There are increasing amounts of research that suggest inflammation may be more important than cholesterol at elevating the risk of heart disease and stroke. Inflammation is also thought to increase the risk of other diseases such as cancer, rheumatologic diseases (such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis) and Alzheimer’s disease. So if inflammation is so important, what is it? Inflammation is quite simply your body’s natural defense to a foreign invader such as bacteria, toxins, or viruses. The inflammatory process is perfect in how it protects the body from these bacterial and viral invaders. However, if we chronically expose the body to injury by toxins or foods the human body was never designed to process, chronic inflammation will occur. Chronic inflammation is just as harmful as acute inflammation is beneficial. The goal is to prevent chronic inflammation.
How do you know if your inflammation level is high? A simple blood test known as C-reactive protein (CRP) can measure your inflammation level. The CRP test gives you a number. Less than 1 is considered good (low risk) and greater than 3 is considered bad (high risk). Your goal over the long term is to have a level less than 1.
What are the biggest culprits of chronic inflammation? Highly processed carbohydrates (sugar, flour, white rice and all the products made from them) and omega-6 vegetable oils like soybean, corn and safflower (which are found in many processed foods) are the biggest culprits in our diet. Several times a day, every day, these foods we consume create small injuries in your body compounding into more injuries, causing the body to respond continuously and appropriately with inflammation.
While we savor the tantalizing taste of a warm, iced doughnut, our bodies respond alarmingly as if a foreign invader arrived declaring war. How does eating a simple doughnut create a cascade of inflammation leading to sickness? Imagine spilling syrup on your keyboard and you have a visual of what occurs inside the cell. When we consume simple carbohydrates, blood sugar rises rapidly. In response, the pancreas secretes insulin whose primary purpose is to drive sugar into each cell where it is stored for energy. If the cell is full and does not need glucose, it is rejected to avoid extra sugar gumming up the works. When cells reject the extra glucose, blood sugar levels rise, leading to more insulin production. The extra glucose is subsequently converted to stored fat. What does all this have to do with inflammation? Blood sugar is controlled in a very narrow range. Extra sugar molecules attach to a variety of proteins that in turn injure the blood vessel wall. This repeated injury to the blood vessel wall sets off inflammation.
Let’s get back to the warm doughnut. This innocent looking goody not only contains sugars, it is also baked in one of many omega-6 oils such as soybean. Chips, fries, crackers, and pastries are all soaked in soybean oil. Processed foods are manufactured with omega-6 oils to create a longer shelf life. While omega-6s are essential (they are part of every cell membrane controlling what goes in and out of the cell) they must be in the correct balance with omega-3s. If the balance shifts by consuming excessive omega-6s, the cell membrane produces chemicals that directly cause inflammation. Today’s mainstream American diet has produced an extreme imbalance of these two fats. The ratio of imbalance ranges from 15:1 to as high as 30:1 in favor of omega-6. In today’s food environment, a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio would be optimal and healthy. To make matters worse, the excess weight many Americans are carrying from eating these foods creates overloaded fat cells that pour out large quantities of pro-inflammatory chemicals that add to the injury caused by having high blood sugar. The process that began with a doughnut turns into a vicious cycle over time that leads to heart disease, stroke, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
There is no escaping the fact that the more we consume prepared and processed foods, the more we trip the inflammation switch little by little each day. The human body cannot process, nor was it designed to consume, foods packed with simple carbohydrates and sugars and then soaked in omega-6 oils.
There is but one answer to quieting inflammation, and that is returning to foods closer to their natural state. We need to eat more whole foods. Avoid processed foods. Choose carbohydrates that are complex such as colorful fruits and vegetables. Beans are also a good complex carbohydrate. These complex carbs tend to be high in fiber. Cut down on or eliminate inflammation causing omega-6 fats like corn, soybean, and safflower oils and the processed foods that are made from them. Instead, use olive oil. (You need to read labels!) By eliminating inflammatory foods and adding essential nutrients from fresh unprocessed food, you will reverse years of damage in your arteries and throughout your body from consuming the standard American diet.