I am so excited for you to read my brand new book, The Inflammation Spectrum. You will discover how inflammation is at the core of most common health woes and exists on a continuum: from mild symptoms such as weight gain and fatigue on one end, to hormone imbalance and autoimmune conditions on the other. How you feel is constantly and dynamically being influenced by every meal. Every food you eat is either feeding inflammation or fighting it. Because no one else is you, the foods that work well for someone else may not be right for your body. At heart, The Inflammation Spectrum is about learning to love your body enough to nourish it with delicious, healing foods. Its insightful quizzes and empowering advice will put you on a path toward food freedom and overall healing. Learn more here.
You may have heard the world inflammation before; most likely in the context of chronic disease, a certain food group (ahem, gluten), or lifestyle practice. In our modern lives, there are so many factors contributing to inflammation that helping my patients identify and combat them is a major part of what I do as a functional medicine practitioner.
But how do you know if you have inflammation? What does it really feel like? Read on for the full intel on inflammation, it’s symptoms, and what it feels like to suffer from a chronically stimulated inflammatory response.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is an important bodily process that, when triggered by factors like an unhealthy lifestyle, stress, and toxic exposures, can spin out of control. When inflammation is allowed to run wild, it can damage the body by creating too many pro-inflammatory cells and molecules, such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF), interleukins (ILs), nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB), prostaglandins, and free radicals. Having too many of these pesky pro-inflammatory substances being produced can cause damage to the body, leading to inflammation-related health issues and conditions, such as autoimmune disease.
What does inflammation feel like?
Acute inflammation is characterized by obvious symptoms like redness, pain, and swelling in the area. You’ve probably experienced this when you’ve suffered a minor injury, like a burn, bruise, or scrape. The symptoms of chronic inflammation, however, are a little more elusive, which is why many people suffer from it for years without being able to identify exactly what’s going on with their health.
Here are a few ways chronic inflammation can manifest itself in the body:
Inflammation affects your entire body—and that includes the brain. In fact, the brain might be particularly at risk since an overload of inflammation can trigger an inflammatory-autoimmune response against your brain and nervous system. The consequence of this is often an erratic mood or feelings of anxiety and depression.
Inflammation can also damage your blood-brain barrier, which can lead to something called “leaky brain” and oxidative stress in the hypothalamus, which according to the NIH Library of Medicine, (1) is the part of the brain responsible for regulating appetite and weight, body temperature, emotions, behavior, memory, growth, salt and water balance, sex drive and your sleep-wake cycle. (Is that all?) Needless to say, the consequences of this, which include brain fog, concentration, and attention issues, are something you want to avoid.
Inflammation and pain are intricately related. In just one example, many inflammatory and autoimmune conditions—such as arthritis or fibromyalgia—have pain as their primary symptom. If your joints are constantly stiff and achy, it’s a good sign that your inflammation levels are higher than they should be.
Inflammation creates pain as a way to communicate to the body that there’s a problem that needs attention. It’s your job to listen and make appropriate changes in your lifestyle that decrease both inflammation and pain.
Chronic inflammation messes with the way your body responds to stress; more specifically, it messes with your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is the signaling cascade that tells your body to produce cortisol and other stress hormones. The result of this is chronically high cortisol, which can leave you with fatigue during the day, muscle weakness, low blood pressure, and trouble sleeping at night.
When this happens, it makes sense that your body would rather have you take it easy than hit Soul Cycle at six in the morning. Many people try to push through by pumping their bodies full of caffeine, but this only further triggers the adrenals and inflammation, and ultimately exasperates the problem.
How do you diagnose inflammation?
As a functional medicine doctor, I typically diagnose inflammation by way of a detailed medical history and talking to a patient about their symptoms. That said, there are also a few lab tests I frequently run to check for unhealthy levels of inflammation, including:
- C-reactive protein levels: This test looks for inflammatory proteins in the blood.
- Homocysteine levels: This inflammatory amino acid has been connected to (2) a wide range of illnesses, including autoimmune diseases.
- Ferritin: When ferritin levels are high, it’s considered a good indicator of inflammation.
How do you decrease the symptoms of inflammation?
Now that we know what inflammation is, what it feels like, and how it’s diagnosed; How do we fend it off? To combat inflammation, start by adopting an anti-inflammatory diet. This means avoiding inflammatory foods like dairy, refined grains and sugar and learning to love fresh leafy greens, healthy fats—like those found in avocado and olive oil—and fresh fruit. I go into detail about discovering your own individual food triggers in my book, The Inflammation Spectrum.
You can also turn to other inflammation-fighting practices like mindfulness-based stress reduction and infrared saunas, which you can read more about here.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Hypothalamic Dysfunction.” Medline Plus (blog), n.d. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001202.htm.
- Kamath, Atul F., Anil K. Chauhan, Janka Kisucka, Vandana S. Dole, Joseph Loscalzo, Diane E. Handy, and Denisa D. Wagner. “Elevated Levels of Homocysteine Compromise Blood-Brain Barrier Integrity in Mice.” Blood 107, no. 2 (January 15, 2006): 591–93. https://doi.org/10.1182/blood-2005-06-2506.
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