Inflammation; the Good,the Bad and the Ugly
By Dr. Nabil El-hag, PhD
Pain. It is something most of us studiously try to avoid. But pain is actually an important warning sign that something has gone awry in our bodies. Inflammation is the soldier marching into the battle to quell the source of that pain. It is the body’s protective, healing response to injury, over-use and infection. Ever-vigilant, the immune system is always on the look-out for disease or dysfunction. Once triggered, inflammation jumps into action, ferreting out unwanted invaders, and repairing and healing the body. Therefore pain, a symptom of inflammation, is the key to finding your user manual. Distinguishing between acute inflammation; the pain that can be healed reliably with proper care and chronic inflammation; the lingering diffuse pain or dysfunction that requires a deeper dive into possible causes and solutions, is one of the most important skills you must master to maintain your good health.
Is your skin red and painful after a day in the sun? Do you have a headache after a night on the town with friends? Are your muscles sore after a particularly tough workout at the gym? These are all signs of inflammation. Physical discomfort is the first signal that something is out of balance in your body. Your body is trying to communicate with you so that you can bring it back into equilibrium. Of course, these are only a few examples of the many kinds of inflammatory triggers and most of these examples are acute events that need immediate attention. More water to counter dehydration after a night of drinking, a salve for sun-burned skin, a massage to release toxins and promote lymphatic drainage after a heavy workout are all pro-active ways to accelerate our bodies’ natural healing processes.
The evolution of a competent healing system to deal with injury, infection and man’s folly was necessary for the survival of humankind. “Good” inflammation tackles the body’s immediate priorities and heals, repairs and returns the body to 100 % functionality within a reasonable time frame.
There are five phases in the acute inflammatory healing process:
● A trigger event (bacterial invasion, a cut or other injury, poison,etc)
● Activation. Chemical messengers called cytokines are activated and flood the bloodstream
● Mobilization. The cytokines communicate with the injured cells/body to set in
motion a battle plan, directing white blood cells to the injury site.
● Eradication. The white blood cells arrive at the site and start engulfing germs and cleaning damaged tissues through a process called phagocytosis.
● Repair. Growth chemicals from fibroblast cells are released to repair damaged cells.
The immune system works best when we are young. The body’s healing tools are plentiful and the body is adept at seeking out alternative metabolic pathways when one thing or another is in short supply. As we get older, this changes.
When the equilibrium of healing shifts and the immune process is disrupted or compromised by age we develop chronic inflammation; a newly-identified cause of many health problems including diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, weight gain, auto-immune diseases and even cancer. In this sense, chronic inflammation is “bad”. Often, if you can put out the fire of inflammation that is raging in your body, most of your health problems and pain will be resolved. Chronic inflammation often underlies what are considered lifestyle diseases, like diabetes. Luckily, if we find the right tools soon enough, we can reverse the disease process. Once again, pain can be our friend, if we listen and respond appropriately.
However, all too often, chronic inflammation slowly progresses to low-grade, systemic inflammation, after which a cluster of degenerative disease emerges. This is inflammation at its ugliest. Ultimately, unresolved, long-term, chronic inflammation is the mother of all human suffering and disease.
Why are problems with inflammation associated with aging bodies? First, remember that we are just a massive collection of cells. Each cell mimics all the functions of the human body. They breathe, eat, produce waste and replicate. When you are young and your body is still in the growth phase, your cells replicate quickly. Your blood, which nourishes your cells, is rich with stem cells and your innate repairing mechanisms are working optimally. But eventually we lose this advantage. The vitality and the activities of cells are adversely affected by bad lifestyle choices, emotional and psychological stress, over-use, poor sleep habits, and environmental toxins. With age, the effects of these stressors multiply and accumulate, wearing down the health of the cells. And age, by itself, can impair the vitality of our cellular function. Any and all of these things can disturb that balance of the health of our cells, resulting in cell stress and eventually cell death. Cell stress triggers inflammation, sensed as pain and stiffness. This slows us down, and often leads us to make even unhealthier choices, trapping us in a cycle of pain, medications and lack of mobility.
Healthy aging and maintaining vitality therefore, requires that we quell inflammation as quickly as possible and do our best to maintain the health of our cells.
The simplest advice I can provide is to keep moving, because as the saying goes, “ a body in motion stays in motion”. Eat a healthy well-balanced diet, rich in greens, healthy fats and lean proteins, the building blocks of cells. Supplement your diet with nutrients that boost your autoimmune system, like Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Selenium, Zinc, Beta Carotene, Co-Q10, B Vitamins and Chromium Picolinate. Breathe deeply and breathe clean air. Exhale fully. Sleep deeply and regularly. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Don’t smoke. Find purpose and balance in your life.
