How to rescue your patients from chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation. These two words individually are often enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. But put them together and they pack one powerhouse of a punch—especially if you are the one receiving this diagnosis.
Worse yet, a person could be chronically inflamed and not know it. As David R. Seaman, DC, MS, and professor of clinical sciences at the National University of Health Sciences explains, “chronic systemic inflammation is not noticeable initially.” This is partially what makes the condition so serious: It doesn’t necessarily come with the same warning signs typically found with acute inflammation.
For example, if you are struck in the arm by a baseball, you are likely to see some visible effects including redness or bruising, increased swelling, and probably a great deal of pain. But chronic systemic inflammation (SI) is generally not outwardly observable—at least, not at first.
Left untreated, SI can present as a variety of conditions, according to Seaman. These are generally the “chronic diseases of Western civilization: cancer, vascular disease (heart, stroke, peripheral artery disease, impotence), fatty liver, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, depression, malaise, chronic pain, etc.”
With this list of possible outcomes, it is abundantly clear that chronic SI has both physical and mental implications. That makes it a double-edged sword, capable of affecting every aspect of a person’s life.
What is chronic SI?
Chronic SI occurs when your body is stuck in inflammatory response mode. In other words, it is constantly trying to fight potentially harmful substances in the body, which severely taxes it, creating the perfect environment for disease to take hold. Common causes of this type of inflammation include infection, overuse injuries, and trauma.
The trauma experienced could be physical, such a as severe automobile accident, or mental—a type of trauma routinely faced by many of our nation’s combat veterans. SI can also occur when certain substances are introduced to the body through foods, environmental exposure, medications, and lifestyle choices.
So, if chronic SI is often so silent, at least at the onset, how can you help patients recognize and treat it? Fortunately, some tests can provide a warning.
One way healthcare professionals are discovering high levels of SI is by performing blood work. Specifically, they are looking for the presence of C-reactive proteins (CRPs), antibodies immunoglobulin G (IgG) and immunoglobulin A (IgA, or sIgA), and glucose and triglyceride levels, as these are all typical markers of inflammation.
Carol Ann Malizia, DC, and founder of CAM Integrated Consulting, says that doctors are looking for “issues in the tissues.” This means searching for any debris that has accumulated within them, indicating the presence of inflammation. Other tests that may signal that something is wrong internally can be conducted with a urine or saliva sample, or by looking for various neurotransmitters and other inflammatory indicators.
Body mass index (BMI) can be a good indicator of systemic trouble as well. In an article published in Chiropractic & Manual Therapies, Seaman explains how a person’s BMI is highly connected to his or her risk of chronic inflammation.1
BMI is computed using your height and weight to give you a number that signifies whether you are underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a healthy BMI falls somewhere in the 18.5 to 24.9 range.2 Therefore, anything above that may signify a higher risk of SI.
Now for the good news: Depending on the level of inflammation and your commitment to reducing it, you can reverse and even eliminate the effects of the condition, simply by making some lifestyle changes.
One doctor who can personally attest to the restorative power of smart daily choices to overcome the largest of health obstacles is Terry Wahls, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa. Although Wahls currently spends her days helping those who suffer from complex chronic diseases and traumatic brain injury, it wasn’t too long ago that she was in the position of needing extensive medical care herself. Diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, she found herself confined to a tilt-recline wheelchair, where she stayed for four years. What got her back on her feet? Wahls credits her recovery to diet and lifestyle changes.
In a series of two books that comprise The Wahls Protocol, she reveals that what you eat and how you live your life have a huge impact not only on disease prevention, but also on the cure.
That is why Wahls wants to spread the word about the healing potential of nutrition and diligent lifestyle changes. Given how this conscientious way of living has benefited her—she now rides her bike to work daily—she’s an inspiring role model for anyone who wishes to reduce disease and add years to life.
Revise your menu
Wahls isn’t the only one who reinforces the importance of eating the right foods. All of the experts agree that diet is a major contributing factor when it comes to treating chronic SI. The two biggest culprits? Sugar and flour.
This means that all of our sweet treats and bakery carbs are likely making our bodies sick. Additionally, high-glycemic grains (gluten-containing foods such as cereals and breads), trans fats, omega-6 fatty acids (corn, cheese, and fatty meats), and dairy products likely exert a major influence on people’s health as well.
In order to reduce inflammation, one should eat as many anti-inflammatory foods as possible. These include whole, organic food options like lean meats (preferably grass-fed), fish, leafy green and cruciferous vegetables, seaweed, sweet potatoes, fruits, nuts, beans, and even dark chocolate.
The best oils for reducing inflammation when cooking and baking include olive oil, coconut oil, tuna oil, calamari oil, and black currant seed oil. The amount necessary for maximum health varies by person, so one should check with his or her primary care provider to determine the best intake amount.
Additionally, spices and herbs like cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, garlic, and rosemary are anti-inflammatory, making them welcome additions for both taste and health. Play around with them to find combinations that are as soothing to your palette as they are to your body. And if you’re going to use salt, choose sea salt, which is healthier. (Sea salt should be brown, gray, or pink to offer the most mineral benefits.)
In addition to diet, a number of lifestyle recommendations can help reduce inflammation and boost health:
Take inflammation-fighting supplements.
Some supplements suggested for fighting inflammation include vitamin B, vitamin D, omega-3 fish oil, zinc, magnesium, glucosamine and chondroitin, chaff tree, tribulus, and trophorestoratives. Probiotics may help as well.
Before taking any supplement, a patient should consult with a healthcare professional to make sure it isn’t going to conflict with any pre-existing medical conditions or interfere with any current medications. Once clearance is granted, you can steer patients toward high-quality supplements that deliver safe amounts.
The more sedentary you are, the worse it is for your health, and the greater the risk of chronic SI. The most recent exercise guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that most adults get two and a half hours of moderate intensity cardio and two days of strength training weekly.3 But every little bit of movement helps, so pace while on the phone, carry each bag of groceries in the house one at a time, and hand deliver messages to your co-workers instead of emailing them.
Reduce your stress levels.
Stress is a major factor for a lot of people, and relief is generally put at the bottom of the to-do list. However, because stress is connected to inflammation, dealing with it on a regular basis can help reduce the risk of this type of response.
The key is to find something that you love doing and do it regularly. Take part in a game of golf with friends or go for a long walk alone to clear your head. Read a book just for enjoyment or take a kickboxing class to release some pent-up emotions.
Get some decent sleep.
According to a survey conducted by the Better Sleep Council, almost half of Americans report not getting enough sleep, with women typically enduring more sleep issues than men.4
Options to change this include limiting caffeinated beverages after noon, getting into bed earlier at night, turning off the TV in the bedroom, playing white noise, and making sure your room is pitch dark, which means unplugging the nightlights and turning the alarm clock display away from your face (even the tiniest sliver of light can affect sleep quality).
Limit exposure to environmental toxins.
Toxins in cleaning supplies, personal hygiene products, the air you breathe, and everything else that comes in contact with your body can increase inflammation levels. To reduce your exposure, use all-natural cleaning solutions at home, buy green body washes and makeup, install an air purifier inside your home and, if you live in a high-pollution area, wear a mask during yard work.
By engaging in these lifestyle behaviors, Wahls reports that blood- sugar improvements are often experienced within days to months, with blood-pressure progress occurring within weeks to months. Fatigue, mood, and cognitive improvements are also often seen within the first three months of making these types of changes.
Currently, research supporting a correlation between chiropractic manipulation and its positive effect on SI is inadequate. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything for your patients.
Malizia continually reinforces that chronic SI is an “inflammatory response function,” with emphasis on the word response. Put another way, eliminate the inflammatory trigger and thereby remove the likelihood for a negative response.
This preventive approach to treating chronic SI puts chiropractors in a unique position to help patients through education, and potentially transform their health and lives. To achieve this goal, follow Malizia’s three steps to reducing the risk of inflammatory response.
First, as a chiropractor, you must increase your patient’s awareness that chronic SI exists. Most people are smart enough to realize when they don’t feel 100 percent, but as a doctor that they have grown to know and trust, you can finally put a name to their health condition.
The second step involves helping them face the effects of their lifestyle choices on their internal health. Educate them to see that their dietary choices, level of physical activity, sleep patterns, and stress all impact their body’s level of inflammation, thereby impacting their general health.
The third step suggested by Malizia requires giving patients access to the tools that can help them make better decisions, ultimately lowering their inflammatory response. This may work by connecting them with a dietician who can assist in making better food choices or referring them to a personal trainer to develop an exercise routine. It can also mean offering supplementary recommendations and discovering ways to lower their stress levels.
All in all, you want your patients to understand that the status of their health is highly within their control. While some diseases and conditions seemingly come out of nowhere, striking for no apparent reason, the majority of health issues arise due largely to people’s chosen lifestyles.
Helping patients reduce their level of SI can greatly improve their general well-being. Seize the opportunity to unveil the hidden demands of an invisible disease, which can silently wreak havoc in the body. Pull your patients out of the fire and into a life worth living.
Christina DeBusk is a freelance writer who specializes in health and wellness and business marketing. She currently writes for ChiroNexus as well as other health-related publications. She can be contacted through christinamdebusk.com.
1 Seaman, DR. Body mass index and musculoskeletal pain: is there a connection? Chiropractic & Manual Therapies. 2013;21(1):15.
2 National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Calculate your body mass index.” http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm. Accessed February 2015.
3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How much physical activity do adults need?” http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/adults.html. Updated March 3, 2014. Accessed February 2015.
4 The Better Sleep Council. “Survey: Americans know how to get better sleep – but don’t act on it.” http://bettersleep.org/better-sleep/the-science-of-sleep/sleep-statistics-research/better-sleep-survey. Accessed February 2015.