabetes has a similar story in that inflammatory macrophages have been found in the pancreas of people with this disease, interfering with the proper action of insulin. Reducing the number of these immune cells, by basically lowering inflammation, has been shown to improve blood sugar and insulin function.

Alzheimer’s disease has a link to inflammation. The build-up of proteins in the brain, that lead to the dementia seen in this debilitating disease, triggers an inflammatory response to help get rid of the proteins. The inflammation further damages the delicate neurons in the brain, causing dementia.

Lastly, inflammation has been linked very clearly to rapid aging and age-related disability. A marker of inflammation, called interleukin-6 has been shown to help predict in a relatively healthy population who will become disabled as they age and develop chronic illness.

These conditions just brush the surface of what inflammation may be responsible for in the body. As we begin to learn more about the complexities, it is clear the impact that inflammation has on our overall health. Reducing or eliminating inflammation through diet, moderate exercise, and the reduction of exposure to toxins may help improve health. Although in the end we can’t control every potential source of inflammation in our environment, there is a lot we can do to significantly reduce inflammation and improve health.

At Pressed Vibrance, all of our products are made to be anti-inflammatory and high alkaline – which is the root cause of an ultra wellness and longevity lifestyle. The research and science  behind chronic diseases is non debatable – inflammation is a total killer!

If you want to learn more, keep an eye out for our next article on inflammation, and how to keep it at bay, and reverse it through lifestyle and diet modifications.

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