Inflammation and You

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 fibro-blasts grow into the cut and seal it. The whole process from start to finish is a marvelous, symphonic healing event.

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 perpetuates itself far 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 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, we are not 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, such as tumor necrosis factor alpha and interleukin-6, can hang around even after the injury event has long since healed. For unknown reasons, the body continues to produce cytokines causing the once protective inflammation to become 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 High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hs-CRP) blood test. This relatively inexpensive test measures a by product of interleukin-6. Results can “quantify” unhealthy inflammation, alerting you to the presence of a correctable dysfunction in the body. In a recently published New England Journal of Medicine article, it was reported that people with elevated CRP are three times as likely to die from sudden heart attack as those without elevated CRP.

These findings demonstrate that inflammation is an important component of heart disease and arteriosclerosis (vascular disease). Daily aspirin, in addition to reducing platelet stickiness and the likelihood of artery-plugging clots, may reduce the inflammatory component of arteriosclerosis. Having established that unhealthy inflammation is caused by excessive proinflammatory regulators, we are still left with the nagging question: why do we have excessive pro-inflammatory regulators?

Evidence is now accumulating that a major change in the human diet may be silently shifting our immune systems into a dangerous pro-inflammatory state. In 1985, a landmark article was published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. S. Boyd Eaton. The article 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 modern standards, has definite advantages over later 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.

DIET                                                                            ANCIENT                               AGRICULTURAL                                      INDUSTRIAL                                    FAST FOOD
% WHOLENESS                                                          100%                                               90%                                                            65%                                                      35%

OMEGA 6:                                                                        1:1                                                  5:1                                                               10:1                                                      20:1

GLYCEMIC INDEX                                                   VERY LOW                                MEDIUM                                                      HIGH                                           VERY HIGH
*ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity)

  • Wholeness: As you can see, % wholeness has progressively dropped as civilization has advanced.  As wholeness drops, nutrient density drops.  A kind of hidden malnutrition develops progressively.
  • Omega 6: Omega 3 Ratio: This rising omega 6:3 ratio simply means that our intake of omega 3 essential fatty acids, which is anti-inflammatory in nature, has dropped in favor of rising intake of omega 6, which is pro-inflammatory in nature.  The optimal ratio would be 5:1.
  • Glycemic index: The glycemic index is a marker of the rate at which carbohydrates are absorbed.  High glycemic index foods act 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 blood pressure all stem from excessive high glycemic index foods.
  • ORAC Score: 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 trend towards a more and more severe pro-inflammatory state?
Jack Challem, who happens to be our May Lunch & Lecture speaker, has developed fourteen anti-inflammatory dietary principles that can reverse this dangerous tide.

1. Eat a variety of fresh and whole foods.
2. Eat more fish, especially cold water 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 intake of dairy products.
12. Snack on nuts and seeds.
13. When thirsty, drink water.
14. When possible, eat organically raised foods.

Even adopting just one or two of these dietary principles will go a long way in reducing your
personal CRP score and your risk of future degenerative illness.