Monday, June 11, 2012

Inflammation: What's Stress Got To Do With It?

Last year I spoke at the Dallas Gluten & Allergen-Free Expo. My talk was on inflammation and I decided to focus on what I felt were the most important causes. At the top? Stress.

Are you surpised?

I didn't think so.

But let's talk about it a little.

First, what exactly is inflammation? We hear about it all the time, especially those of us with autoimmune disorders and food sensitivities. We know that we're all supposed to be on an anti-inflammatory diet. But on a very basic level, what is happening in our bodies?

When I talk about inflammation, I'm referring to chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation is the response that happens when we're injured. It's a short-term response designed to attack and clean up infectious or dangerous substances in your body. In a perfect world, this response would occur when needed by releasing pro-inflammatory compounds in your body, and once the problem has been taken care of, anti-inflammatory compounds would be released to turn the inflammatory response off.

We don't live in a perfect world.

Chronic inflammation occurs when this acute response goes haywire. The pro-inflammatory compounds don't turn off, and they create this constant fire in the body. What happens when pro-inflammatory compounds are running around in your body when they're unnecessary? They can damage healthy cells. This is why researchers are now hypothesizing that chronic inflammation is at the root of so many health issues. In heart disease, blood vessel linings can be damaged. In diabetes, your pancreatic tissue can be damaged. And in food sensitivities, your gut mucosa has been damaged.

So this is inflammation. But how do we combat it? Or perhaps a better way to look at it is, how do we put out the fire?

During my talk in Dallas, I discussed four areas that I felt were the most important for everyone to work on. I'm only going to address the first three briefly today, but feel free to leave a comment below if you would like a full post on each of these topics. I'm assuming that you know this already and I don't want to bore you with the details. What I'm going to focus on today is stress because the more I learn about it, the quicker  that factor has moved from the bottom of my short list to the #1 slot.

There's this whole chemical cascade going on in your body when you eat sugar, but here's what's most important to know. When your blood sugar rises, your insulin rises. When your insulin rises, your body creates more pro-inflammatory compounds. Those compounds keep the inflammation fire going. Decrease sugar and you decrease inflammation. 

Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are the body's building blocks for both pro and anti-inflammatory compounds. You need foods that provide both so that your immune system works properly.  Humans evolved eating a diet that was close to a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. Today, the SAD diet provides closer to a 1:25 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. This causes the body to create way more pro-inflammatory compounds than it needs to. Once again, we're fanning the fire.

Vegetables and fruits
Vegetables and fruits contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals. These are your fire fighters. Every time you eat a cucumber, apple, or carrot, you're quenching that fire. Now of course there are a lot of variations and exceptions here, reasons why certain vegetables may be better or worse for particular people. But that's a whole other discussion for another day. For now, just stick with the wisdom: eat more fruits and vegetables. It's been said over and over, and there's a good reason for that.

Now, for the fun part! Here's why I love exploring the relationship between stress and inflammation. If you can reduce your stress level, you will often find that you can also inadvertently take care of numerous other issues involved in inflammation.

Let's take a closer look.

At the superficial level, being stressed affects your eating. What happens when you're anxious? You want sugar. You're more likely to overeat, undereat, or just generally eat like crap. You forget about packing your salads for lunch, grab a croissant on the way to work, and guzzle a sugar laden coffee while you're at it. And you can forget about making the time to cook a healthy dinner with lots of vegetables. You're grabbing take-out on the way home. Or if you're like me and your food sensitivities keep you from ordering in like other people, you go home and eat the easiest possible thing. Which usually isn't the healthiest.

Bottom line? When you're stressed, you probably aren't eating as healthy. When you're not eating healthy, your inflammation increases.

Now, let's look a little deeper.

When you're stressed out, your digestion slows down. Suboptimal digestion causes further stress upon the body which in turn increases inflammation. Now think about your environment when you're eating. Are you sitting down at a table focusing on a nice meal? Or are you in your car, steering with one hand and eating your sandwich with the other? Watching TV, playing on Facebook, staring at your to-do list? Do you ever take the time to simply give yourself a few minutes to relax and breathe before beginning to eat? If you can just reduce the amount of stress in your body when you eat, you'll make a huge difference right there. This is especially important for those of us with food sensitivities.

Now, let's go one level deeper. Let's talk at the chemical level.

Did you know that just being stressed out can increase pro-inflammatory compounds, irrespective of whatever else is going on? This isn't a matter of stress messing up your healthy eating habits which then causes inflammation. No, research shows that stress itself can directly increase inflammation. In one laboratory study, inflammatory markers increased by 341 percent in subjects only 10 minutes after a stressful situation had been induced. In another study, chronically stressed men and women  showed up to four times the amount of a particular inflammatory marker as their counterparts who were not chronically stressed. Let's face it. Stress kills. Literally.

Wow. I bet you're really happy with me right now. So not only are you stressed out, but now you're stressed out about being stressed out. I swear, that wasn't my goal. My goal is to point out that stress is often the factor that goes unnoticed. This is not to say that we don't all recognize its importance. But when we're trying to become healthier, we often try to work on all of the other factors (eating less sugar, more vegetables, etc.), while ignoring what may be the most important point of all.

The stress factor.

What's stress got to do with inflammation? Everything.

What can you do about it? The possibilities are endless.

In my next post, I'm going to talk about how I've begun working with clients surrounding this very issue, some things you can do on your own at home, and how you can get your own session with me to get started on this work for free (read: birthday giveaway time)!

Until then, my little ladybugs...


Cheryl said...

This is a really good article. I recognize my self in there.

Lori (Maine) said...

My medical provider told me a while back that my blood work shows "chronic inflammation." I never did anything about it because I thought it must be harmless or she would have said more. (Lame excuse but true, sad to say!) I have several medical problems including having been diagnosed with: Irritable Bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, low levels of Vitamin D, sleep apnea, obesity etc. I am in pain literally 24/7. I wonder if inflammation is related to any of this? I also wonder what gluten is and why it's bad? I guess I have to read from the beginning!


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