Inflammation is not a disease, but it is a big health problem that appears to be at the root of all sorts of conditions: asthma, allergies, autoimmune disorders and many issues to do with aging.

But how does inflammation relate to conditions like heart disease, stroke and cancer — is it a cause or an effect?

Chicken or the egg?

“Acutely we know inflammation is the body’s natural response to an injury or an outside irritation,” says Jaspreet Mundeir, ND, a naturopathic physician based in Walnut Creek, Calif. If we want our body to mount an immune response, and we do, inflammation is what brings needed resources to the area where it fights infection or gets rid of an injury to help in the healing process, she said.

If you fall and hit your knee, inflammation occurs. You can also have inflammation in response to a virus or bacteria with congestion and nasal swelling. That’s an inflammatory response to a foreign body. These are examples of acute inflammation.

“You can also have chronic inflammation when there is an overreaction by the immune system,” says Christina Shannon, ND, clinical director of naturopathic medicine at cancer treatment centers of America at Midwestern Regional Medical Center. Many autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis result in the immune system responding repeatedly to inflammatory attacks.

Ulcerative colitis, for example, is a chronic inflammatory process in the colon. Hepatitis is chronic liver inflammation. Arthritis is inflammation in joints, while reflux disease (persistent heartburn) is a chronic inflammation that occurs as a result of acid. We also see inflammation in many cancers and even age-related changes like wrinkles.

“It’s when inflammation is prolonged and it becomes chronic that it has a detrimental effect, and the reason is because it causes more damage in the body,” Shannon says.

The cycle of inflammation

Inflammation’s role in disease is becoming more apparent. “When you continually have an immune response and it’s causing damage to nearby tissues, it becomes a self-perpetuating situation where those inflammatory chemicals create more inflammation, which creates more damage, which creates more inflammation,” explains Shannon. It’s not clearly understood why.

But is inflammation the original problem or the result of the problem? We don’t quite have the answers yet. Research is beginning to investigate whether catching inflammation earlier could stop the course of disease.

“We know chronic inflammation damages arteries, and that can lead to high cholesterol, heart attack and stroke. We know when it depresses the immune system, your body cannot focus on something else going on, like a cancerous tumor,” Mundeir says. So it’s logical that halting inflammation in its tracks will help fight disease.

Preventing inflammation

We can eat a whole grain diet with a focus on fruits and vegetables, since that helps bring down inflammation. We can also include omega 3 fatty acids, like coldwater fish, seeds and nuts, and increase dietary fiber. Anti-inflammatory herbs like ginger, curcumin, basil, boswellia and bromelain are all tops for halting inflammation.

In addition, limit high trans-fats and omega-6 fats like red meats, dairy products and processed foods with a longer shelf life, like cookies and crackers. Ditto for white carbohydrates like rice and flour. For many people wheat causes inflammation, and eliminating it from their diet helps.

There is also a movement called earthing, which studies show help reduce inflammation by directly touching the Earth for 15 minutes daily. “The Earth has this soothing effect — basically it’s a huge anti-inflammatory — like a Motrin,” says Laura Koniver, MD, a South Carolina physician and author of "From the Ground Up."

The theory is that negatively charged electrons on the Earth’s crust flow into our body through any skin contact with the Earth and neutralize free radicals that may be responsible for inflammation. To try: stand barefoot in your yard; dewy grass is the perfect conductor, as is wet sand. Lean up against a tree. Slip off shoes on a park bench and place feet directly on the ground. Try to get 15 minutes of Earth contact daily, and longer is better.

“The Earth’s crust has a limitless supply of free electrons and that’s what’s missing from our body when we build up chronic inflammation,” explains Koniver. Heck, being in contact with Mother Nature can never hurt.

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