Inflammation: The Root of All Evil?

Everything these days seems to be ‘anti-inflammatory’; declaring inflammation as public enemy number one and enticing you to avoid it like the plague! But surely a process which your body naturally does, can’t be bad for you? Let’s take a look at the good & the bad of it. After all, there are always two sides to the story.

The Good

Inflammation is part of our body’s natural immune response and as such, it works really hard at trying to keep us… essentially, alive. It’s an incredibly complex process that takes place, and I don’t want you to stare at your screen reading this getting confused with medical terminology and chemical names flying left, right and centre; so the simplest way I can explain our immune system is like an army.

Let’s take the flu as an example:

  1. The bad virus (pathogen) enters the body
  2. The immune system kicks in and releases an army of chemicals (e.g. histamine and prostaglandins) to fight the virus.
  3. The battle starts and symptoms appear (in a sense, battle scars). These symptoms include a runny nose, sore throat, fever etc.
  4. Over time, a solid immune system (sometimes with the help from medicine – alternative or allopathic) wins the war and the symptoms alleviate and ultimately the pathogen is killed.

When working correctly, our immune system is our saving grace in a world filled with things wanting to harm us and take us down. Short periods of inflammation works mostly in our favour and is crucial to our innate healing process.

The Bad

So, this is where the issue lies: chronic, long-term inflammation.

When it’s good, it fights off pathogens, heals injuries and mops up debris. However, chronic inflammation that is left untreated has been found to be a player in almost every chronic disease; diabetes, coeliac’s, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, asthma – the list goes on and on.

Why does chronic inflammation happen? Well, there’s a multitude of reasons, but basically sometimes when the immune system is fighting the battle (like it’s supposed to), it’s arsenal of chemical fighters isn’t strong enough & doesn’t have success. Or the immune system gets confused, like when someone is allergic to gluten and the immune system ends up attacking other parts of the body that resemble gluten.

Our lifestyle also plays a key role in chronic inflammation. Smoking, alcohol, prolonged stress and having excess weight can all contribute to chronic inflammation. Just keep in mind that every individual is different, and some cases of chronic inflammation doesn’t have a clear underlying cause.

Symptoms To Look out For

I pay a lot of attention to chronic inflammation when seeing patients. Right from the first consultation, I look for specific symptoms that often creep in without the patient realising or thinking that it’s not ‘important’. Some red-alerts to look out for include:

  • Rashes or ‘bumps’ (especially on the back of arms when it comes to gluten)
  • Mucous/ phlegm production (having to clear your throat constantly/ after eating certain foods)
  • Low energy and lethargy (even when getting ‘enough’ sleep or drinking caffeine)
  • Bloating, indigestion and pain in the abdominal area along with poor/disrupted digestion
  • Unexplained pain (especially in joints)
  • Low-grade fever for long periods of time

Steps To Healing Chronic Inflammation

When I see patients, my ultimate goal is to always help THEM to prevent and reverse chronic disease. (We always need to remind ourselves as doctors, that we do not do the healing. We need to equip and guide our patients with the tools in order to empower themselves in the healing process. Afterall, I’m not going to be there in your kitchen force-feeding you anti-inflammatory foods)

An anti-inflammatory lifestyle falls very much in line with a general healthy lifestyle.

  1. Remove/ reduce commonly known inflammatory foods like sugar and processed meats/dairy.
  2. Avoid foods that are known allergies/ intolerances.
  3. Manage stress trough reducing/ using coping mechanisms
  4. Regular, consistent exercise with moderate intensity
  5. Eating lots of deeply coloured vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices like spinach, turmeric, beetroot and blueberries.
  6. Additional supplements which can include adaptogens, omega-fatty acid complexes, probiotics etc (according to the individual’s needs)

The Bottom Line

While you might not have a diagnosed condition now, chronic inflammation increases your risk of developing several serious diseases, so if you want to optimise your current and future health, you can do so by minimising inflammation. 

If you suspect you may be showing signs of chronic inflammation, don’t hesitate to get in touch with a registered health practitioner who will be able to guide you through a proper treatment program.

Colds & Flu’s: Whats The Difference?

Yes, they are two completely different things! Both are caused by viruses and have similar symptoms which is why many people mistake them for the same thing, but once you see the differences side-by-side it’s easy to never see them the same again.

In general, flu can be much worse than the common cold, and symptoms come across more intense whereas colds are usually milder and don’t result in serious health problems if left untreated like pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalisations.

