Should We Be Worried About Inflammation?

The word is coming up more and more but what does it even mean?!

02.22.17
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Inflammation is one of those things I hear celebrity health advocates (of the Gwyneth Paltrow ilk) reference a lot, but I never really know what they’re talking about. I assume it’s in reference to swollen guts or something, but as with microbiomes and pH balances, my practical knowledge of the topic is lacking. So I tapped Dr. Rupy Aujla, general practitioner and founder of The Doctor’s Kitchen, to get the download. He’s the same doctor who told me probiotics are trendy, yes, but they’re also super important, so I figured he’d have thoughts on inflammation.

What “inflammation” actually means

In the most basic sense, inflammation is a natural process wherein chemical messengers in the body encourage an immune response or a healing process. But the kind we hear about in the new-age health context is less acute than a broken ankle or a swollen cut; it’s more about chronic and pervasive low-level inflammation. Researchers are studying how inflammation affects everything from hip fractures to acid reflux to neurodegenerative diseases — and the conclusions they draw could affect how we treat many major illnesses. Some prominent voices in the wellness community believe that inflammation is at the root of “most diseases.”

“Chronic states of inflammation, whether they be from our environment or the food we eat, can cause a persistent low level of chemical imbalance that may manifest itself in disease. Whether it be blood pressure, anxiety or even diabetes, inflammation theories are knocking about most medical conferences these days,” says Aujla.

Other associated risks

“Everything from immunity problems to hormone disruption,” he says. “There’s certainly more acceptance of inflammation driving metabolic disease (like cardiovascular and endocrine) and more information coming out about its relationship with dementia and mental health problems like low mood and anxiety,” says Aujla.

Why it became “trendy”

In our current climate of obesity, environmental pollutants and high levels of stress, we could probably all do with a little less inflammation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should be chugging green juice or putting powdered mushrooms in our coffee.

“Unfortunately, where there’s a medical paper that claims a trendy sounding mechanism for ill health, the marketers for food products, drinks and retreats have a field day!” he says. “Sometimes I despair that the interesting messages are lost in the hype and chatter of wellness blogs and figures.”

Unsurprisingly, the solution is less pointed: “Incorporating good sleep patterns, a diet focused on varied and colorful plant foods, regular exercise and mindfulness are the only things you really need to be worrying about.”

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Common misconceptions about inflammation

1. For one, he says the idea that it’s something we ought to be thinking about day-to-day is silly. “Despite some affluent people latching onto it as a health fad, inflammation is not something we should consume ourselves with any more than the act of breathing,” says Aujla.

Our organs can and will do a much better job of tracking and caring for this kind of thing. “Your organs are the best anti-inflammatory systems you have. Feed your body the right fuel and it’ll perform all these functions better than any activated charcoal drink.”

2. For two, the idea that all inflammation is bad is wrong. “Exercise is a stressful and inflammation-inducing activity that has a clear benefit. So the goal isn’t to get rid of every ounce of inflammation in our bodies. It’s about balance. We live and breathe in an equilibrium of positive and negative states.”

3. For three, it’s not a thing you have or don’t. “Inflammation can’t be thought of in a binary context,” he says. “It’s not a singular chemical that’s being pumped out from our kidneys for example. It exists in a continuum and involves every cell in the human body.”

But what can I do?

This won’t surprise you; Aujla says just eat healthy stuff. “In general, the most colorful, whole and least-processed sources of plant-based foods are your inflammation-protecting friends. Cabbage is as antioxidant and phytochemical-rich as the most expensive ingredients on the shelf. These foods are bursting with chemicals that beautifully interact with our bodies to keep our homeostatic mechanisms flourishing.”

“Our bodies are incredibly resilient and self-sustaining,” he says. “We have evolved beautiful and complex mechanisms to balance inflammation. Our organs do fantastic jobs of ensuring we thrive on a daily basis.” In essence, a body that’s not affected by inflammation is one that’s simply healthy over a long period of time.

So there you have it. Inflammation is important, yes, but focus on living a healthy lifestyle and you’ll be fine!

Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

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  • Bailey Stark

    Cinnamon is great for inflammation and tastes #yum in coffee.

  • Suzan

    Yes! Thank you, MR, for talking sense!
    Because these kind of medical/diet buzzwords/fads are driving me nuts.

