Chronic Inflammation: The Internal Fire That’s Making You Sick, Fat, and Unhappy

sickChronic low-grade inflammation, a condition characterized by elevated concentrations of inflammatory markers in systemic circulation and activated inflammatory cells, is at the root of a multitude of chronic diseases and health disorders. Chances are, even if you feel “pretty good”, your health condition is still poor when compared to that of your preagricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors, and you probably have some degree of low-level inflammation going on. Putting out this internal fire, which is the term the ancient Greeks used to describe inflammation, is key to achieving good health and a long life.

Why we get sick

Modern humans are sick. Most of us have dealt with or are currently struggling with a chronic health problem of some sort, whether it’s irritable bowel syndrome, overweight, acne vulgaris, or more serious conditions like cardiovascular disease and the metabolic syndrome. Every year we spend billions of dollars on drugs, supplements, and visits to doctors, physiotherapists, and various other health practitioners in an attempt to treat what’s ailing us, but despite the many “advancements” of modern medicine, we just seem to get sicker and sicker…

Albert Einstein once said: “To learn about health, one must study health, but we must begin now, because soon there won’t be any recollection of what good health really is”. It could be argued that we’ve now reached this point where we’ve forgotten what good health really is.

If you were to just jump into this world without any previous knowledge of how things were earlier in human history, you might think that today’s conditions represent the evolutionary norm. In other words, that chronic health problems like the ones mentioned above are just a natural part of human life.

However, as everyone in the ancestral health community knows, this is not really the case. Many of the chronic diseases that plague us in today’s society were rare or absent among our Paleolithic ancestors, a statement that is supported by several lines of evidence, including studies of isolated, traditional populations and forager communities which show that cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and many other chronic health disorders we suffer from in today’s society are rare or absent among these people (1, 2).

If you ask your general health practitioner about the causes and solutions to this modern epidemic of chronic disease, he may tell you that each disease has its own unique, complex causes, and that the key to a healthier future is to establish which pathways, receptors, and enzymes that are involved in each condition and then design specific drugs and treatment protocols. He’ll likely also add a few words about physical activity, diet, and sleep, but given that he’s never received any proper education on these topics, he may tell you that they are of minor importance.

However, if you ask someone who practises Darwinian medicine the same question, you’ll probably get a very different answer. He’ll likely tell you that the so-called disease of civilization that plague us in the modern world don’t arise because there is something inherently flawed with the human body, but rather because we are inadequately adapted for the modern environment.

To get his arguments across, he may bring out and read aloud from some of the many excellent research papers on evolutionary health promotion that are out there, such as this 2011 paper:

Our genes and physiology, which are still almost identical to those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors of 100,000 years ago, preserve core regulation and recovery processes  [4,5]. Nowadays our genes operate in an environment which is completely different to the one for which they were designed.

Modern man is exposed to an environment which has changed enormously since the time of the industrial revolution. In recent decades there has been a tremendous acceleration in innovations which have changed our lives completely. As a consequence, more than 75% of humans do not meet the minimum requirement of the estimated necessary daily physical activity[6], 72% of modern food types is new in human evolution [7], psycho-emotional stress has increased and man is exposed to an overwhelming amount of information on a daily basis. All these factors combine to produce an environment full of modern danger signals which continuously activate the IIS [innate immune system] and central stress axes.

The question is whether the IIS and its natural inflammatory response, Resoleomics, can still function optimally in this modern, fast-changing environment, considering that the IIS is designed to produce short, intensive reactions to acute external danger [8,9]. It would seem that in the bodies of people who have adopted a Western lifestyle the inflammatory response is not concluded because of an initial excessive or subnormal onset of the response [10]. (3)

Clearly, there are many causes underlying the so-called diseases of civilization. However, there’s little doubt that environment, not genes, should be the primary focus, and that the powerful and rapid changes to our lifestyle (e.g., diet, sleep, physical activity) over the last several millennia are the key to understanding why chronic diseases and health problems that were once rare are now spreading like fire in dry grass.

All in all, it’s safe to say that the conventional medical community should shift some of its focus from symptom-based treatments and the development of new drugs towards evolutionary and preventive medicine.

The silent killer

But how does our environment and lifestyle interact with our bodies to make us sick? The answer to this question will vary depending on who you ask, simply because there is no single magic bullet to solving complex health problems. However, if you dig into the scientific literature on diseases that are now common, but were once rare, you’ll quickly see that there are many overlapping trends. After all, an orchestra of lifestyle factors – such as an unhealthy diet, chronic stress, and insufficient sleep – is at the root of the diseases of civilization, and it therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that the causal mechanisms underlying these conditions have many commonalities.

As highlighted in the quote above, inflammation is one of the key words to keep in mind in the discussion of chronic disease. When properly controlled, inflammatory responses are essential to remain healthy, as inflammation is a mechanism that initiates pathogen killing, protects the host from infection, sets in motion repair processes at damaged sites, and helps restore homeostasis. However, the dark side of inflammation is that it can become pathological when there is a loss of tolerance and/or of regulatory processes.

It’s not the acute inflammation that occurs when you sprain your ankle or burn yourself on the stove that we should worry about, but rather the chronic low-grade inflammation that seems to go hand-in-hand with our modern way of life.

The inflamed modern man

Studies that have investigated the impact of diet and lifestyle on the inflammatory tone in the human body convey one clear message: In the modern industrialized world, we’re doing pretty much everything wrong. A high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, excessive energy intake, smoking, insufficient physical activity, inadequate sleep, a low intake of fruits and vegetables, chronic stress, consumption of refined food, low vitamin D status, an imbalance between the many micronutrients that make up our antioxidant/pro-oxidant network, and many other factors associated with our current Western lifestyle jointly cause a state of chronic low-grade inflammation (4, 5, 6, 7).