Image Cred: http://www.cdc.gov

As Far As Treatment is Concerned…

In all honesty, chances are high that you’ll receive a prescription for antibiotics from your GP. However, antibiotics don’t do anything when it comes to viruses. They’re only effective for treating infections caused by bacteria. With that said though – if you leave a flu untreated, you can develop a co-infection that could be bacterial and thereby, need antibiotics (but you won’t need antibiotics immediately). 

I must say, many GP’s I know and have worked with delay prescribing antibiotics and don’t go to it immediately which is a BIG step in the right direction. 

Phytotherapeutic Approach To Treatment

Treating any kind of problems affecting the respiratory system is  my absolute favourite. Patients can see a difference in their symptoms so quickly which is really satisfying from a “customer satisfaction” point of view. The lungs are such a life-force to the human body. Think about taking a breath of fresh air – how rejuvenating it can feel & how restrictive it feels when you’re in the full swing of a flu and can barely breath through the mucous build-up & constant coughing. 

A phytotherapeutic approach will always be individualised & based on fighting the virus first (the cause) and at the same time, helping to alleviate the symptoms which can make the patient a lot happier. So these would include herbs that support the immune system; have antiviral properties; decongestant properties or demulcent, soothing properties if there is a dry cough involved. 

I don’t think I have ever used the exact same prescription for two different patients. I certainly have my go-to herbs like echinacea or olive leave, but I’ll use them in different strengths or ratio’s to fit the individual. 

Is it a Food Allergy or Intolerance?

Seems like lately, every patient walking through my doors complains that they’re allergic to something. Anything from the typical dairy, dog hair and gluten to Handy Andy and chamomile tea. One patient complains of a stomach ache if they eat bread; another’s has a life-threatening reaction to nuts. Both call it an allergy. Unfortunately the term “allergy” has become a generic term used to describe allergies and intolerances, but there is a clear clinical difference between them – that being your bodies immune response.

And with the media trying  to use every buzz word possible to hook you into buying R50 loaves of bread because of your ‘allergy’,  it’s important to know the differences between an allergy or intolerance.

Allergy

When you have a food allergy, your immune system will illicit a response by releasing antibodies to ‘fight off’ the allergen. Symptoms will show fairly quickly after eating & could include difficulty breathing, wheezing; skin reactions like hives & swelling; dizziness; swelling of the tongue, mouth or face.

The most common foods that cause allergic reactions are:

  • Peanuts & tree nuts
  • Shellfish
  • Cow’s milk
  • Wheat

Allergies can be life-threatening and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Your doctor will be able to specifically test for allergies with a skin-prick test.

Intolerance

Food intolerances occur when your body doesn’t have the right enzymes to properly break down the food in your gut. There is NO immune response but your body will show uncomfortable gut symptoms. The most common words I hear are “It just doesn’t agree with me”.

A really good example of this is lactose (from milk). People who are lactose intolerant, don’t have the enzymes to break down lactose properly so when it is ingested and reaches the large intestine, the bacteria break it down releasing gas, bloating, pain and diarrhoea. The symptoms take longer to show & other symptoms could be headaches, nausea, nervousness, heartburn and vomiting.

Foods that can cause intolerances can vary greatly but commonly include:

  • Wheat
  • Caffeine
  • Dairy
  • Food additives & artificial flavourants (like MSG)

Elimination diets under the guidance of a practitioner are the most useful in isolating the culprit foods.

In Closing

Food allergies and intolerances actually fairly uncommon and your symptoms could be caused by a number of other factors such as stress, hormonal changes or a different digestive disease. They can also be quite difficult to tell apart because of how symptoms overlap so greatly. If you suspect that you may have an allergy or an intolerance, I urge you to see a registered health practitioner so that you can be properly diagnosed and treated under their supervision.

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A side note on gluten

Gluten seems to be a favourite word with the media at the moment. It’s found in most grains like wheat, rye and barley & can be the cause of both an intolerance or an allergy, depending on the structure of the gut & microbiome. 

Many people have an intolerance to gluten and will have quite a bit of discomfort when they eat foods that contain it. But gluten intolerance isn’t very common and not everybody needs to be eliminating gluten from their diet like we’re told in the media. 

Now, for some individuals, it is critical that they avoid gluten. These individuals have an autoimmune disease called Coeliac’s. The body has a completely abnormal immune response to gluten that causes damage to the villi in the small intestine (the finger-like structures in our gut that help with absorption of nutrients). It’s not entirely clear what causes the immune system to act in this way, but a combination of genetics and the environment appear to play a part. This damage creates gaps between the villi which means toxins are able to enter the blood stream and can be fatal if left untreated. 

So my ‘side note’ about gluten is clearly becoming its own blog post & I promise to write a more in-depth post in the near future on this.