Typically when people talk about medical conditions, it’s either in terms of something they do or don’t have: I’m gluten-intolerant. My son has diabetes. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s.
But unlike many other medical diagnoses, inflammation isn’t so black and white. In his new book, The Inflammation Spectrum, functional medicine expert Will Cole, DC, argues that inflammation occurs in degrees—and actually, some inflammation is good. Here, Dr. Cole and How Not To Die author Michael Greger, MD, explain what exactly the inflammation spectrum is, and how to pinpoint what’s causing it in your body.
What exactly is the inflammation spectrum?
Here’s the thing to understand about inflammation: It’s not inherently bad. “Inflammation is a product of our immune systems and it’s needed to fight viruses and bad bacteria, so that’s the good part,” Dr. Cole says. Dr. Greger adds that inflammation is the trigger for healing to begin. “Think about if you get a splinter,” he says. “The area becomes red and swollen, which is the body’s natural reaction to the irritation and alerts you to take care of the problem.” Without inflammation, Dr. Greger says, the body would be compromised—whether it’s by a splinter, bad bacteria in food, or something else—and the problem would go ignored and cause a major disruption later on.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of inflammation. “Short-term, localized, acute inflammation is good, but it’s when it’s high level and chronic that it becomes a problem,” Dr. Greger says. Dr. Cole calls this balance the Goldilocks principle. “You need it to be just right,” he says. “It’s not inherently bad, but if it’s out of balance, that’s a problem.”
This is where the “inflammation spectrum,” which Dr. Cole coins in his new book, comes into play. He says that inflammatory symptoms exist on a spectrum with varying degrees of seriousness, and what moves it in one direction or the other depends on the individual. His goal with helping people understand inflammation existing in this way is for them not only to pinpoint their unique inflammatory triggers, but also to address problematic inflammation before it develops into a potentially chronic condition.
Dr. Cole says there are many signs as to when inflammation is starting to get problematic, such as feeling tired all the time, irregular mood, a constant, low-level of anxiety, problems with digestion, trouble sleeping, difficulty losing weight, and brittle hair and nails. “Think of these signs as the check engine light being on,” he says. “It’s time to look under the hood.”
What to do when inflammation gets out of hand
So what does a person do if they notice their proverbial “check engine light” seems to be on? Both Dr. Cole and Dr. Greger say functional medicine doctors will likely want to run lab tests to check out a patient’s C-reactive protein (hsCRP) levels. “This is an inflammatory protein and the test will show how much of it you have,” Dr. Cole explains. The reason both doctors recommend it is because high levels of it have been directly linked to chronic inflammation-based health conditions, including heart disease, arthritis, and infection.
For people worried about their general inflammation levels, Dr. Cole also recommends trying a temporary elimination diet to pinpoint any food-related causes that could be causing inflammation in your body. (He adds that gut health kits can help with this detective work, too.) What’s tricky about inflammation, Dr. Cole says, is that there are some factors that can cause inflammation for everyone (such as sugar, environmental toxins, and chronic stress). But other culprits are unique to your body. Dairy, for example, causes inflammation in some people, but not all.
Here’s what a registered dietitian has to say about turmeric, the almighty inflammation fighting spice:
Of course inflammation isn’t just linked to food. Not getting enough sleep or constant stress can also move the needle on the inflammation spectrum—which is why it’s so important to manage stress and prioritize healthy sleep habits, too.
When it comes to viewing inflammation as a spectrum, what’s most helpful is being aware of the first signs that your body is experiencing too much of it. Being in tune with your body and tweaking your lifestyle accordingly is a continual process that will benefit your health in the end.
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