Eric Bakker N.D.May 10, 2022


What Is Inflammation?

The very health issues that many patients I see as a naturopath have their root cause in inflammation. In this article, I’d like to talk a little about inflammation, its likely causes and what you can do about it if you are being affected.

I’ve been following research on inflammation for some time now and have discovered that chronic low-grade inflammation lies at the root cause of many different chronic health issues which patients often ask me about, diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancers, auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis and ulcerative colitis, and many more other acute and chronic diseases. It makes sense to counter any inflammation if you want to halt the progression of most chronic disease, but it is easier said than done. Once inflammation has been identified, is reduced and then slowly halted, patients often start to notice (regardless of their chronic condition) that they start to feel ‘lighter’, begin to think with more clarity, the pounds slowly disappear, sleep improves, and many other favourable effects are noticed.

In fact, many of the complaints and illnesses we commonly associate with getting older or ageing can be attributed to chronic low-grade inflammation. And one of the most important things I’ve found in my clinic is to help patients identify and control any inflammation they may have in order to maintain great health. Did you know that much of the inflammation we have in our bodies can be controlled to a large extent by improving our digestive system?

It never ceases to amaze me how many patients I’ve seen over the years who notice that their health seems to magically improve once their digestive system health improves. Is this really magic? I’ve always been fascinated to see so many fancy diets and new trends come and go over the years, but one thing they all have in common – they have a focus on eating fresh vegetables, lean proteins and reducing carbs from the diet, on getting rid of the junk from the diet, cutting back on alcohol and increasing your intake of water. These are all anti-inflammatory measures, I’ll bet you didn’t know that! Alcohol reduction is one of the best decisions you will ever make when it comes to reducing inflammation, even though it is not one of the most favoured options when it comes to improving the diet.

I guess in a hundred years from now the same thing will still be happening, new diet books, ‘breakthroughs’ in nutrition, ‘amazing new discoveries’ when it comes to some kind of vegetable or dietary supplement. Have you noticed that kale has all of a sudden the new super food? In Holland where I come from, the Dutch have been eating this vegetable for centuries.

Trends come and go, but the basics that improve our health and ensure a reduction in inflammation occurs regularly never seem to be adhered to, funny that. The patients I see today, same as when I first started to see patients over twenty-five years ago – still don’t drink enough water, get enough sleep, stress too much, work too hard, worry too much and spend too little time exercising. Does this sound familiar to you?

Gluten-Free Is Low Inflammation

Often times, it will be the exclusion or inclusion of one food that can make all the difference when it comes to health. Is becoming gluten-free the new trend? I was making recommendations to patients of going gluten free (GF) over twenty years ago when it wasn’t the trend that it is today, and the average person would look at you in disbelief as if you were kind of weird when you told them you were going GF. Have you considered going wheat and gluten-free? Once upon a time, people were seen as social outcasts for having the expectation that they could go to a restaurant and ask for a GF meal.

Today you’d be hard pressed to find any respectable café or restaurant that does not have extensive GF menu options for their patrons. But is going GF going to save your health, is it going to enable you to become ‘symptom free’? Probably not. I’ve noticed that when people go GF they tend to make various other changes to their diet and lifestyle as well, and the combination of several changes will certainly help to improve their health, but going GF won’t ultimately ‘cure’ any underlying health problems in spite of what Dr. Google may say.

We now know today that a diet rich in refined carbohydrates and grains is a pro-inflammatory diet. The auto-immune paleo diet approach suggests no grains in the diet, and many diet books I’ve seen that mention inflammation agree, that grains are best kept out of the diet if one wants to avoid an inappropriate inflammatory response.

Does this mean that you can’t enjoy a cup of coffee with a sweet treat at a café with a friend from time to time? Not at all, it suggests that you take break, flour and generally exclude all wheat and gluten containing grains form your diet. I tell my patients that grains such as quinoa are fine to consume, but some would argue that “all grains” means just that – no amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, or even millet. Some of these are seen as seeds rather than grains, but some who specialize in diet and inflammation believe that the most anti-inflammatory diets of all are those that include fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. Other ‘experts’ would argue all meat is pro-inflammatory, and that a one-hundred percent raw food vegan approach is the only way to lead a true anti-inflammatory life.

