Patients often come to me worried about inflammation. There are a number of factors we need to address before determining if inflammation is of real concern. This allows us to decide the path to follow in order to treat inflammation, and how to avoid it in the future.
Firstly, we need to understand what inflammation is:
Inflammation is a defence mechanism that allows the body to either
• protect itself from attack, such as from infection or a virus
• repair itself if injured, such as from a broken arm
There are two types of inflammation -- acute and chronic. Doctors can tell these apart by understanding the history of the inflammation, and by carefully examining the inflammation under their microscope of education and experience.
Acute inflammation is good inflammation and protects your body. This inflammation triggers a burst of intense activity that settles down once the body has healed. For example, when you break a bone, acute inflammation triggers swelling to protect the injured area; new bone cells are recruited and scar tissue is created to close up the wound. Once the bone has healed, the inflammation is gone.
This is in sharp contrast to chronic inflammation. This inflammation does not protect your body. One example is patients who suffer from a chronic inflammatory disorder like rheumatoid arthritis (inflammation in the joints). In this scenario, there is no attack (injury) on the body and the inflammation does not regress or disappear with healing.
There is an obvious stimulation of the immune system -- but one must ask, what could be stimulating the body to attack and destroy its own joints in rheumatoid arthritis? Or the brain in Alzheimer's disease? Possibly the nervous system in multiple sclerosis? The liver in auto-immune hepatitis? And even the gut in Crohn's disease?
That is the million-dollar question. And I suspect that the answer is a combination of genetics, lifestyle and diet.
"With identical twins, if one person has Crohn's, the likelihood that the other twin will develop Crohn's is around 50 per cent," says Josh Korzenik, MD, co-director of the Crohn's and Colitis Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. This means that two people who share the same genetic code have a 50/50 chance of developing this disease. The other 50 per cent comes from external forces, things such as whether or not we smoke, drink alcohol, exercise, or eat properly.
When to seek help
Chronic inflammation damages and alters the function of affected tissue. That tissue will have an effect on your overall health, and ultimately your life. I am aware this may sound extreme, but chronic inflammation can impact your ability physically, which may then result in limitation on your mental or social abilities and wellness.
There is hope! Chronic inflammation can usually be treated by a medical physician and medication.
1. Get the right diagnosis. I'm not suggesting you doubt everything you hear. What I am saying is you need to get the best diagnosis possible that fits your symptoms. Compare your symptoms to your diagnosis and make sure the two match.
2. Consider also who has made the diagnosis. A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis made by a family physician is not the same as one made by a neurologist specialized in this field.
3. Understand your triggers. Step back and try to figure out what has caused the inflammation. Common triggers might include stress, emotional stress, physical fatigue, smoking, or drinking alcohol.
4. Eat right. Your diet should include the most nutrient-dense foods possible. Avoid foods high in sugars, starches and calories. When you have a choice, choose Mother Earth.
5. Take supplements that have been shown to help your condition. It is important to discuss these supplements with your health care provider to ensure they are compliant with any medications you may be taking.
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