    Maybe you guys could do a similar article about the relation between regular deodorant and breast cancer. I had to tell two of my close (intelligent, aware) friends in the past weeks that there’s no correlation between the two like they thought there was. In the previous decade there has been one study linking them, and this has since been debunked several times, but it still seems to be a reoccurring fear, especially in badly researched articles/blogs online.

    • Suzan

      (Which is, by the way, not to say that I do not advocate organic beauty products, but I think that those should be used not out of fear for cancer!)

  • Lindsay D

    I was curious about this. I have acid reflux and anti-inflammtories (advil) makes it act up? Any insight ?

    • Meg S

      If your acid reflux acts up at night, sleep on your left side. I read it in an article and was skeptical, but it works. I haven’t found a clear explanation why, but it does.

    • Martina

      Ibuprofen (Advil) is a common risk factor for acid reflux, because it can worsen the condition.

      A google search said something called Tylenol could be used instead (I’m not american, so I do not know the brand)

      There’s more information here http://www.webmd.com/heartburn-gerd/guide/common-causes-acid-reflux-disease

    • Mariana

      Hi. I think you are mixing up 2 concepts: acid reflux and inflamation. Advil (Ibuprofen) is an anti-inflamatory but is bad for stomach, that is why you should eat before taking it. For acid reflux the most effect is a gastric protector, eating small quantities of food, redure or cut your intake of coffee, chocolate, pepper, fast food, etc.

  • Hello Doc! Thanks for this thorough piece on Inflammation. Often after having milk, I get acidity and inflammation. Sometime even after having granola or muesli, I feel intense heat building in my tummy. Is that inflammation? What should I be doing in this situation?

    • co-ask, because of the implication that dairy is present in this scenario (yogurt or milk)

    • CM

      This is likely caused by a digestion issue, and sounds to me like overactive digestion. By “inflammation” in your comment do you mean bloating? You could be experiencing acid reflux or IBS, resulting from the milk, and even the sugar in the granola. A lot of people react to casein or lactose in milk. I am an Ayurvedic practitioner, and everything comes back to digestion.

      • I am not sure, I feel some kind of heat building in my stomach after having granola or muesli. I put very little in quality with more fruits in it but still suffer from the same issue. It’s the milk perhaps.

        • Paula Rodio

          Just an idea (disregard if you don’t like the taste of coconut milk) I’ve been using coconut milk (from the can, unsweetened) with a tiny bit of maple syrup in place of dairy (milk or yogurt) and it’s just delicious. No discomfort afterwards!

        • i think my stomach just hates muesly, even though i live them, so i swaped them for oats and feeling a lot better!

  • Julia Hogikyan

    As soon as Gwyneth/Gisele tried to tell me that tomatoes were unhealthy I stopped believing in it lol

    • Meg S

      lol what? Who says that?

      • Julia Hogikyan

        Apparently they can “cause inflammation” lol

        • Meg S

          Whatever. Living causes inflammation. Are they going to tell me to stop doing that too?

    • Mariana

      Word. Tomato causing inflammation is offending to me :p

  • Peter

    See also: “toxins”

  • CM

    A critical aspect in regards to inflammation is WHERE it is occurring in the body. As an immune response, of course inflammation occurs when we exercise because what is happening on a simple level? We are tearing muscle and rebuilding it to be stronger, which is an immune response. And obviously people won’t say to avoid exercise in order to avoid this inflammation. However, inflammation in your gut (causing digestive issues), in your elbow (resulting in tennis elbow), inflammation of the skin (taking the form of a rash) are obviously bad, so we would want a way to mitigate this, right? So eating cooling, non-pitta aggravating foods will help us to reduce and prevent more inflammation.

    I am an Ayurvedic practitioner and inflammation is a topic that has been addressed by Ayurveda for thousands of years. Yes, inflammation is a buzzword right now. But, it is a topic that is fundamental to health, and is comprehensively addressed in a holistic health modality like Ayurveda. While I appreciate the sentiment of this article and the attempt to determine fad vs. fact, it overly simplifies the issue.

  • b_rose96

    Great article! I know a board certified toxicologist and he says that the “american diet” is so heavy with Omega 6’s (proinflammatory) that we get 30 times more than we need!