10 Jul The Connection Between Inflammation and Autoimmunity
In the functional medicine realm, there are few buzzwords as infamous as inflammation. Today, we’re bombarded with anti-inflammatory quick fixes and pills to reduce chronic inflammation. But, fact of the matter is, even in a chronically inflamed society, many don’t even know why we’re inflamed. So, is inflammation a legitimate health concern? How do we know if our body is actually inflamed? Is there a connection between inflammation and autoimmunity? And, if it is, what can we do about it?
What is Inflammation?
Fundamentally, inflammation can be divided into two primary categories: acute and chronic.
Acute inflammation is an immediate and sudden onset. In the case of acute inflammation, the four cardinal signs of inflammation will likely appear: redness (rubor), heat (calor), swelling (tumor), and pain (dolor). Acute inflammation often occurs in response to injury or infection (ie. a broken leg or infected cut).
On the other hand, chronic inflammation is an entirely different beast. Chronic inflammation builds up over time. Often, we don’t even notice inflammation is increasing until it becomes severe enough over the span of months or even years. Chronic inflammation is increasing in our world, today, and some would even consider it a pandemic of its own!
That said, inflammation is not inherently bad or dangerous. The primary role of inflammation is to protect the body from pathogens or injury, a very necessary role. However, when inflammation is excessive or uncontrolled, especially subclinical and chronic, it can cause more harm than good.
What Causes Inflammation?
Given the severity and commonality of chronic inflammation, there are many factors working against us. Unknowingly, we’re surrounded by inflammatory triggers in our day-to-day lives. Some of the most common causes of inflammation include:
- Processed foods
- Poor sleep
- Chronic stress
- Emotional trauma
- Heavy metals
- Negative mindset
Together, these factors create a nasty recipe for inflammation. Until we identify and address the inflammatory factors in our life, chronic inflammation can run rampant, as we see frequently today.
Common Symptoms of Inflammation
In a world that is arguably “excessively inflamed,” most are completely unaware of their inflammation levels, making it hard to reverse the process. However, these are the most telling signs of chronic inflammation to pay attention to:
- Weight gain
- Brain fog
- Joint pain
- Digestive issues
- Excessive mucus production
- Hormonal imbalances
- Skin problems
- Metabolic disease
- High cholesterol
- Depression or anxiety
Foundationally, inflammation is the root of all chronic illness. Meaning, most physical or emotional symptoms can directly point back to rampant inflammation.
The Connection Between Inflammation and Autoimmunity
If chronic inflammation is the root of all chronic illness, there is a direct connection between inflammation and autoimmunity. When inflammation is present, the immune system is activated in response to stress. If the immune system is unregulated (ie. overactive or underactive), disease thrives.
In the case of autoimmunity, we must look at a key player in the immune system: cytokines. Cytokines are immune molecules that mediate and regulate immunity and inflammation. There are 2 types: Pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines and they perform a beautiful dance to maintain balance and regulate the immune system. If this balance gets out of whack, pro-inflammatory cytokines can take over, leading to an excessive immune response (AKA autoimmunity).
Interestingly, autoimmunity can be caused or triggered by physical factors, as well as emotional ones. The mind-body connection is complex and intricate. Just as external stressors, like food, toxins, and exercise, create inflammation, so do emotional stressors. This field of study is called psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). For this reason, managing your mental health is just as critical as your physical health. Inflammation can affect the whole body, from head-to-toe.
How to Reduce Inflammation and Autoimmunity
Before pursuing treatment for inflammation, it’s important to work with a healthcare professional to assess your health status. If inflammation is a concern, be sure to ask for the following lab tests to be done:
- WBCs and differential
- Reverse T3
These blood markers identify chronic inflammation within the body and point to specific imbalances to correct.
To naturally reduce and reverse chronic inflammation and its effects, it’s important to first look at your diet, lifestyle and MindBody health. The goal is to support the body’s ability to move into a parasympathetic state (when the body rests and digests). Start by implementing these simple changes to effectively reduce inflammation:
- Diet- Eat more anti-inflammatory foods, like organic berries, green foods (broccoli, kale, green tea), fatty fish, turmeric, and dark chocolate. Simultaneously, reduce inflammatory foods, such as fried foods, processed foods, white sugar, and excess alcohol and caffeine.
- Bodywork – Chiropractic adjustments have been proven to reduce inflammatory cytokines. Other modalities such as gentle massage, lymphatic drainage and energy work have also been beneficial for people. Note: body work should be utilized in a gentle and relaxing way. Intense methods can trigger a cascade of inflammation, eliciting an unwanted response.
- Mind-Body Practices– Several mind-body approaches can significantly reduce inflammation, including: meditation, laughter, gratitude, trauma work, emotional healing, infrared sauna and red light therapy.
- Movement- In moderate amounts, gentle movement and exercise can reduce inflammation. Similarly to body work, intense exercise can actually create inflammation and do more harm than good. In a highly inflamed state, opt for slow walks or yin yoga. Bonus: perform your daily movement outside or in nature.
- Nature Time – Earthing or grounding has been shown to reduce inflammation. The simplest way to practice this is spending 15-20 minutes a day with your feet/body touching the earth! Take off your shoes and connect your feet with grass, dirt or sand! The scientific explanation around this involves allowing negatively charged electrons (antioxidants) from the Earth to enter the body and neutralize positively charged areas (free radicals) at the sites of inflammation.
- Supplements- With permission from your healthcare practitioner, supplements can be very effective in reducing inflammation. Specifically: polyphenols, resveratrol, turmeric, boswellia, frankincense, and fish oils.
- Essential Oils – A 2010 study concluded that the following essential oils had effective anti-inflammatory properties: thyme, clove, rose, eucalyptus, fennel and bergamot.
There’s no doubt these days that many people have inflammation running wild. The good news is that your lifestyle and choices can reverse and balance excessive inflammation. How we live our lives, process our thoughts, fuel our bodies, and more all have the power to promote or hinder inflammation. The power is within you!
For expert and custom guidance on reducing inflammation in your body, apply to work with me, here!