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Is Inflammation Behind (Almost) All Disease?

You can see your factory-installed inflammation system in action when you cut yourself or get a big zit on your chin. As annoying as the redness, swelling, and pus are, they’re a sign your inflammatory response is functioning well to ward off attackers and keep your body intact.

In the grand scheme of things, inflammation is intended to be a limited, “turn on locally when needed” response to injury or infection. Your body isn’t meant to be smoldering in low-level inflammation day in and day out. Over the past few years, doctors have begun to appreciated that along the road of chronic inflammation, we’re finding more and more varieties of chronic illness.

Inflammatory conditions
Let me list a handful of the conditions unequivocally known to be linked to chronic inflammation:

  • Heart disease and stroke  We know that certain triggers (dental plaque among them, interestingly enough) irritate the lining of blood vessels and predispose a person to cholesterol deposits that lead to artery blockage. It’s worth noting that daily flossers, because they remove dental plaque, have fewer heart attacks than the rest of you. In addition, taking a daily low-dose aspirin both reduces inflammation and makes the platelet cells involved in blood clotting less sticky and prone to clot. Inflammation in your body can be measured with tests like the C-reactive protein (CRP) blood test.
  • All autoimmune diseases  There are many of these, including rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, multiple sclerosis (MS), psoriasis, and scleroderma. But the essential mechanism behind them all seems the same. Certain individuals have overly efficient immune systems that see enemies where none exist. An unknown something alerts the immune system to trigger inflammation and attack vital parts of the person’s own body. In rheumatoid arthritis, it’s the joints; in Hashimoto’s, the thyroid; in MS, the brain and spinal cord. Doctors have been asking for years “What sets off some people’s immune response like this?” What’s that mysterious something? The answer appears to be that it’s a pre-existing low level of chronic inflammation, which in turn triggers the immune system to go into high gear, accelerating the inflammatory response in all the various autoimmune diagnoses.
  • Brain dysfunction  Most recently, chronic inflammation has been linked to an increasing number of conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, autism, schizophrenia, and treatment-resistant depression (in which people with depression don’t respond to antidepressants). Some patients with these diagnoses are found to have elevated inflammatory markers, like the CRP mentioned above, but also others not routinely measured, like interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor (TNF).

Treatments: drug company, herbal, and worms
A variety of drugs exist that specifically block TNF for those with autoimmune disease. You may have heard of the egregiously expensive Humira (adalimumab), Remicade (infliximab), and others in this class for common autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis. These meds do come with side-effects, though. Turning off inflammation renders you more susceptible to infection.

By the way, nature-made TNFs include curcumin (turmeric) and green tea. And to anticipate your next question, yes, followers of anti-aging medicine protocols use both of these in their daily regimen, via supplements or teas.

Research published just last week in JAMA shows promising results by giving TNF inhibitors to people with treatment-resistant depression and elevated CRP. In reviewing older studies, patients with chronic schizophrenia have had some positive responses to anti-inflammatory drugs like Celebrex.

The most provocative study to me, though, had high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder regularly swallow eggs of a medicalized parasite, Trichuris suis (harmless in humans), which acted to damp down inflammation throughout the subjects’ bodies and visibly improve autistic behavior.

Is it all starting in your gut?
The evidence seems to be mounting for an idea naturopathic physicians have known about for years: the body’s widespread inflammation starts in your gut. Certain foods (gluten is a frequent villain) can trigger low-level intestinal inflammation, allowing large molecules of inadequately digested food to “leak” into your bloodstream and stimulate your immune system to trigger a bodywide, low level of inflammation. Many people with rheumatoid arthritis, for example, feel better when they eliminate gluten or undertake a low-inflammation eating program.

Leading-edge research is now focusing on our microbiome, the 100,000,000,000,000 (10 to the 13th power, or 100 trillion) bacteria from roughly 500 to 1,000 species that inhabit our intestines. Here’s a good piece on all this. The metabolic activity of these bacteria have evolved since the dawn of man, the bacteria themselves responsible for manufacturing a wide variety of enzymes and vitamins as well as aiding our digestive processes and food absorption.

The microbiome is often referred to as the human body’s “forgotten organ” and an imbalance of bacteria, usually caused by dietary choices or antibiotics, is now linked with a variety of inflammatory illnesses.

Low-inflammation, healthy-microbiome eating
If you’d like to start eating to keep your microbiome happy and inflammation down (without using worms, I might add), the plan isn’t rocket science, though personally I’d schedule a visit with one of our nutritionists–Marla Feingold, Seanna Tully, or Marcy Kirshenbaum–who know this stuff really well.

