Updated: Sep 21, 2020
Hi there, I hope you've been enjoying this spectacular autumn! This gingko tree was in full effect a couple of days ago while I was out on a walk in downtown Ithaca. I wish this weather could last a little longer!
Today’s blog is a bit of a continuation of my last post which was all about fats. I’ll be referring to the previous one a bit, so feel free to read that one first so that you can easily follow along with this one. Our topic today is inflammation, which is not only the root of many health problems, but it is also the solution to them. Chronic inflammation, or inflammation that has gone on for too long, is a real problem. When out of control, it has been associated with increased risk of cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia, asthma, alzheimer's disease…. And the list goes on from there.
But what is inflammation?
Our society likes to polarize things as “good” and “bad”, and seeing how chronic inflammation plays a role in such a long list of health problems, we immediately think of it as “bad”. But, inflammation is merely the body’s healing process. Our body must be able to inflame and anti inflame, otherwise it cannot heal. The word inflammation comes from the latin word "inflammare" which means to "set on fire with passion". It makes sense because often when something is inflammed, it feels hot. Think of when you have a fever, the body inflames itself to destroy the microbes that are making you sick. Once the virus or bacteria has been killed, the body will anti-inflame and we start to feel better.
Inflammation is controlled by substances in the body known as prostaglandins. These are hormone like substances that the body cannot live without. They are formed in the body from the fats that we eat. We have prostaglandins that are pro-inflammation (cause inflammation) and anti-inflammation (stop inflammation).
Pro-inflammatory prostaglandins are formed in the body from saturated fats, which is part of the reason why saturated fats have gotten such a bad reputation over the years. Saturated fats are found in red meat, dairy, organ meats, shellfish and tropical oils like coconut or palm. Since they are inflammatory, does that mean we should avoid them? No! Not necessarily. The body uses saturated fat for many functions in the body, as I discussed in my previous blog. Also, remember, we want our body to be able to inflame itself so that it can heal. The real problem is when we are deficient in the anti-inflammatory oils.
Anti-inflammatory prostaglandins are formed in the body from the essential fatty acids which are referred to as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. We call them “essential fatty acids” because it is essential that we obtain them from our diet. Our body cannot produce them on its own. Examples of Omega 6 are sesame oil, peanut oil and evening primrose oil. Examples of Omega 3’s are flaxseed oil, walnut and fish oils.
Essential fatty acid deficiency is epidemic. Some signs and symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiency are:
-Craving fatty/Greasy foods
-Headaches from being in the sun
-Get sunburns easily - also a sign that you are Vitamin D and Calcium deficient
-Dry Flaky Skin
-Red Bumps on the back of your arms
-If you have any of the health conditions associated with chronic inflammation that I listed above.
If you are deficient in essential fatty acids, your body will be unable to anti-inflame. The problem of inflammation getting out of control lies here because many of us are not getting enough of these quality oils in our diet. Why? Because these are very delicate oils that are easily damaged by heat and light if they are not produced or stored correctly. These oils are often used in deep frying methods which damages them even further. Damaged oils become trans fats, which are detrimental to the body and also halt the production of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.
When we eat saturated fats, Omega 3’s and omega 6’s that are from good sources, our liver converts these fats into prostaglandins via a somewhat complicated series of conversions. I’ll spare you the details, but the important thing to remember is that we need a healthy, well functioning liver to convert them well. For many of us, our livers are under quite a lot of stress already from toxin overload from things like pollutants from our food, water and air, consumption of poor quality fats, consuming too much alcohol and sugar as well as lifestyle choices like cigarette smoking. If the liver is already bogged down by any of these factors, it will likely have difficulty producing pro and anti inflammatory prostaglandins.
Fish oils are a great source of Omega 3’s because our body does not need to go through a series of conversions to form the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. In other words, fish oils are pretty much pre-packaged and ready to go, our liver doesn’t have to work hard at all. Interestingly, another factor that can impact your liver’s ability to convert essential fatty acids is your ancestral heritage. If your ancestors lived in the coastal regions of any nation, they likely ate a lot of fish! That means that their bodies relied on the fish supply for the many benefits it provides the body. Since their liver did not have to go through the multiple stages of conversion, it may have gotten weaker in that process and then passed it down to you! On the other hand, if your ancestors lived in a landlocked nation, without access to fish, their liver was likely better at making the conversions and so your liver may be better at making the conversions as a result!
