17 April 2024
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Inflammation: the key to modern diseases

Dr Ross Walker
1 March 2022

Recently, in the Good Weekend magazine, there was an excellent article on inflammation prompting me to give my opinion on this very important subject.

The reality is that human physiology was designed to wake up on the cave floor in the morning and wander around the jungle searching for food. If the food wasn't available, you and your family went hungry and when there was a substantial kill, you consumed the food immediately.

Living in this harsh world where the only stressors were the acute stress of the kill or avoiding being something else’s lunch. Owing to these ever-present dangers, the average lifespan was about 30 to 40 years with most people dying from either acute infection or some form of trauma. 

Before 10,000 years ago when humanity started to become somewhat civilized, our immune system was really only geared for infection and trauma. The body's defence mechanisms were only poised to mount an acute response to infection i.e. acute inflammation or to appropriately clot when an injury occurred.

Because we are now living double our use-by-date with the average lifespan being about 80 years old in most societies, our body starts to wear out from 30 years old, which is the peak of our lives. As the body starts to degenerate, our immune system and clotting system has to cope with a completely different set of scenarios.

To give the example of small, LDL cholesterol (large LDL is necessary for normal metabolism and sadly, many doctors do not make the distinction between the two types), most humans living in the modern world are consuming more nutrition than necessary. This excess nutrition only has three possible outcomes. It may end up as oxidized, small LDL cholesterol in the wall of your arteries, fatty tissue in your organs and in the subcutaneous layer, especially the very dangerous belly fat or finally, if you are very lucky to have been born with high-quality metabolism (which is basically a genetic advantage), you will metabolize the fat and reuse it for other purposes.

Once this oxidized, small LDL cholesterol escapes into your arterial wall, the foot soldiers of the immune system, known as the macrophages follow the LDL into the arterial wall and try to chew it up. Like humans, these macrophages enjoy the taste of fat and become obese, expanding into cells we call foam cells. These foam cells expand further and rupture within the wall setting up more fatty plaques and therefore attracting more macrophages to create a vicious cycle of what is known as atherosclerosis in the arterial wall, which is the common cause of heart attack and stroke. This is a typical example of chronic inflammation.

We know that chronic inflammation is the key component of, not just cardiovascular disease, but also cancer, all the autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease, along with diabetes and osteoporosis.

Having lived over the past two years during this pandemic era, we are all well aware of the ravaging effects of COVID-19 which has been shown to significantly activate the immune and clotting systems to set up a combination of chronic inflammation and exaggerated chronic clotting.

Inflammation has now become a key focus of research around the world with many clever scientists looking for ways to modulate this chronic inflammatory response and thus minimize the effects of many of the aforementioned diseases.

There is no doubt that following healthy lifestyle principles has a strong anti-inflammatory benefit and health professionals with an emphasis towards integrative medicine (including myself) see the benefits of a number of natural anti-inflammatories with particular evidence around vitamin D, vitamin C, curcumin and many of the other polyphenol-based therapies available on the market.

There is no doubt that, as we are living against our true physiology (that of a hunter-gatherer), society is now experiencing the significant ravages of chronic inflammation. Research in this area is very much welcomed and encouraged and certainly, we are seeing many advances and new therapies being offered. But, as has been said for many years, the best treatment of any chronic condition is prevention and in many cases, these diseases may be prevented with correct lifestyle principles and natural anti-inflammatory programs.

As I've said on many occasions, it is your genes that load the gun and your environment that pulls the trigger. There is no doubt there are many genetic factors that predispose us to an excessive inflammatory response but also many lifestyle factors, not to mention a number of environmental toxins, the most recent being the emergence of this new group of coronaviruses.

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