Everything You Need To Know About How Inflammation Influences Weight Gain
We used to think that maintaining a healthy weight was a simple equation. If you needed to lose weight, you were told to simply “eat less and exercise more.”
These days, however, we know that it’s way more complicated than that. In fact, there are almost endless factors affecting our ability to lose weight, including underlying health conditions, food allergies, chronic stress, and gut microbiome issues—just to name a few.
All these barriers to weight loss have one thing in common: they produce chronic inflammation in the body.
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The cycle of inflammation and weight gain
The relationship between inflammation and weight gain is a complicated one. It appears that inflammation causes weight gain and weight gain causes inflammation, so they feed off each other in a vicious cycle that can be hard to break. For example, studies have suggested (1) that overeating triggers the immune system, which causes the body to generate excessive inflammation.
Fat in and of itself causes inflammation, as one study concluded that an excess of macronutrients in adipose tissue stimulates the release (2) of inflammatory mediators like tumor necrosis factor α and interleukin 6. Visceral fat—which is the name given to the particularly unhealthy fat that accumulates in the abdomen—has been shown to be even more active, producing inflammatory markers, triggering long-term inflammation, and increasing a person’s risk for inflammation-based chronic diseases, such as arteriosclerosis (3) and diabetes. (4)
If you’re surprised by how complicated this all seems, you’re not alone. It is complicated! Clearly, the “calories in, calories out” equation we were all taught as kids isn’t going to cut it anymore. When you dive deeper into the relationship between inflammation and weight gain it will inevitably lead you to the gut, which brings us to…
How alterations in gut health cause inflammation and weight gain
As journalist James Hamlin wrote in an article for The Atlantic, “The immune system determines levels of inflammation in the gut that are constantly shaping the way we digest food—how many calories get absorbed, and how many nutrients simply pass through.” He’s accurately trying to communicate that our gut really controls how we utilize the food we eat, how much inflammation is produced, and whether or not we gain weight, lose weight, or maintain our weight. Hamblin was also correct when he wrote that “the relationship between microbes and weight gain has long been overlooked in humans.”
But research over the last few years has made the connection harder and harder to ignore; it’s now very clear that our gut microbiome plays a huge role in weight management. Studies have shown (5) that gut microbes in people that are overweight and obese are different from those found in people of a healthy weight. It’s thought that it’s these alterations that cause changes (6) in the immune system that feed low-grade inflammation and trigger the metabolic changes that occur with obesity and diabetes. Unfortunately, the standard American diet is chock full of inflammatory foods like sugar, unhealthy fats, and grains that, when eaten too often, can lead to a damaged gut lining, which only adds fuel to the fire.
Food allergies—such as those to dairy or gluten—can also be a trigger for the inflammatory response. If you don’t address underlying food sensitivities and allergies, it will be close to impossible to maintain a healthy weight. One study even showed (7) that with the help of an RD, 54% of overweight and 47% of obese individuals lost weight on a gluten-free diet.
How do you know if your body has inflammation?
Since the symptoms associated with chronic inflammation are more elusive and can take many different forms, many people don’t realize their health problems are actually linked to out of control inflammation.
In addition to weight gain and weight loss resistance, inflammation can manifest in symptoms that affect all areas of your body. However, some symptoms tend to be more likely to occur alongside weight problems including:
- Brain fog
- Gut problems (bloating, constipation, gas, IBS)
- Blood sugar imbalances or other metabolic health problems
For an in-depth overview of inflammation, symptoms, how to determine if inflammation is a factor in your health case, and tools to balance inflammation levels, check out my book, The Inflammation Spectrum.
How inflammatory foods cause hunger, cravings, and changes in eating behavior
Unfortunately, the connections between weight gain and inflammation continue even deeper. Inflammation in the gut can affect the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain in charge of hunger signals. When this happens, your ability to know when you’re actually hungry and stop eating when you’re full is impaired resulting in something called leptin resistance (which you can read more about here).
Acting as the cherry on top, the bacteria in our gut also have the powerful ability to increase or decrease cravings, (8) which means the microbes living in our gut essentially tell us what to eat. And if you have too many microbes that like to feed off of sugars and simple carbs, when you try to eat less of them, you’ll crave them more and more. That’s one of the many reasons why it’s so hard to detox the body from sugar. Pretty crazy (and scary), isn’t it?
