Inflammation: The Usual Suspects

A few weeks ago my nephew asked me what causes inflammation and I tried my best to explain to him the process and it’s usual triggers in the most simple non-medical terms, but didn’t feel like I did a good enough job. Since then inflammation has come up so much outside of the clinic setting, I thought I would write about the most common triggers and how it manifests to cause you all types of pain including joint, bone, back, pelvic, head as well as pimples, bloating, colds, allergies, eczema, reflux, thyroid disease, and pretty much any other discomfort you have in your body.

Inflammation is definitely not a bad thing. If we get a cut, we hope our body launches an inflammatory attack with macrophages and clotting factors that help heal the wound so we don’t bleed out or get rancid infections. The process of inflammation allows us to fight bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders. It’s a beautiful system. It’s when we have chronic, constant low-grade inflammation that the beautiful system becomes a disaster causing a disturbance of our health.

When people come into the office who have any of the above issues and are ready for a lifestyle change, we first look at their diet. Food as medicine is HUGE right now and rightly so. Thomas Edison said, “The doctor of the future will no medication, but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.” This was so prophetic for someone who wasn’t even in the medical field and now we’re focusing towards prevention and proactive care in medicine, using the right foods as medicine.

The first three foods we look at are sugar, dairy and gluten and ask if the patient is ready to cut one or all of these know inflammatory culprits.

Sugar: This comes in about 40 different forms from coconut sugar to honey to agave to corn syrup, it’s all sugar. Sugar is ubiquitous, it’s found in chips, ketchup, processed meat, even baby formula! Scary isn’t it? We know sugar causes tooth decay, but now we know it also leads to obesity, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, poor memory, heart disease, wrinkles and acne. We know from MRI’s that sugar lights up the same part of the brain as heroine or cocaine, so as Dr. Mark Hyman says, eat sugar recreationally, as a special treat every once in a while, not on a daily basis, four or five times a day.

Substitutes to sugar: Dates, figs, persimmons, kiwis, tangerines and various types of berries are good substitutes for sweeteners.

Dairy: My mom was telling me today that in her early 2o’s she would drink milk and be violently ill with stomach issues and discomfort, but never linked the two. Now of course she avoids milk at most costs. Dairy is the second most inflammatory food in our modern diet, right behind gluten. Most people suffer from digestive issues like gas, bloating, diarrhea, or discomfort when they consume dairy products, but it has also been linked to acne and allergies, asthma and eczema. The protein casein is usually to blame. You’re probably saying, “but I need dairy for strong bones and teeth!”, well we now know that milk is acidic in the body and actually leaches calcium, potassium and magnesium from the bones increasing risk of fractures and osteoporosis. Isn’t that a kicker?!

Substitutes to dairy: About 16 different milk substitutes are available, try them all!

Gluten: This may seem like a trendy one and I guess it is, but with good reason. The wheat and some grains we’re eating today are not the same of our ancestors. The way we grow it, process it, prepare, even its DNA is completely different, so much so our modern bodies are unable to process it and in turn it causes inflammation. There may be a day when our bodies will be able to digest without having an inflammatory effect, but that doesn’t happen now and we know that gluten has strong statistical association to many autoimmune diseases, including thyroid disease, Type 1 Diabetes, and Multiple Sclerosis. It’s also been linked to arthritis, chronic pain, IBS, and many other common Western diseases. 

Substitutes to gluten: Endless substitutes exist in the gluten-free isle of the grocery store, but I recommend using less of the substitutes and more of the plant-based foods or getting creative. If you do need a ‘flour-like’ source try chickpea or coconut.

Excess Weight: Physiologically, if you have too many fat cells your body they send a signal to the brain saying that it’s too stressful. This in turn launches an inflammatory attack sometimes causing resistance to insulin. Insulin is a hormone necessary to  get food into your cells for energy. If you have increased resistance to insulin it can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes.

Stress: Oh stress, the unquantifiable symptom. The chronic symptom of most Americans who participate in modern society. We operate on stress so regularly, it’s almost undetectable. I know many people who come to my office seemingly chill and controlled who have C-reactive proteins (a non-specific inflammatory blood marker) or blood pressures or heart rates through the roof. Stress sucks, plain and simple. We all know it, we al feel it, some people thrive on it and it doesn’t do us any good. How do you manage stress? I’m a big advocate for mediation and it’s endless benefits, but you can do just about anything that calms your breath and eases your anxiety from cooking to walking to zumba to petting your dog. Inflammation from stress doesn’t have to be in the present moment. Emotional, mental, physical, and sexual trauma from your past deposits on your nerve cells and gets fired up to cause inflammation too. Every time I see a hooded man walking towards me, I get physically ill and my sympathetic nervous system kicks-in. Then for days, sometimes weeks, I’m on edge, easily startled and just a little bit off balance, every time I think about the incident.

Poor or Little Sleep: Sleep deprivation, even just for a few hours, can have a monumental effect on the body. It produces the inflammatory reaction we’ve been talking about and can turn against you increasing risk for heart disease and autoimmune disease. People with chronic pain have reported less pain with good, high-quality sleep. Poor sleep also affects your hormones, causing decreased glucose intolerance and even weight gain! Cortisol is also a big player and we know that the cortisol schedule gets thrown off with sleep deprivation causing all sorts of metabolic changes including the abdominal weight gain.

So now that you know the usual suspects, which ones are you willing to cut out?



Image courtesy of iosphere at


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