Infl ammation as a health hazard

I must have been just ten years old when a blister grew on the right side of my upper lip. Worried, my father took me to several allopathic doctors, all of whom recommended surgery to get rid of it. My mother, more worried that surgery would deface me, almost stealthily, took me to a neighborhood saint who was also practicing alternate medicine, tibb to be specific. He had a close look at the blister and said that it was “tember” in Kashmiri and recommended a herb “Gul” available locally in plenty, to be applied after being partially stoked on live charcoal. And lo, the blister was gone in just four days to the relief of everyone at home. I can still identify this herb. In fact, I saw it in Australia, Europe, Canada and even in USA. That much for the critics of the alternate system of medicine, AYUSH, being encouraged by the present government.

I am not medically qualified to comment but as a layman I can say that “tember”, the blister, was an inflammation. Inflammation is older than humanity itself and the earliest signs of inflammatory processes were found on the bones of dinosaurs. Rig Veda, the earliest Veda, mentions about diseases and medicinal plants. In Athrava Veda too, there are hyms which mention about medicines like Accorus calamus and Phylanthus Embelia. The Ayurveda system of treatment of diseases is rooted in the Vedic era even as most material relating to the health and diseases are available in Atharva Veda. The earliest codified document on Ayurveda is Charaka Samhita, which deals with internal medicine.  Sushruta samhita, another codified document, said to have descended from and propagated by Dhanvantari, deals with surgical processes. Much later and perhaps independently, the use of plants to cure inflammatory diseases was perpetuated by the Greeks too, and Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, suggested that all disease begins in the gut and used extracts from willow bark to relieve pain and fever. While some of his wisdom has stood the test of time, later research has modified his other assumptions.

Inflammation is a fascinating process, because although it is designed to help our body heal, it can actually cause a lot of harm and do some serious collateral damage as well. Inflammation is the root cause of many diseases. In fact, chronic inflammation causes so many diseases, including Heart disease, Diabetes, High blood pressure (hypertension), Stroke, Arthritis, Asthma, Eczema, Autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus,  Crohn’s Disease and Colitis, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and even Parkinson’s disease. According to the Harvard Medical School it stands scientifically proven that chronic, low-grade inflammation can turn into a silent killer that contributes to cardiovas­cular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and other conditions. The fact that three out of five people around the world die from a disease linked to inflammation raises serious red flags.

To understand inflammation, one may recall when one burnt one’s hand on the stove or twisted one’s ankle playing sports or lifting weights at the gym. Recall that swelling, redness, heat, and pain. One would feel pretty miserable but all of those symptoms were actually the body’s way of saying, “I’m injured and I need to be repaired.” Inflammation is a vital part of the immune system’s response to injury and infection. It is the body’s way of signaling the immune system to heal and repair damaged tissue, as well as defend itself against foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. It is ok when it’s acute, or short-term, like when one has a cold or a virus. One gets body aches, swollen glands, congestion and a fever. The immune system is wreaking havoc on the body so that one feels better. It turns on quickly and goes away as soon as the invader leaves the system. Acute inflammation that occurs and resolves quickly is nothing to worry about. It is the chronic, or the long-term, inflammation that is really the problem. Chronic inflammation is also called persistent, low-grade inflammation because it produces a steady, low-level of inflammation throughout the body, as judged by a small rise in immune system markers found in blood or tissue. This type of systemic inflammation can contribute to the development of disease, according to a summary in the Johns Hopkins Health Review. These low levels are triggered by a perceived internal threat, even when there isn’t a disease to fight or an injury to heal, and sometimes this signals the immune system to respond. As a result, white blood cells swarm but have nothing to do and nowhere to go, and they may eventually start attacking internal organs or other healthy tissues and cells.

