by Dr. Will Cole
What happens when the whole world changes but our DNA doesn’t? That is exactly the situation we find ourselves in today. Our world has undergone rapid change over a relatively short period of time – our food supply, water supply, the soil we farm on, and the air we breathe are drastically different than they were just 100 years ago, and not in a good way. Human bodies designed for a cleaner, simpler, purer world can only react in one way when faced with the toxic onslaughts of modern life: With self-protection. That protection often comes in the form of chronic, systemic inflammation.
Inflammation is not inherently harmful. It exists for a reason. It’s an essential part of healthy immune function, kicking in to fight infection and to facilitate healing. Without the ability to generate an appropriate inflammatory response, we would die. The problem is when inflammation runs wild, as if trying to protect us from everything all the time. This is an understandable response considering our changing environment, but it is also an overreaction that can damage your health when inflammation gets turned on but doesn’t get turned off. In fact, knowing this, it might not surprise you to learn that chronic, systemic inflammation is the root cause of almost all modern chronic health problems. When you dive deeply into the etiology of various illnesses—like anxiety, depression, fatigue, heart disease, and especially autoimmune conditions—the roads all lead back to inflammation. As with everything in the body, a healthy inflammatory response is all about balance.
The Age of Autoimmunity
Even though inflammation underlies many conditions, let’s look at one of the primary critical health issues we face today. To date, there are close to 100 recognized autoimmune diseases, and an additional 40 that have an autoimmune component. I predict that this number will certainly rise as science continues to discover autoimmune components in more diseases. Morever, in the United States alone, it’s estimated that 50 million people have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. In most cases, the official diagnostic criteria are that the patient’s immune system has already destroyed a significant portion of their body; for instance, a diagnosis of autoimmune adrenal issues or Addison’s disease requires 90 percent destruction of the adrenal glands. Equally sobering, major destruction of the neurological system is required for a diagnosis of neurological autoimmunity (e.g., multiple sclerosis) and major destruction of the digestive system is required for a diagnosis of gut autoimmunity (e.g., celiac disease).
We live in the Age of Autoimmunity, and the more the scientific community examines this phenomenon, the clearer it becomes that autoimmunity is driven by inflammation. That means that even if you don’t have a diagnosed autoimmune disorder right now, a brewing inflammation storm inside you could mean you are headed in that direction.
Because inflammation can affect any part of the body, its manifestations can be far-reaching. Some of the most-common early-onset symptoms of inflammation include:
- Brain fog
- Pain that travels throughout the body
- Gastrointestinal flare-ups
Autoimmune diseases and inflammation have everything to do with your lifestyle
Nobody wakes up one morning with an autoimmune disease that has descended out of the blue. It’s not like catching the flu. Autoimmune disease is an end-stage event and a major call-out from your body that you are already at the far end of the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum. When someone is diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, they have typically already been experiencing autoimmune inflammation for an average of 4 to 10 years. Surely there is a way to arrest this progression long before significant destruction warrants an actual diagnosis!
This is the primary focus of my functional medicine practice: to address the causes of inflammation before the patient reaches that end-stage level of destruction. Why wait around for a diagnosis before you start caring about inflammation? By then, the only options typically available to most people are steroids or immune-suppressing drugs. I believe we can do much better than that. Studies point to what many in functional medicine have been saying for decades: Lifestyle and diet are where inflammation begins, and where inflammation can be stopped in its tracks. Studies estimate that about 77 percent of immune-system reactions are determined by factors over which we have at least some control, such as our diets, stress levels, and exposure to pollutants. The remainder – a mere 23 percent or so – is determined by genetics. My practice is about taking proactive steps to tackle inflammation before it leads to something more serious. Why not start right now? It’s never too soon to start making a positive difference in your health.
Fight inflammation with a ketogenic diet
Lifestyle intervention is, in my experience, the most powerful way to take control of health. Whether those changes improve your quality of life by 25 percent or 100 percent, any increase is a move in the right direction and away from the threat of autoimmune disease. If you don’t change what you are doing, you won’t change where you are going, and one of the most profoundly helpful lifestyle changes I have discovered for calming inflammation and balancing the immune system is the ketogenic diet.
The ketogenic diet specifically impacts mechanisms responsible for chronic inflammation. When you start burning fat instead of sugar, you switch into ketosis, or a ketogenic state. The ketones your body produces and uses for fuel are powerful, inflammation-fighting superheroes. ß-hydroxybutyrate (also known as BHB) is a strong anti-inflammatory, inhibiting inflammatory pathways like NFkB, COX-2, and the NLRP3 inflammasome and activating the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory AMPK and Nrf2 pathways. Additionally, BHB activates the very important AMPK pathway, which is involved in regulating energy balance and helps reduce inflammation by inhibiting the inflammatory Nf-kB pathways in the body. BHB also exerts a similar effect on pain and inflammation as the NSAID drug ibuprofen, by inhibiting the COX-2 enzyme (without the side effects).
The Nrf2 pathway is a significant center for regulating inflammation, and while the ketones produced in nutritional ketosis up-regulate the Nrf2 pathway and the powerful anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10, they also down-regulate pro-inflammatory cytokines. The Nrf2 pathway also regulates antioxidant-gene induction and works to turn on genes responsible for antioxidant and detox pathways in addition to cell function and inflammation. When the Nrf2 pathway is functioning at optimal levels, inflammation is calmed. When levels are low, inflammation is raised. Ketosis has also been shown to stimulate increased autophagy, or cellular clean-up and repair.
The simple version: The ketogenic diet triggers a complex biochemical process that directly fights inflammation, reducing and calming the chronic inflammation related to just about every health problem we see today.
Knowledge is power. The more you know about how inflammation works in your body, the better you can make smart decisions about how to take back control of your own health and turn away from that steady progress towards autoimmune disease. It doesn’t matter what you have done in the past. No matter how badly you used to eat or how stressed you used to be, there’s much you can do to break that cycle right here and now. The important thing to remember is that there is no cure for diagnosed autoimmune conditions, so you don’t want to go there if you can prevent it. If you are undiagnosed, take back your health power and make some changes. But even for those with a diagnosis, know that those of us in functional medicine seek to give patients tools to manage their health, no matter where they are right now. You have the power to calm inflammation, balance your immune system, and ideally, put your symptoms into remission. The ketogenic diet is a powerful tool for anyone at any level. The choice is yours. What will you have for your next meal: Food that moves you closer to health, or further away?
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