The basics:

  • Remove high-inflammatory foods–dairy, gluten, sugar (and high fructose corn syrup), soy, refined carbs, and anything with additives/chemicals/preservatives.
  • For the rest of your life eat whole foods, emphasizing those that encourage a healthy microbiome. Probiotic-promoting foods include fermented foods (like kimchi and sauerkraut, both of which are easy to make), artichokes, garlic, oats, onions, asparagus, and virtually all green foods and all high-fiber foods. A prescription to go wild at the farmers market.
  • Ensure your digestive system is working well and that you have a reasonably good balance of bacteria. A test called the Comprehensive Stool Digestive Analysis (which also checks for parasites and yeast) is partially covered by most insurers.
  • If needed, begin using digestive enzymes, probiotics, and specific supplements to repair your intestinal lining.
  • If leaky gut (intestinal hyperpermeability) is a strong possibility, there is a second test to check your intestinal lining for leakage.

I think we’ll see evidence in the next few years that a person’s conscious effort to maintain the lowest possible level of bodywide inflammation will be linked with lots of good things.

We have the potential to enjoy a healthy longevity, easier weight control, fewer chronic illnesses, and the most important goal of all health care (!), eternal youth. Well, maybe not eternal, but definitely healthier looking skin and a happier belly.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD


Leave a Comment

  1. Every time a person takes a breath of air through the nose, they are actually dosing themselves with a very potent anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-microbial and vasodilator called Nitrogen Oxide (N-O), which resides in an inert form (L-arginine) within the cells of the nasal sinus’ linings …..a natural ‘drug’; habitual mouth breathers do not likewise gain this health advantage. Estaishing habitual closed mouth nasal breathing in very early childhood will confer lifelong protection from many inflammatory-mediated chronic diseases in later life. If your child snores or breathes at night with an open mouth, have the shape of the jaws and status of the tonsils and adenoids evaluated as they are early warning signs/risk factors for later problems.

  2. Christopher Braun says:

    Dr. Edelberg,

    Thanks for another great article on perhaps the most important health related issue of our times. I like how you simplify the subject so anyone can understand. This is something I have tried to communicate to family and friends, but now I can just put your article in front of them.

    Thank you,


  3. Terri Reardon says:

    Wonderful article, Dr. E. Michael Pollan wrote a very entertaining and informative piece on the microbiome called, “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs”: http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/some-of-my-best-friends-are-germs/. It’s a bit lengthy but well worth a read. Thanks again.

  4. Louise Witkin-Berg says:


  5. Andrea W says:

    Bravo! What aim insightful article with great tips about how to battle inflammation which seems to be at the core of SO many chronic and debilitating diseases!

  6. Karen Gane says:

    A very interesting article. I live in Australia, and have systemic candidiasis. I’m always interested in learning of the connection between gut and disease in the body.
    Australia doesn’t seem to medically ’embrace’ the notion of systemic candida quite as liberally as the U.S., but I will be looking into obtaining a CSDA test here.
    Great articles always. This is a site worth sharing!

  7. Irene Frederick says:

    Thanks for this comprehensive look at inflammation and the havoc it can cause in the body. I have been attempting to follow the healthy eating plan you described. When I am successful… my brain is clearer, my energy higher, and my joints less stiff. When I fall off… my thinking is more foggy, I’m more lethargic, and my joints are stiffer, especially my fingers.
    Your article helps my resolve and renews my commitment.
    I appreciate the time, thought and energy you put into you blogs!!!!

  8. Sarah says:

    It seems like everyone should be drinking green tea. I hear good things about it all the time. I would like to drink more, however, I haven’t found one that I like. I prefer the fruity herbal teas. Does anyone have any suggestions on a particular brand or ‘flavor’ of green tea for me to try?

  9. Ei says:

    Sarah – Seek out organic, steep at 150 to 175 degrees for 1-2-3 min. Lower temps lessen bitterness and quicker steep time as well – reuse the same tea bag several times as this also varies the taste and one day you will hit upon your favorite style. Oh add lemon juice as this works synergistically with green tea – a very powerful combo almost a waste of time without it. Stevia if all else fails
    As for WWC – THANK YOU!! I am getting a great education.

  10. Lisa says:

    Thank you for this very informative and well written article. I think you’ve outlines such important factors for the state of our health. Personally, I suffered from food sensitivities that were resulting in all the classic symptoms such as irritability, moodiness, weight gain, brain fog, joint pain, depression and so on. It wasn’t until I found out exactly what was triggering my reactions that I began to feel good, have energy and lose weight. Finding the trigger foods is so important!

  11. Cathy Morrissey says:

    Hello Dr Edelberg,
    My family has a host of autoimmune conditions. My sister is a severe celiac and I have ulcerative colitis (colon removed 14 yrs ago). My 18 yr old son came down with mono last summer and his still experiencing tremendous fatigue. He is complaining of intestinal issues and I need to have him seen by his doctor. My fear is that mono has triggered UC,etc. I have been looking into DigestaCure Autoimmune X by Pristine Nutracuticals. Wondering if you know of it and what your thoughts are?
    Thank you!

  12. Dr E says:

    Hi Cathy
    He should probably get functional testing: comprehensive stool digestive analysis+ test for leaky gut + test for SIBO and try a food sensitivity elimination diet.
    Your local chiro may be able to order these. Articles on each are somewhere on this website. Unfortumately, I don’t review supplements (there are now about 75,000)

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