Top that of with the fact that we for decades have bombarded the human microbiome with broad-spectrum antibiotics, live in an environment where we are regularly exposed to various pollutants and mold toxins, and have disconnected ourselves from the natural environment by moving into modern apartment complexes, and you can quickly understand why the body of the modern man is so susceptible to inflammation-driven disease.

Adipose tissue, loose connective tissue in which fat cells accumulate, synthesizes and releases several hormones and inflammatory mediators (e.g., tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukin 6), which partly explains why obese people tend to have higher systemic concentrations of several inflammatory compounds than normal weight persons (4). Moreover, chronic inflammation can promote overeating and weight gain by wreaking havoc on hormonal and metabolic health. This compromised state sets the stage for insulin resistance, and eventually, the illnesses associated with the metabolic syndrome (4).

Given that more than 2 billion people worldwide are now overweight or obese, this connection between elevated body fat stores and chronic inflammation clearly is of major importance in the discussion of public health.

Obesity-related health conditions are far from the only disorders out there that are characterized by a state of systemic, low-grade inflammation. Low level elevations of circulating inflammatory mediators are associated with the development of health conditions as diverse as depression, insulin resistance, and atherosclerosis (4, 8, 9).

Systemic low-grade inflammation is a common denominator of most, if not all, typically western chronic illnesses (4). Inflammation can result as a consequence of chronic disease; however, it can also drive the development and progression of disease (4, 10, 11, 12).

Controlling inflammation: A key to a longer, healthier lifespan

Given the information above, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that reducing inflammation is essential to achieving a longer, healthier lifespan.

Ageing is accompanied by increasing concentrations of systemic circulating inflammatory markers, something that has led to the coining of the term inflamm-ageing. This low-grade inflammation typical of ageing can be considered the common biological factor responsible for the decline and the onset of disease in the elderly, since the major age-related diseases share a common inflammatory pathogenesis (13).

In a recent study, researchers analyzed data from 1,500 adults between the ages of 50 and 115 years old, including 684 centenarians or supercentenarians and 167 children of centenarians, in an attempt to identify potential drivers of multiple dimensions of the ageing process up to 110 years of age. The study found that…

Together, our results suggest that suppression of inflammation is the most important driver of successful longevity that increases in importance with advancing age and is amenable to pharmacological intervention. (14)

In other words, adopting an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle isn’t only important to achieve robust health today, but also to arrive at healthy ageing!

Cooling down our bodies

So, how can we resolve the imbalance between inflammatory and anti-inflammatory stimuli and the conflict between our environment and our ancient genome?

Since the systemic, low-grade inflammation that accompanies a Western lifestyle doesn’t originate from a single cause, there is no magic bullet, supplement, or drug that can resolve the problem. Rather, an integrated approach that includes diet, sleep, physical activity, and all of the other lifestyle components we talk so much about in the ancestral health community is needed.

Taking up an anti-inflammatory, Paleo-inspired lifestyle is the best approach to cool down an overheated, inflamed body (1, 3, 4). To gain optimal benefits, emphasis should be placed on optimizing gene expression and restoring a healthy microbiome. Pharmaceuticals and conventional medical interventions can be useful in some instances, but in general, it’s safe to say that diet, lifestyle, and environmental factors such as indoor air quality are the most important things to consider.

Picture: Creative Commons picture by TheGlantVermin. Some Rights Reserved.

Comments

  1. Excellent as always mate and spot on….as always.

  2. Amen to that!

  3. Hi Eirik,

    Excellent article.

    What are your thoughts on the recent discovery of the possible mechanism behind red meat and cancers?

    http://m.pnas.org/content/112/2/542.abstract

    It seems even unprocessed/preserved, grass fed red meats are implicated since that particular sugar is inherently available in mammalian red meat.

    Thanks!

    • I’ve seen this latest red meat scare make its way around the internet, but I haven’t had time to look the study over myself – and I don’t think I will. I read over the abstract just now, and I don’t really see that this mice study will provide us with any new insight or evidence regarding the relationship between meat (grass-fed, unprocessed) consumption and human health.

      I hope to get an article on red meat published on the blog in the near future, I just have to find the time to write it!

      Unfortunately, most of the red meats you’ll find at the typical supermarket bear little resemblence to the ones our Paleo ancestors consumed. Among other things, CAFO-produced meat has a poor fatty acid profile and may contain residues of hormones and antibiotics. Grass-fed, unprocessed red meat on the other hand is healthy, and I recommend that you include it as a regular part of your diet.

  4. Looking forward to that article!

    Meanwhile I’ve reduced my red meat consumption just in case and cut out my infrequent processed red meat consumption.

  5. Hello Eirik.
    As you’ve said above, most of the red meats available are not exactly what one should aim for. Therefore I wonder, is there a particular way to know what are the “clean” meats one should get? Sort of a “kosher” kind of certificate or so?
    Thank you

    • Hi camilo.

      When you’re at the store, look for grass-fed, organic meat of a reputable brand. Going straight to the source (e.g., local farmer, farmers market) is also a possibility.

  6. Here’s a very brilliant article by Trevor Connor about how wheat is one of the major triggers of inflammation. It’s really worth to read entirely.http://thepaleodiet.com/the-wheat-series-part-1-wheat-and-the-immune-system/#.VkMP3dYuLqA

Leave a Reply

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: