Do you feel old or older than you think you should feel? Do your joints constantly ache for seemingly no reason? Are you consistently bloated or have difficulty digesting your food well? Do you have consistent diarrhea or constipation? Are you experiencing headaches or difficulty sleeping? Chronic inflammation could be the cause of all of this as well as why you just don’t feel good.
Researchers are continually uncovering the damaging effects of chronic inflammation. It has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s and more. Not all inflammation is bad. Inflammation is the critical component to growth and tissue repair. It is an essential component of your immune system and is instrumental in fighting off bacteria, microscopic invaders, fungi and viruses. As soon as one of these invading organisms enters our bloodstream, our body coordinates an all out assault that destroys the organism and any tissues that have been affected.
Inflammation is also the way that our body begins to repair itself when there has been an injury or trauma. Once the body has begun the repair process, the inflammation recedes and the tissue returns to its normal homeostatic environment. Without inflammation our bodies would stay sick and our tissues would never heal.
The problem with inflammation is when it doesn’t turn off. There are a number of factors that contribute to this system going awry, but first, let’s look at exactly what inflammation is.
All pain is caused by inflammation. The ancient Greeks described inflammation as “internal fire.” It is characterized by redness (“rubor”), swelling (“tumor”) heat (“calor”) and pain (dolor”). For example, when you fall and sprain your ankle, the first thing that happens is it swells, it feels warm, painful and changes to a red color. Using ice to help decrease the swelling, heat and redness is common knowledge. As soon as the tissue begins to heal, the swelling abates, it returns to a normal body temperature, and function returns. The inflammatory process turns off, but sometimes, it doesn’t. Why?
There are two important components that need to be reviewed in order to explain how the system breaks down and why inflammation becomes chronic and in turn leads to disease. The hormones that mediate this process are called eicosanoids. When we consume Omega 3 foods, our bodies produce anti-inflammatory eicosanoids, and when we consume Omega 6 foods, we produce an inflammatory response. Our bodies must maintain a proper balance or ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 to avoid chronic inflammation. Up until about 80 years ago, we had a balance of 2:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3. This was because people ate a lot more fish. You may remember tales of your grandparents taking cod liver oil everyday. It turns out that was very valuable in maintaining this ratio due to the high levels of Omega 3 that it produced. Omega 6 producing vegetable oils played a much less significant role then as well.
Today we consume far more Omega 6 inflammatory producing foods and even less Omega 3 anti-inflammatory producing foods. The current average ratio of the American diet today is 20:1. The choices and temptation that we have today are overwhelming. Take a stroll down the cereal aisle in the grocery store. There is an entire aisle filled with cereal choices! Not to mention the amount of cookies, cakes, high fructose drinks that we can choose. All of these foods produce an inflammatory response in our bodies. Compare that with the amount of wild salmon, tuna, herring, sardines and walnuts we eat and you can see why the ratio has become so much larger.
You can change this ratio in a number of ways but becoming conscious of the things that you eat and understanding the consequences are simple ways to tip the balance back to a healthier ratio. Taking supplements that are rich in Omega 3 is also a simple way to reduce the ratio. As we begin the New Year, I know many of you will be making promises to yourself about what you will eat. If you do nothing more than begin to change this ratio, you will make a major improvement in creating more wellness in your life. So take a moment and look in your pantry and refrigerator and see how many foods you are eating that is contributing to an unhealthy ratio and begin to eat consciously now.
For more information and dietary options consider reading: The Anti-Inflammation Zone by Dr. Barry Sears, The Inflammation Syndrome by Jack Challem, or The Everything Anti-Inflammation Diet Book by Karlyn Grimes. Each provides as similar yet unique perspective to understanding the correlation to inflammation and the food you eat.