The silent epidemic that’s making America sick
It’s not something you can see or feel, yet it can quietly simmer away inside your body for years. When it does eventually appear, you probably won’t make the connection between this insidious condition and the diagnoses of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, or heart disease. The “it” contributing to all of these diseases is inflammation—the body’s natural response against injury and infection. When the body’s inflammatory response functions properly, it helps to heal an injury or an infection. But if you are suffering from chronic inflammation, you are likely getting too much of a good thing. Here’s why: Ongoing low-level inflammation upsets the normal checks and balances of your immune response. So instead of helping to heal your body, it does just the opposite. Over time, this chronic inflammation can lead to a litany of dangerous, sometimes deadly diseases. It’s so serious that the National Institutes of Health notes that three out of every five deaths worldwide is due to a disease linked to chronic inflammation.
An Epidemic of Eicosanoids
How do low levels of inflammation potentially inflict such damage? It all starts with immune system chemicals called eicosanoids. Eicosanoids control inflammation—both the kind you can see and the kind you can’t. Some trigger inflammation, others extinguish it. If you sprain your ankle, pro-inflammatory eicosanoids produce swelling, redness, heat, and pain. These are visible signs that your immune system is hard at work healing the injury. Once the crisis is over, anti-inflammatory eicosanoids kick in and reduce the discomfort. The trouble starts when the pro-inflammatory eicosanoids don’t completely subside, causing the body to go into a state of chronic low-level inflammation.
The COX Conundrum
Eicosanoids aren’t the only chemicals your body makes that contribute to chronic inflammation. Cyclooxygenase-2, or COX-2, is an enzyme that acts to speed up the production of certain chemical messengers called prostaglandins that play a key role in promoting inflammation. That can be a good thing when you’re sick or injured, and normally this inflammation wanes once you’ve recovered. But when it doesn’t, this continuing flood of prostaglandins contributes to ongoing inflammation that can damage cells and lead to a host of inflammatory health conditions.
Food for Thought
The compounds your body makes aren’t the only culprits behind rampant inflammation. Another factor contributing to the inflammation crisis is modern society’s addiction to ultra-processed food. The large amounts of refined sugar and carbohydrates found in fast food, junk food, and convenience food promote chronic inflammation by causing a rapid rise in your blood sugar levels. In response, your body releases a surge of insulin to help process this sugar spike. The problem is, this blood sugar-lowering action also increases inflammation.
But what you eat isn’t the only lifestyle factor that fosters chronic inflammation. Smoking, overindulging in alcohol, and dealing with ongoing stress can also stoke the internal fires of inflammation. Over time, this low-level systemic inflammation contributes to a variety of sometimes surprising health conditions.
The Seven Faces of Inflammation
A growing number of studies have linked low-level inflammation to a host of chronic conditions. Some are familiar, especially those diseases ending in “itis” like arthritis, dermatitis, or gastritis. Inflammation’s role in other chronic illnesses has only recently been discovered. Here’s a quick overview of what science now knows about the part inflammation plays in seven of the most prevalent diseases.
- Alzheimer’s disease is becoming more common as Baby Boomers reach their golden years. Currently 5.5 million people suffer from this memory-robbing disease. That figure is estimated to nearly triple by 2050. Two of the primary elements of the disease are the presence of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary (tau) But inflammation may also play an important role. Some researchers believe that the brain has its own type of immunity made up of a special immune cells known as microglia cells. When these immune soldier cells encounter amyloid plaques, they see them as foreign invaders and attack them just as they would an infection. But unlike a virus that is vanquished, these plaques remain as a persistent irritant. During the ensuing battle, inflammatory chemicals called cytokines are released. Healthy brain cells can be caught in the friendly fire, and the collateral damage may include injury to healthy cells as well as the stepped-up production of even more toxic amyloid plaques that accelerate the deterioration of the brain.
- Cancer is on the rise. In fact, cases are projected to increase by as much as 49 percent over the next 25 years. One reason may be the uptick in chronic inflammation. Laboratory studies show that low-level inflammation contributes to the creation of reactive oxygen species, a type of free radical that damages the DNA in your cells and triggers genetic mutations that can increase the risk of cancer by creating an environment that is conducive to its development. Although research is ongoing, inflammation has already been shown to play a distinct role in the development of colorectal, liver, and pancreatic cancers.
- Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. For decades, the medical community believed that unhealthy cholesterol levels were the prime culprit for clogged arteries and heart attacks. But new evidence clearly shows that inflammation works hand in hand with oxidized LDL (bad) cholesterol to damage the inner lining of arteries. Over time, this damage fosters the formation and accumulation of arterial plaque, which creates a condition known as atherosclerosis. Chronic inflammation also weakens existing plaque, making it more vulnerable to bursting and causing a dangerous blockage that may lead to a heart attack or stroke.
- Depression may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to inflammation, but emerging studies suggest that chronic, low-grade inflammation may actually be one of the major physiological causes of depression and depression-like symptoms. In a meta-analysis of 24 studies, researchers found that people with major depression had significantly higher concentrations of the inflammatory markers TNF-α and IL-6 compared to healthy controls. What’s more, these elevated inflammatory markers were found among patients who didn’t respond to antidepressants more often than among those who got better with treatment. Studies are also uncovering evidence that inflammation is tied to appetite, sleep, and cognitive problems common in those with depression.
- Diabetes affects 29 million Americans, or 1 in every 10 adults.While high blood sugar levels are a well-known factor in the disease, several large observational studies show that people with high C-reactive protein (CRP) scores—a well-known marker of inflammation—are also more likely to develop insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. Researchers have found that people who ultimately develop diabetes also have high levels of inflammatory immune system molecules, including TNF-α. But instead of healing, TNF-α increases the liver’s production of glucose and triglycerides. It also interferes with insulin’s ability to shuttle blood sugar into cells and to tamp down inflammation. This may actually speed the development of full-fledged type 2 diabetes.
- Obesity is a growing problem in America, with two-thirds of the population currently falling into either the overweight or obese category. This obesity crisis has been linked to a number of inflammatory diseases, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, some types of cancer, osteoarthritis, and type 2 diabetes. Fat cells that accumulate in and around the abdomen—known as abdominal obesity—are especially dangerous because they release substances that generate chronic inflammation, which perpetuates these conditions.
- Osteoarthritis (OA) affects approximately 70 percent of Americans over the age of 45. Traditionally thought of as a degenerative disease caused by wear and tear, OA has now been shown to be effected by inflammation. This is because when cartilage is damaged, the immune response kicks in, triggering inflammation of the joint lining. According to one review in Nature Reviews Rheumatology, this type of inflammation is different than the inflammation involved in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other autoimmune diseases. Studies show that, unlike RA, the inflammation involved in OA is chronic and low grade.
People often turn to over-the-counter NSAIDs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen, to ease the pain caused by inflammation. Known as COX-2 inhibitors, these drugs are very good at what they do. Yet, long-term use can result in internal bleeding, gastrointestinal damage, or even a cardiovascular event like a heart attack. Taken in large quantities they may even contribute to colon, kidney, or liver damage. A report in The American Journal of Medicine revealed that more than 107,000 people are hospitalized each year due to complications from NSAID use. Instead, opt for botanicals such as andrographis, curcumin, or grape seed extract. Taken singly or in combination, they are a safe and effective way to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain.