Inflammation is all the rage lately. And rightfully so. Research has shown that chronic inflammation is at the core of most, if not all, of the chronic diseases that affect Americans. But what about chronic pain? Could chronic joint pain, back pain, or muscle pain be caused by chronic inflammation? And can it be alleviated by changing your diet? The answer is yes.
What is Inflammation?
First, we must understand what inflammation is. Inflammation is the term given to describe the biological response that occurs as a result of tissue damage. Bacterial infections, trauma, chemical exposures and dying tissue may all start the inflammatory cascade. In human physiology there are two kinds of inflammation. First, there is the acute form. In this form of inflammation the body responds to an injury by creating an environment that is conducive to healing and tissue repair. The body does this by sending fluids and blood to the area. That’s why the injury swells, turns red and becomes warm to the touch. This is a necessary step after an injury. Acute inflammation is a good thing for the body.
The second type of inflammation, called chronic inflammation, is not a good thing for the body. Chronic inflammation is a lower grade inflammatory response, but it is persistent. Unlike acute inflammation, which resolves, chronic inflammation is a continuous phenomenon that persists silently for years on end. The chronicity of the response is precisely what makes it so problematic. It increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and many other conditions.
Chronic Inflammation and Pain
How does chronic inflammation affect your pain level? First, it’s important to remember the most widely used pain relievers in the world like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin work by reducing inflammation, not by working directly on nerves. This should illustrate the importance of inflammation in producing pain in the human body. However, there are ways to reduce inflammation without resorting to medications, which have serious side-effect profiles, even when taken as directed. The diet is the key.
Dietary-induced chronic inflammation produces an assortment of inflammatory chemicals capable of sensitizing the pain pathways. Moreover, if this sensitization of the pain pathways persists, adaptive responses by the brain cause the sensation of the pain to become exaggerated or inappropriate. The key to fixing this is to reduce the chronic inflammation.
The Pro-Inflammatory Diet
In this country, most people eat a “pro-inflammatory” diet. That is, they consume food that consistently feeds the inflammatory cascade in the body, leading to chronic inflammation. As previously pointed out, chronic inflammation leads to tissue destruction and many disease states. In order to fully understand why our diets lead to this state, we must understand the basics of fatty acids.
Fatty acids are individual molecules that make up triglycerides in our body. Triglycerides are the storage form of fat that humans use for energy. In human physiology there are three important fatty acids. There are omega-3 (n-3), omega-6 (n-6) and omega-9 (n-9) fatty acids. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential in the human diet. This means that we must consume them in our diet in order to survive. Omega-9 fatty acids are classified as non-essential because we are able to synthesize them from other unsaturated fats in our body. It is the balance of these fatty acids that is critical for controlling and reducing inflammation in human physiology.
First, we must examine the role of fatty acids in our body when speaking about inflammation. Fatty acids work to produce a variety of chemicals in the body called eicosanoids. These chemicals are at the heart of the inflammatory cascade. Some eicosanoids are beneficial while others can contribute to inflammation. The harmful eicosanoids that contribute to the inflammatory cascade are related to an omega-6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid. If arachidonic acid is incorporated into a specific eicosanoid then it becomes pro-inflammatory. If it is not incorporated it becomes anti-inflammatory. It is arachidonic acid that will fuel the inflammatory cascade, eventually resulting in the production of chemicals capable of sensitizing the pain pathways.
So, we must take a closer look at this specific fatty acid called arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is found preformed in animal products, especially meat. In addition, it is easily converted in the body from the fatty acids found in grains and vegetable oils like corn, safflower and sunflower oil. Also, animals fed a steady diet of grain are exceptionally high in arachidonic acid.
Obviously, what we eat will determine our fatty acid profile and potentially contribute to chronic inflammation and pain. One might think, based on the information given above, that becoming a vegetarian would significantly reduce one’s overall inflammatory load. And it does make sense especially if we take into account that arachidonic acid is preformed in meat. It has been shown, however, that the opposite is true.
The average American diet has unfortunately shifted to promote excessive production, storage and utilization of arachidonic acid. This leads to the over-production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids. Research has shown that man evolved with a ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids of about 1:1. Today, the average ratio in the diet is anywhere from 10:1 to 20-25:1. This is disadvantageous because we know that omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and have a wealth of other health benefits. Plainly put, our diets have shifted to favor inflammation.
As mentioned earlier, it would seem that vegetarian diets would be most beneficial in creating an anti-inflammatory state because animal products are high in preformed arachidonic acid. This hypothesis, however, has not held up in clinical studies. It has been shown that vegetarians, in fact, have a higher plasma level of arachidonic acid and an essentially equal level of arachidonic acid found in red blood cells when compared to meat eaters. The study also showed that vegetarians have lower levels of the protective and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA. This suggests that vegetarian diets shift people closer to an inflammatory state than they probably desire.
A diet high in fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins and fats it ideal for stopping and preventing chronic inflammation. This type of diet will invariably be low glycemic. The glycemic index refers to the effect on blood sugar that a particular food will have. A food that has a low glycemic index (GI) will raise blood sugar much more slowly than a food with a high GI. Foods with a low GI are much more beneficial for controlling inflammation because low glycemic foods cause a much smaller response from the hormone insulin. Insulin is the hormone that’s required for most of the cells in our body to use and store sugar for energy. Insulin, which is secreted from the pancreas, actually stimulates an enzyme that converts omega-6s into the dreaded arachidonic acid. So a diet that is high glycemic will cause one’s body to over secrete insulin and further drive the inflammatory cascade.
So a diet high in fruits, vegetables, protein and healthy fat will lead to lower inflammation and greater pain control, but are there are other things you can add into your diet to help? As it turns out, there are. Certain spices have powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Turmeric, ginger, garlic and black pepper all have the potential to reduce inflammation when consumed in the diet. There are many other spices that have anti-inflammatory properties so go ahead, spice up your food! Your body may thank you for it.