Inflammation – Friend and Foe
Inflammation has become a big health buzzword, borne out of a growing awareness that chronic inflammation sits at the heart of many of our modern day diseases. But what is inflammation and is it all bad?
Contrary to popular belief, inflammation isn’t inherently a bad thing. Rather it’s a sign that something is going on in the body. For example, inflammation is present when our immune system is fighting an infection, when we get injured, or when we need to repair or eliminate damaged cells. In this way, inflammation is an absolutely indispensable part of our physiology and integral to our host defences. Without the ability to mount an effective inflammatory response we’d pretty soon be toast.
So why the bad rap? It’s perhaps more helpful to think about our relationship with inflammation as a ‘love-hate’ affair. Whilst inflammation is essential to get important things done, like creating a hostile environment to fight off a pathogen, what we don’t need is excessive amounts or chronic ongoing inflammation. This is inappropriate inflammation that left unchecked can wreak havoc with our health, and is a root cause of some of the biggest health problems we face in the 21st century, encompassing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, depression, and the very ageing process itself.
So where does that leave us? In a nutshell, it’s all about balance. We want inflammation to ramp up when it’s required, and switch off again when the threat is resolved. What we don’t want is chronic unresolved inflammation that keeps smouldering away in our cells long after it’s needed.
How do I measure my inflammation level?
One of the best measures of inflammation is C-reactive protein (or CRP for short). CRP is a protein in the blood that increases when inflammation is present and is a sensitive marker of inflammation throughout the body. Whilst high levels of CRP will be transiently present during acute inflammation (such as when fighting off an infection), at OmniAthlete Today we are interested in gaining an insight into the presence of low grade, chronic, unresolved inflammation, which is why we specifically measure high sensitivity CRP. Compared with the standard CRP test, high sensitivity CRP more precisely detects low levels of the protein, rendering it a more accurate measure of persistent low grade inflammation.
What is an optimal CRP level?
We regard an ideal high sensitivity CRP concentration to be <1.0 mg/L. This is in line with The American Heart Association and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which have defined risk groups for heart problems as follows:
- Low risk: <1.0 mg/L
- Average risk: 1.0 to 3.0 mg/L
- High risk: >3.0 mg/L
What can influence my inflammation level?
There are many lifestyle factors that can either exacerbate or lower levels of inflammation in the body.
What we eat has a major impact on inflammation in the body for better or worse. A standard Western dietary pattern, characterised by a high intake of saturated fats, sugar and ultra processed foods can be considered pro-inflammatory. In contrast, a traditional Mediterranean Diet, characterised by a high intake of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, fish and olive oil, can be considered an anti-inflammatory.
Unpicking this further, nutritional science reveals numerous components of healthful diets, such as the Mediterranean Diet, that can help combat inflammation. Omega-3 fats, specifically the long-chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA found in oily fish, so often lacking in modern diets, exert powerful effects on resolving inflammation in the body. Likewise, there are many plant nutrients, known as phytonutrients, which can be powerful allies in the fight against inflammation. Foods such as broccoli sprouts, turmeric, extra virgin olive oil, cocoa, cooked tomatoes, and berries, to name but a few examples, all contain powerful phytonutrients that help to activate the body’s in-built cellular defences against inflammation.
The good news for those who enjoy regular exercise is that amongst the litany of health benefits is lowering levels of inflammation in the body. Superficially at least it’s a paradoxical situation as exercise is a stressor on the body that causes a temporary increase in inflammation. However, the body mounts an adaptive response to the stress of exercise, which in the long run renders regular physical exercise an effective anti-inflammatory intervention. This is reflected in the finding that CRP levels are lower in people who do moderate exercise compared to those who are inactive.
But when it comes to reaping the benefits of exercise on inflammation, it’s important to appreciate that more is not better. As you move from being sedentary to getting more moderate exercise, so the positive anti-inflammatory benefits of exercise grow. But there comes a tipping point where not only are there no further benefits, but those benefits are reversed. This occurs when prolonged high intensity exercise is performed repeatedly with inadequate periods of recovery, leading to immune dysregulation and heightened inflammation.
Due to the nature of modern lifestyles, many of us have circadian rhythms that are disrupted or delayed meaning we frequently go to sleep too late and don’t achieve sufficient sleep, both in terms of quantity and quality. Chronic lack of sleep is associated with a wide range of maladies including insulin resistance, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Of the many perturbations to our biology caused by insufficient sleep is an increase in the level of inflammation in the body, with sleep deprivation shown to be associated with elevations in a number of inflammatory mediators, including CRP.
What can I do to lower inflammation?
Testing your high sensitivity CRP can provide a deep insight into whether you are optimally controlling inflammation in your body and tackling chronic inappropriate inflammation is one of the most powerful things any of us can do to feel well, perform at our best and promote our health span. The really positive news is that inflammation can be modified by simple changes to our lifestyles – the way we eat, move and sleep all make a difference.