My 13th book, Best Future You, is out!
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from the book and blogging frequently about the main concept in the book – which is the idea of harnessing your body’s internal cellular biochemistry to achieve true balance in body, mind, and spirit – and in doing so, help you to become your “Best Future You” in terms of how you look, how you feel, and how you perform on every level.
Chapter 5 – Pillars of Health
Inflammation – The World on Fire
The word “inflammation” is derived from the Latin “inflammare”—meaning to “set on fire”—because an injury or infection is typically red, warm, and painful. Think of pain and inflammation as different sides of the same coin – they are driven by different—but related—biochemical factors. Pain and inflammation are normal body processes. Without them, you would literally not be able to survive for very long. Pain is a signal to your body that damage is occurring, and you need to stop doing whatever is causing that damage. Inflammation is a process controlled by the immune system that protects your body from invading bacteria and viruses, but this process also helps regulate heart function, blood flow, and many vital functions. Maintaining a normal balance of pain signals and inflammation is critical to good health and balancing cellular stress.
When this balance becomes disrupted, you experience more inflammation and increased pain along with less flexibility and reduced mobility. When you have too much inflammation, this process—which is supposed to be protecting you—actually causes more and more damage. For example, an overactive inflammatory response is known to stimulate bone breakdown (leading to osteoporosis), interfere with cartilage repair (leading to a worsening of arthritis), and accelerate muscle breakdown (leading to flare-ups in fibromyalgia). Inflammation is also involved in emotional balance and brain function (depression and anxiety). So when your body experiences too much inflammation, you simply don’t feel happy. Instead you feel mentally exhausted and burned out—obviously, the opposite of vigor.
Your doctor may also give your unbalanced inflammation another kind of label—one that ends in “-itis.” In medical terminology, “-itis” is used to denote inflammation. Therefore, you may have arthritis (inflammation of the joint—“arthros” is Latin for joint), tendonitis (inflammation of the tendon), or fasciitis (inflammation of the fascia—the tough layer of connective tissue over muscles, tendons, and ligaments that can become inflamed following excessive exercise or with lower-back pain and fibromyalgia).
Normal Versus Chronic Inflammation
The normal process of inflammation helps dismantle and recycle older tissues that have become damaged or worn out or that simply need repair. This process of normal healthy inflammation is called “turnover,” and it occurs when older tissue is replaced with newer tissue. Before the age of thirty or so, this normal turnover process tends to be perfectly balanced—for every bit of tissue that is damaged and removed, another similar (or greater) bit is put in its place. This means that, under ordinary circumstances, you’re always making your tissue stronger and more resilient. After about age thirty, however, the turnover process becomes somewhat less efficient year after year – partly due to a progressive age-related reduction in our body’s ability to activate CDR pathways. This causes a very slight loss of healthy tissue—you continue to break down and to remove some tissue, but the amount of healthy tissue added back is just a little bit less than it should be. As you age, the turnover process becomes less and less efficient, and your body’s ability to heal itself from injury is reduced. This imbalance in tissue turnover and the “normal inflammation” process is the primary cause of the loss of flexibility, vigor, and the various “-itis” diseases that people tend to encounter as they get older.
Let’s keep in mind that not all inflammation is bad. As you’ve just learned, inflammation is part of the normal healing and turnover process for any tissue. But when you experience too much inflammation, things go awry – and this state of “too much” inflammation is referred to as “chronic inflammation.” With chronic inflammation, healing is suppressed, and tissue destruction is accelerated. Your body simply cannot heal itself or stop the damage when inflammation gets out of control. To illustrate this point, think about the ocean crashing against a protective seawall. The seawall represents your tissues, and the ocean is your inflammatory process. Over time, that wall will become broken and weakened by the crashing waves and will need to be repaired to return to optimal functioning. If the pace of repair fails to keep up with the pace of destruction, then the seawall fails, and the ocean comes rushing in (leading to tissue destruction and dysfunction). You need to maintain the integrity of the seawall (your tissue) by keeping up with repair and maintenance—but you can’t do that if the ocean is continually crashing down on you.
Another way to think of chronic inflammation as you would a fire in an apartment building. Let’s say you live in a twenty-story apartment building, which represents your body. Then, a fire (inflammation) breaks out on the fifteenth floor, causing destruction (tissue damage) to the entire floor. But your penthouse apartment on the twentieth floor is fine. To put out the fire, you call in the firefighters (immune cells), which may cause a bit more damage by tearing down some walls and spraying water (cytokines, hormone-like signaling molecules secreted by immune system cells), all in an effort to solve the bigger problem of putting out the fire. Let’s now say that the fifteenth floor is a complete loss, while other floors suffer some repairable damage (water damage on the fourteenth floor and smoke damage on the sixteenth floor). The repair process begins on all three floors, with carpenters, painters, and other “builders” brought in to repair the damage. On floors fourteen and sixteen, where the damage is less severe, the repair process might be complete within a few weeks, but on the fifteenth floor, where the fire was concentrated and the damage was most severe, the repair process may take a year.
Your body also has an entire team of “builder” cells in each and every tissue. In cartilage these “builders” are called chondrocytes, in bone they are called osteoblasts, in muscles they are myocytes, in skin they are keratinocytes, and in some other tissues they are fibroblasts—the list goes on and on – and they all respond to cellular stress through the CDR pathway. In your own tissues, you can have the equivalent of a raging fire and firefighting (tissue damage and inflammation). But if you’re not able to shut off this process—that is, if your level of inflammation is thrown off by something—then your body is in a continual state of destruction and pain. You’ll never be able to get to the rebuilding and repair stages unless you can shut off this process of chronic inflammation. A number of mechanisms are in place to shut down the process of inflammation, including the naturally short half-life of cytokines and other inflammatory molecules and the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines (with such names as TGF-beta and IL-10). Unfortunately, immune-system cells can remain in a state of chronic inflammation if the “cell-damage” signals keep coming from free-radical damage (leading to oxidation) and from cortisol-induced tissue breakdown (leading to allocation – covered later in this chapter); or if signals to “shut down” the inflammatory process are not “heard” by target cells (as in the case of cells damaged by glycation, a subject covered in next section).
Unfortunately, chronic inflammation is not confined to the tissue in which it starts. Cytokines—such as those labeled IL-6, IL-8, and TNF-alpha—are able to leave the original site of inflammation. They can then travel in the blood to spread inflammatory signals through the blood vessels and into every tissue in the body (leading to metabolic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, and depression, and structural/damage diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and arthritis). Because most of the cytokine molecules are produced by immune-system cells (specifically by macrophages, neutrophils, and NK cells of the innate immune system), numerous drug companies attempt to control chronic inflammation by suppressing immune function. The problem, of course, is that wholesale suppression of immune function also limits your body’s ability to protect you from actual pathogens—so you’re “protected” from chronic inflammation but become more susceptible to infections and certain cancers. Not a great trade-off!
Keep in mind that the biochemical processes of oxidation and inflammation are inextricably linked—they go hand-in-hand through common immune system pathways. The immune system responds to and creates oxidative “free radicals” and responds to and creates inflammatory cytokines. “Normal” inflammation exists to protect us from invading pathogens (viruses, bacteria, and even uncontrolled cell growth that could lead to cancerous tumors). Sometimes, however, the walling-off and destroying process of the immune system’s inflammatory response doesn’t shut off the way it is supposed to. Immune-system cells, such as macrophages (which fight bacteria), neutrophils (which fight viruses), and natural killer cells (which fight tumors), respond to free radicals as if they were toxins. A small amount of free radical signaling is a “good thing” for immune cells, keeping them vigilant to defend us against “real” pathogens. But when free radical exposure becomes excessive, immune cells release a wide array of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as interleukins (IL-1, IL-6, TNF-alpha), to “wall off” tissues from further free radical damage. Unfortunately, the typical Western lifestyle is a perfect recipe for increasing chronic inflammation, with its high intake of sugar, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fats. That diet, combined with low levels of fiber, infrequent exercise, and sleep deprivation, make it more likely that inflammation becomes too high—and stays that way.
To sum up: The walling-off aspect of the inflammatory process is an ideal response to keep viruses or bacteria from moving into other parts of your body, but free radical–generated inflammation encourages immune cells to fight “yourself” in a vicious cycle of oxidation/inflammation, which ends up creating more problems and eventually leading to a higher state of cellular stress.
Thanks for reading – be sure to tune in for the next installment about “Glycation – Sugar Coated Cellular Dysfunction”
Shawn M Talbott, PhD, CNS, LDN, FACSM, FAIS, FACN
Nutritional Biochemist and Author
–The Secret of Vigor
– How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy
–Killer at Large –
Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat – an award-winning documentary film exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic
–The Immune Miracle
– The All-Natural Approach for Better Health, Increased Energy and Improved Mood (GLH Nutrition, 2012)