None of these is more or less important than the other. This is the way I live my life, not just when the calendar year starts anew, but every day, day after day. The objective is to live each day in the healthy zone, keeping inflammation at bay. However, I do have two specific things I recommend for improving gut health and reducing inflammation.
For me, one of the most important discoveries I’ve made is the importance of gut health; the first frontier when it comes to inflammation. Other than the skin, the gut has the greatest exposure to the external environment that any other organ. Everything we ingest, including synthetic chemicals never intended for human consumption, are processed in our gut. The cells in our gut lining converse with trillions of microbes that live in our digestive system. Gut cells have their own secret language used to communicate with the body, including the brain, to determine what will pass through the gut lining and into the bloodstream and what will not. They also dictate what possible invaders might require an immune response system. If you’ve ever had food poisoning, you know how gut wrenching that immune response can be!
Naturally occurring friendly microorganisms are recruited by the epithelial cells in the gut and are trained to live in harmony with our bodies. A delicate balance of chemical signaling between these microorganisms and the gut lining and immune cells, must be maintained to ensure healthy digestion, produce vitamins and fight invading microbes. If your gut microbiome is not optimum, it will cause you to metabolize your foods inefficiently and will prompt haphazard inflammatory response.
These microorganisms have been with us since the early stages of evolution and are given to us by our mother during our birth. Our ancestors were the beneficiaries of soil-borne microbes carried by the organic foods they ate. When ingested, these living organisms helped replenish our gut microbiome and maintain a healthy balance between friendly versus unfriendly gut bacteria. Unfortunately around the turn of the century, the introduction of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals have depleted soil-based bacteria and disrupted the natural balance on which our immune systems relied upon for so long. Today, 99% of the foods we buy at the grocery store simply do not contain these critically friendly soil-based organisms. Most health professionals concur that it is important to augment our diet with a probiotic to improve our gut health.
Eating organic produce can help reduce the number of unwanted chemicals in your system, but it doesn’t ensure that you build an adequate supply of gut friendly bacteria. Our soil is already depleted and the distribution methods used to supply produce are designed to kill off these friendly microbes. Therefore, a key supplement which I have been using since my bout with Lyme’s disease forty years ago is a clinically substantiated probiotic that is soil-based. This evidence-based product has been tested for functionality and stability and has been shown to provide many if not most of the naturally occurring bacteria needed for optimal gut health. When looking for your own probiotic, I’d suggest using similar criteria to be sure the product you choose delivers on its promise.
My second discovery happened 50 years ago, when I traveled to Japan to work with one of the leading amino acid manufacturers. While there, I visited a colleague who had emergency surgery and learned that all surgical patients in Japan were put on a regimen of glutamine supplementation to facilitate healing. This experience fueled my interest and research into the role of amino acids in health. While I will explore that broader subject in a future article, the importance of glutamine in gut health and inflammation deserves attention here.
Glutamine is the main anti-catabolic agent in muscle, making it the compound that the body uses to repair muscle after activity and in the replication phase of the immune response. Whether you are a competitive athlete, an active participant in life or healing from an injury, over time, the body’s demand for glutamine is higher than can be provided by metabolic processes or diet alone. This deficit increases with age, and is one reason people over fifty find it nearly impossible to build or maintain muscle mass.
Glutamine, in addition to its role in building skeletal muscles also protects our gut lining. Our digestive system is in fact a long tubular muscle that moves nutrients and waste through our body. So it makes sense that glutamine is essential for gut health. It helps ensure healthy nutrient absorption, protects against leaky gut and is important in the treatment of Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and gut inflammation.
I take 20-30 grams of unflavored, micronized, glutamine powder dissolved in 1000 ml of purified water daily, which I drink during my workout. I’ve been doing that for 40+ years. It is certainly not the only reason my physique has improved with age, but I believe it is an important component of my regimen. In addition, I have been able to be consistent with my healthy lifestyle practices because I am seldom derailed by illness. My digestion and immune systems are both well-oiled with plenty of good nutrients and ample glutamine!
A healthy metabolism is not enough to keep us vital and young. Free-radicals are a natural by-product of metabolism, even a healthy metabolism. These are unstable atoms that can cause cell damage, potentially causing cancer and other diseases and contributing to accelerated aging. Free-radicals cannot be avoided, but they can be tamed. Anti-oxidants are the tools needed to help our bodies neutralize these unstable molecules. We’ll learn more about these mighty metabolic defenders in my next article. Till then, be well and stay healthy!