Another factor that disrupts the production of the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins is having too much insulin in the bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps bring blood sugar into our cells to be used for energy. If we eat too much sugar or refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta and sweets, our pancreas will produce lots of insulin in order to handle the rush of sugar. The excess insulin in our bloodstream will prevent the anti-inflammatory process from occurring which can further lead to a vicious cycle of inflammation.
So, as I said before, inflammation is the root of many serious health problems. However, I’d like to focus on one in particular, heart disease. Heart disease has had a large impact on my life, my father had a heart attack during my senior year of highschool and later had a stroke earlier this year. My mother also had a heart attack this spring and needed open heart surgery. The experience of watching her go through the agony of that procedure has had an enormous impact on me and why I want to help others avoid that same fate.
So, what causes heart disease?
Heart disease is caused primarily by inflammation in the walls of our blood vessels that has gone out of control. But why are they inflamed? Many environmental factors will damage the delicate lining of our blood vessels known as endothelium. The most common factors that damage the endothelium are man made chemicals from personal care products, detergents, cleaning products, food preservatives and additives as well as over the counter drugs. Other contributing factors include irritants from smoking, pollution in the air, water and food, pesticides and herbicides, processed foods, infectious microbes, nutritional deficiencies, lack of sunlight, excess stress, sedentary lifestyle and free radicals (Campbell-McBride, 2016).
When any number of these factors enter the bloodstream and cause damage to the endothelium, our body tries to heal it. As we know, our body heals through the process of… Inflammation! Let’s walk through what happens during this process:
First, something from that long list of irritants damages the endothelium of the blood vessels. White blood cells are called to the site of injury, they bring in proteins to wall off the site of damage to prevent further damage. The white blood cells swallow up whatever it was that caused the injury and they also swallow up the debris from the injured tissue (Campbell-McBride, 2016).
The second step is repair. Special cells, collagen and cholesterol arrive at the scene to repair the damaged blood vessel. Cholesterol is a healing agent in the body, it is integral in the healing process of any injury to the body. The so-called “bad” cholesterol, or LDL is actually the protein that transports cholesterol to the site of injury. The “good” cholesterol (HDL) is the protein that transports cholesterol back to the liver. Cholesterol gets a bad reputation because it has arrived at the scene to help, however it has been wrongfully blamed for “clogging” the blood vessel. It would not be there if it weren't for the injury.
In a healthy person who does their best to avoid the various factors that injure the blood vessels, the injury is healed and the inflammatory process ends. However, if someone continuously injures their blood vessels lets say, by smoking every day - that is when the inflammation of the blood vessels becomes chronic and leads to a condition of atherosclerosis. This condition is marked by a never ending cycle of lesions on the blood vessel walls, that are never able to fully heal. These lesions are called atherosclerotic plaque, which is like an ulcer on the wall of the blood vessel that accumulates various debris, dead white blood cells and damaged fats and cholesterol. It is essentially an infected wound in the wall of the blood vessel with a fibrous collagen cap. This cap eventually weakens and may break off, which can lead to thrombosis, heart attack or stroke depending on where in the body it becomes lodged (Campbell-McBride, 2016).
So what are the best ways to support your body to prevent chronic inflammation and the long list of very serious health problems that tag along with it?
1. Avoid deep fried food. Remember, most fried foods are fried in very delicate oils that are damaged by heat like safflower, corn and peanut oils. The heat will damage these oils and create trans fats, which disrupt the anti-inflammatory process and promote inflammation.
2. Avoid eating white refined sugar and flour foods and products. When we eat these foods our pancreas releases insulin. Too much insulin disrupts the production of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins as well. Eating a sweet treat or fruit every now and then is completely fine! However, we want to avoid eating sugary treats and drinks all-day, every-day because that would create a continuous state of elevated insulin which will halt the body’s ability to stop inflammation.
3. Do your best to avoid pollutants to support a healthy liver. We are inundated with toxins from almost every angle and that can feel overwhelming. But every small effort we make to do things like eating organic when possible, using good quality personal care and cleaning products can make a huge difference! We can further support the liver by limiting sugar, deep fried foods, alcohol and by not smoking.
4. Eat foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. Wild caught fish, grass-fed meat and eggs from “free range” chickens are all examples of foods that will naturally have the ideal ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. These foods promote the anti-inflammatory processes.
5. It is important for us to eat a wide variety of healthy fats from whole food sources, refer to my previous blog on fats.
6. Get a good quality fish oil supplement. I recommend the brand Nordic Naturals, which can be found in most grocery stores.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read! As always, please comment or message me with any questions!
Campbell-McBride, N. (2016). Put your heart in your mouth!: what really is heart disease and what can we do to prevent and even reverse it. London: Medinform Publishing.