Well, I don’t know about you, but a strict vegan raw-food diet just doesn’t cut it for me, and I think the stress of living this kind of lifestyle would cause my cortisol levels to rise to the point that it is causing inflammation!

Getting Old Means More Inflammation

As you age, the inflammatory response increases by default, and this happens for many different physiological reasons. Some experts believe that most of our chronic health complaints and illness that we as an ageing population experience can be attributed to chronic inflammation, and as we age and inflammation increases, we are more likely to take an ‘anti-inflammatory’ drug to quell the pain. The problem here is that these (generally called NSAIDS) non-steroidal drugs allow the underlying inflammation going, but conveniently switch off the pain.

Some ageing experts believe that an increasing inflammatory response may cause one 70-year-old lady to walk or think with a great deal more difficulty than another woman of the same age with a lot less internal inflammation going on. It is important as a clinician I feel to talk with our patients about what inflammation is, and how it is possible to counter inflammation to a degree, improving the quality of life as we age, rather than relying on pharmaceutical control.

Symptoms of Inflammation

Here is a very basic list of inflammatory responses we are likely to see, the ones we commonly associate with inflammation are ‘aches and pains’.

  • Poor cognition, difficulty thinking
  • Weight gain
  • Stiffness
  • Pain (anywhere)
  • Swellings
  • Any aches or pains
  • Congestion
  • Poor immunity (recurring infections, allergies, auto-immunity)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Recurring digestive problems (heartburn, diarrhoea, etc.)

Not All Inflammation Is Bad

It is important to stress that not inflammation is bad, in fact, inflammation is necessary for the body to heal. We need a small amount of ‘healthy’ inflammation on a daily basis in order for our bodies to heal from bumps, bruises, cuts and the colds and flu we all regularly experience from time to time. These inflammatory responses are acute and not the ‘hidden’ and silent inflammatory responses that are associated with heart disease, diabetes and cancer. These are inappropriate responses that are generally covert, we are not aware of them until the doctor does a blood test and uncovers an increased inflammatory response going on inside our body. You may like to read the best blood tests to determine any underlying inflammation associated with heart disease.

Examples of healthy inflammation include an allergic reaction or an infection, and your body is programmed to respond accordingly. Your immune system will skilfully and swiftly identify any infectious or dangerous substance and responding by repairing any damage and help the body restore vital function. When you body is healthy and functioning optimally it will repair itself quickly and without hardly any intervention on your part. The body releases various pro-inflammatory compounds that are needed to speed healing and deal with any threats, after any threats have been dealt with then these inflammatory compounds are metabolized and our bodies once more return to their healthy and balanced state.

Chronic Inflammation Complications

However, when inflammation is not dealt with adequately and it continues on, and this may happen in case of a diseased tooth or root canal or the build up of plaque in your arteries, then a chronic and often low-grade inflammation can continue sometimes for many years, slowly eroding your health. An excess of immune cells and pro-inflammatory compounds such as interleukin 1, 6 as well as tumour necrosis factor (TNF) continually circulate in our system in such cases where they can cause damage to the lining of our blood vessels (heart disease, stroke), joints (arthritis), pancreas (leading to diabetes), brain tissue (leading to Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease) and many other similar potentially undesirable outcomes.

Men and women commonly experience an increase in inflammatory conditions, particularly as they get older, and major shifts in their hormonal patterns can have a profound effect for both men and women. Men tend to have issues with their testosterone levels leading to an increase in male pattern baldness, weight around the waistline and prostate dysfunction. Women have issues with their oestrogen levels, leading to an increase in the likelihood of heart disease and auto-immune disease, something commonly found in women over the age of sixty.

I’ve always recommended to my patients that there are many different lifestyle and dietary changes that can help quench the fire of inflammation. There are many different kinds of dietary supplements that can help reduce the inflammatory cascade as well, especially omega-3 fatty acids. You will find that I have many different products in my online store that can help.

What I’ve always found strange is that Western medicine has little interest in looking for any cause of inflammation, that are only interested in treated the outcome, and this will generally be see as pain and inflammation. Is it any wonder that more than 80,000 people in America are hospitalized every year as a direct result of a non-steroidal anti inflammatory drug (NSAID)? Many doctors are starting to realise that omega-3 essential fatty acids do have an effect on helping to reduce inflammation, and hopefully it won’t be too long before they all start to recommend their patients take these dietary supplements on a regular basis instead on those NSAID drugs.

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