Unhealthy Inflammation

By Ron Hunninghake, M.D.

When we cut ourselves, we expect the cut to heal. This is due to a finely orchestrated sequence of events called “inflammation.” Pain, swelling, and redness are the cardinal signs of inflammation. With the injury, cytokines (cell signaling proteins) are released to tell the body where the problem is and that immediate attention is needed. White blood cells migrate through the blood vessels. Invading germs are detected and engulfed. Dead skin cells are scavenged away. New fibroblasts grow in and seal the cut. The whole process from start to finish is a marvelous, symphonic healing event.

Research suggests that the very process of aging itself may involve unhealthy inflammation.

Healthy inflammation is not only desirable, it is essential to our survival. It is a localized, visible phenomenon that ends when the injury is healed. However, science is beginning to alert us to a more sinister, dark side of inflammation. This “unhealthy inflammation” is silent and systemic; it self perpetuates way beyond the triggering injury event. Unhealthy inflammation appears to actually speed up wear and tear on vital organs. Many scientists now believe it underlies accelerated aging and degenerative organ decline.

Unhealthy inflammation sets the stage for wear and tear osteoarthritis, allergic rhinitis, gastritis, colitis, chronic dermatitis, osteoporosis, arteriosclerosis (vascular disease leading to heart attack and stroke), Alzheimer’s, and even some cancers. We associate many of these chronic illnesses with aging. Research suggests that the very process of aging itself may involve unhealthy inflammation. And yet, not everyone ages at the same rate. Even though we are all exposed to the environmental factors that trigger inflammation, not everyone is affected in the same way. Not everyone gets allergic rhinitis or chronic dermatitis. What then predisposes one and not another to unhealthy inflammation?

Cytokines! Remember, these are the cell-signaling proteins that activate macrophages and other immune cells. These cytokines are highly pro-inflammatory. Rheumatologists report that cytokines like tumor necrosis factor alpha and interleukin-6 can hang around even after the injury event has long healed. For unknown reasons, the body continues to produce cytokines; the once
protective inflammation becomes destructive. Unfortunately, this often happens in a silent, hidden way. By the time it is discovered, major damage has already occurred. A good screening test to uncover the presence of renegade cytokines is the C-Reactive Protein (CRP) blood test. This highly sensitive, relatively inexpensive test measures a by-product of interleukin-6. This then can “quantify” unhealthy inflammation, alerting the co-learner to the presence of a correctable dysfunction in the body.

In a recently published New England Journal of Medicine article, it was found that people with elevated CRP are three times as likely to die from sudden heart attack than controls.  This demonstrates that heart and vascular disease have a significant component of inflammation. Daily aspirin, in addition to reducing platelet stickiness and the likelihood of artery plugging clots, may also reduce the inflammatory component of arteriosclerosis (vascular disease).

Having established that unhealthy inflammation is caused by excessive pro-inflammatory regulators, we are still left with the nagging question: Why do we have excessive pro-inflammatory regulators? Evidence is now accumulating that major shifts in the human diet may be silently shifting our immune systems into a dangerous pro-inflammatory state. In 1985, another landmark article in The New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. S. Boyd Eaton presented a vast body of anthropologic and archeological evidence that characterized the composition of our ancestral diet, which I will refer to as the Ancient Diet. This diet, when analyzed by modem standards, has definite advantages over subsequent diets adopted by the human race. In the following chart, I have summarized these nutritional advantages, and how major shifts in our civilization have undermined these advantages.

Diets                                     Ancient                            Agricultural                     Industrial                   Fast Food
% Wholeness                         100%                                   90%                                   65%                              35%
Omega 6:3                              1 :1                                       5:1                                     10:1                               20:1
Glycemic Index                Very low                              Medium                              High                         Very high
ORAC Score                        High                                  Medium                               Low                          Very low

As you can see, % wholeness has progressively dropped as civilization has “advanced.” As wholeness drops, nutrient density drops.  A kind of hidden malnutrition progressively occurs.  The rising omega 6:3 ratio simply means that our intake of omega 3 essential fatty acids, anti-inflammatory in nature, has dropped in favor of rising omega 6 intakes, pro-inflammatory in nature.  The glycemic index is a marker of the rate at which carbohydrates are absorbed.  High glycemic foods act just like sugar and put a tremendous strain on the pancreas. Syndrome X, hyperlipidemia, obesity, type II diabetes, and high blood pressure all stem from excessive high glycemic foods.  The ORAC score was introduced by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture as a measure of the antioxidant properties of certain foods. As fruit and veggie intake goes down, so does the ORAC score.  Part of a pro-inflammatory matrix includes poor control of free radical damage in the body.

So what are we to do to stop this huge trend towards a more and more severe pro-inflammatory state? Fourteen anti-inflammatory dietary principles have been developed by Jack Challem, the author of the upcoming book on stemming the rising tide of inflammation.  Even adopting just one or two will go a long way in reducing your personal CRP score and in reducing your risk of future degenerative illness.

1. Eat a variety of fresh and whole foods
2. Eat more fish, especially coldwater varieties
3. Eat grass-fed lean meats and game meats
4. Eat a lot of colorful vegetables
5. Use spices and herbs to flavor your foods
6. Use olive oil as your primary cooking oil
7. Identify and avoid food allergens
8. Avoid conventional vegetable cooking oils
9. Avoid or limit intake of all refined sugars
10. Avoid or limit intake of refined grains
11. Limit your intake of dairy products
12. Snack on nuts and seeds
13. When thirsty, drink water
14. When possible, eat organically raised foods