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.”
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.