How do you reduce inflammation to lose weight?
While there is no “one-size-fits-all” for lowering inflammation, there are many natural tools you can use to help support healthy inflammation levels.
1. Reduce stress
By alleviating chronic stress, you are also helping to support balanced cortisol levels and other hormones that impact inflammation and weight gain. Incorporating a daily meditation practice or mindfulness routine can be a great way to recenter yourself in the present moment to melt away stress.
2. Reassess your diet
Because everyone is different, the foods you eat - even “healthy” foods - could be contributing to inflammation flare-ups. By uncovering food intolerances and sensitivities you’ll be on your way to winning the battle against inflammation. Remember that there’s no one right diet for all people as we are all genetically and biochemically unique. I recommend doing an elimination diet, the gold standard for discovering which foods are not working for you.
3. Eat more anti-inflammatory foods
The foods you don’t eat are also just as important as the foods you do eat. In fact, certain foods have powerful anti-inflammatory abilities. Turmeric for example is known for its ability to down-regulate inflammatory pathways in the body. Wild-caught fish, green tea, and ginger are also great for activating your anti-inflammatory Peroxisome Proliferator activated Receptors (PPARs) in your body.
4. Get more sleep
Studies have found that getting adequate sleep each night is essential for healthy inflammation levels as one night of poor sleep can cause inflammation levels to increase. Quality of sleep is also as important as the number of hours you sleep. Work on cultivating a bedtime routine that works for you (no electronics before bed, weighted blankets, aromatherapy, etc.) so you can get 7+ hours of uninterrupted shut-eye each night!
For more practical tools to lower inflammation, check out my article A Functional Medicine Guide to Calming Inflammation.
A final world on inflammation and weight gain
Considering the fact that about 1/3 of Americans are obese and another third are overweight, the cycle of weight gain-inflammation-weight gain is one we should all be aware of.
Ready for some good news? By making healthy lifestyle choices you can decrease inflammation and lose excess weight, which will help you reverse the cycle. As one study, (9) published in Nutrition Research Reviews, concluded: “A period of weight loss per se is capable of reversing the unfavorable inflammatory profile evident in the obese state.” If you’re not sure where to start, try incorporating these 9 inflammation-fighting foods into your diet!
If you think that you're struggling with inflammation, as one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.
- University of Oslo. (2014, August 25). Being overweight causes hazardous inflammations. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 2, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140825084836.htm
- Ellulu MS, Patimah I, Khaza'ai H, Rahmat A, Abed Y. Obesity and inflammation: the linking mechanism and the complications. Arch Med Sci. 2017;13(4):851-863. doi:10.5114/aoms.2016.58928
- Ohman MK, Wright AP, Wickenheiser KJ, Luo W, Eitzman DT. Visceral adipose tissue and atherosclerosis. Curr Vasc Pharmacol. 2009;7(2):169-179. doi:10.2174/157016109787455680
- Lyon CJ, Hsueh WA. Effect of plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 in diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease. Am J Med. 2003;115 Suppl 8A:62S-68S. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2003.08.014
- Ley RE, Bäckhed F, Turnbaugh P, Lozupone CA, Knight RD, Gordon JI. Obesity alters gut microbial ecology. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005;102(31):11070-11075. doi:10.1073/pnas.0504978102
- Burcelin R, Garidou L, Pomié C. Immuno-microbiota cross and talk: the new paradigm of metabolic diseases. Semin Immunol. 2012;24(1):67-74. doi:10.1016/j.smim.2011.11.011
- Cheng J, Brar PS, Lee AR, Green PH. Body mass index in celiac disease: beneficial effect of a gluten-free diet. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2010;44(4):267-271. doi:10.1097/MCG.0b013e3181b7ed58
- Gabriel Gasque An appetite for understanding appetite PLOS Biology 2017. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2002838
- Forsythe LK, Wallace JM, Livingstone MB. Obesity and inflammation: the effects of weight loss. Nutr Res Rev. 2008;21(2):117-133. doi:10.1017/S095442240813873
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.