Take stress for example; it is the panic button for inflammation. Everyone has it, but it’s one of the major causes of chronic inflammation. There’s no injury per se, but when one is stressed out all one’s brain hears is “danger, danger”! And so inflammation kicks in to save the day. The problem, however, is that if one is always stressed out about work, money, relationships, one’s worries cycle like a hamster wheel and one finds oneself in a constant state of anxiety. And if one does not find a way to cope with the stress, inflammation will never end. What’s more worrying, however, is that even though inflammation will do damage control, it doesn’t care what it leaves behind. The result is more health problems, visits to specialists and disease. In fact, a recent study out of Harvard School of Medicine shows that stress can increase white blood cells and inflammation in the arteries which can lead to a heart attack.

Common sense suggests that we study the causes of Inflammation so that by treating those one could avoid falling prey to many a disease just mentioned above. Besides looking for clues in the blood, a person’s diet, lifestyle habits and environmental exposures can contribute to chronic inflammation. It’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle to keep inflammation in check. It is therefore not surprising that its  main sources have been found to be: Diet, Allergies and sensitivities to both food and the environment, Periodontal disease and gum recession, Smoking, Chemicals in cleaning products, plastics, beauty products, food, Prescription and over the counter medications and supplements, Environmental toxins, Injury and trauma. So although we all have some form of inflammation, there is a lot we can do from a lifestyle perspective to control it so that it does not get out of control and make us sick.

It is being increasingly felt that inflammation caused by bacterial endotoxins may be the missing link between an unhealthy diet, obesity, and chronic metabolic diseases. Still, chronic inflammation is incredibly complex, and scientists are just beginning to explore how inflammation and diet may be connected. It is likely that the general healthfulness of our diet and lifestyle affects our risk of chronic inflammation and conditions linked to it, rather than a single dietary cause. Thus, to keep ourselves and our gut healthy, it is best to focus on an overall healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise, good sleep, and a diet based on real foods, plenty of pre-biotic fiber, and few processed junk foods. “Anti-inflammatory food components, such as omega-3 fats, protect the body against the possible damage caused by inflammation,” says Ximena Jimenez, a Miami-based nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

An anti-inflammatory diet also means staying away from foods that can promote inflammation. It’s best to minimize the amount of foods that are high in saturated and trans fats, such as red meats, dairy products and foods containing partially hydrogenated oils, according to the University of Wisconsin. In addition, limiting sugary foods and refined carbohydrates, such as white rice and bread and cut back on the use of cooking oils and margarines that are high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as corn, safflower and sunflower oils, surely helps. Reducing as much as possible the amount of processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods will certainly contribute to better gut health. Additionally, eating plenty of plant-based foods and lean protein can positively impact our gut. A diet high in fibre has been shown to contribute tremendously to the gut health.

Chewing our food thoroughly and being at ease during our meals can help promote full digestion and absorption of nutrients. This may help you reduce digestive discomfort and maintain a healthy gut. Drinking plenty of water has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the mucosal lining of the intestines, as well as on the balance of good bacteria in the gut. Adding a prebiotic or probiotic supplement to our diet may be a great way to improve our gut health. While prebiotics provide “food” meant to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, probiotics are live good bacteria.

In case one has symptoms such as cramping, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, rashes, nausea, fatigue, and acid reflux, one may be suffering from a food intolerance. In such situations one can try eliminating common trigger foods to see if one’s symptoms improve. If one is able to identify a food or foods that contribute to one’s symptoms, one may see a positive change in the digestive health by changing one’s eating habits. In fact, frequent use of turmeric, ginger and garlic, the time tested anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory foods,  as additives to our daily food, will do a lot of good in improving our health.

Lowering of stress levels assumes a lot of importance in restoring our gut health. This could be done through meditation, walking, getting a massage, spending time with friends or family, diffusing essential oils, decreasing caffeine intake, laughing, yoga, or having a pet to play with. This ritual, when followed regularly, will also help us in getting enough and sufficient quality sleep, which in turn will contribute to our well-being.

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh. He is a Trustee of Vitasta Health Care.