What’s the deal with internal inflammation?
Inflammation is one of those buzzwords that get tossed around a lot. We probably all understand that inflammation is bad and that anti-inflammatory foods are good for you. But why? What is internal inflammation, and how does it affect your health?
Inflammation is the body’s attempt to protect us from infection. We’ve all experienced inflammation on the outside of our bodies: when you get a cut or other type of wound, the area becomes red, puffy, tender, or event hot. When an injury occurs, cells in the body release substances that allow blood vessels to expand so that more white blood cells can reach the injured area and fight off bacteria. This increase in blood and fluid causes swelling, redness, and heat around the wound. This type of inflammation is known as acute inflammation and is temporary; when the wound heals, the swelling goes away.
The same thing can happen inside your body as a reaction to unwanted or toxic substances. When this type of inflammation continues for an extended period, it’s known as chronic inflammation, and it can lead to serious health consequences.
Causes of internal inflammation
Common causes of internal inflammation include:
- Food allergies or sensitivities
- Stress and anxiety
- Hidden infections
- Being overweight
- Certain medications
- Poor diet
- Environmental pollution
These things can change the bacteria in your intestines and damage the lining of your gut. When that happens, food particles and allergens can leak across this damaged barrier, resulting in a condition known as leaky gut syndrome, or increased intestinal permeability. Your immune system attacks these partially digested food particles and toxins, and inflammation results, leading to numerous health problems. Chronic inflammation has been linked to every major chronic disease, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, dementia, and more.
Inflammation and weight
Chronic internal inflammation can interfere with weight loss in a number of ways. Inflammation can cause your thyroid to become inflamed. The thyroid produces hormones that control metabolism, so if your thyroid is inflamed and out of whack, it naturally follows that your metabolism (and thus your weight) will be impacted.
Inflammation also interferes with the brain’s ability to receive signals from leptin, which is the hormone that controls satiety. If your brain doesn’t receive the message that your stomach is full, you’ll continue to eat past the point that it’s necessary.
Food sensitivities and inflammation
Food sensitivities are a major contributing factor to chronic inflammation. Food sensitivity is different than what we typically think of as an allergy. Someone with a severe food allergy (known as an an IgE hypersensitivity reaction) will display an immediate reaction such as hives or difficulty breathing and will require medical attention. Food sensitivities, or delayed allergies (known as IgG delayed hypersensitivity reaction), may not result in a reaction until a few hours or even a few days after the problematic food is eaten. Food allergy tests will typically not pick up these sensitivities, so they can be difficult to identify. Dr. Mark Hyman, chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine, claims that these types of food sensitivities affect more than 50 percent of the population.
Common reactions to food sensitivities include:
- Fluid retention
- Brain fog
- Digestive issues
- Mood problems
- Nasal congestion
- Joint pain
Guess what the two biggest sources of food-induced chronic inflammation are. Gluten and dairy. Two staples of the Western diet. In fact, two things we are constantly told are healthy and should make up a major part of our diet.
Other common culprits of food sensitivity are eggs, soy, corn, nuts, citrus, and nightshade vegetables (bell peppers, eggplants, tomatoes).
Identifying food sensitivities
Because symptoms of food sensitivity are different for everyone, and because it can take up to 72 hours for symptoms to appear, it can be very difficult to determine which foods are causing which reactions. You may not even realize you are having a reaction to your diet. If you’ve eaten dairy your entire life, and you’ve always had acne, it may not occur to you that the two are related. You might even think that you feel fine, but you could actually have much more energy and mental clarity by eliminating certain foods from your diet. Or you may think that certain symptoms are just an inevitable part of the aging process that you have to live with, when really they are the result of years of chronic inflammation.
A food sensitivity blood test that checks for IgG antibodies can help pinpoint foods that your body is reacting negatively to, but these tests can be expensive. Another way to identify your reactions to different foods is by conducting an elimination diet. This involves a considerable amount of time and dedication, but can provide tremendous insight into how different foods affect your body.
How to do an elimination diet
An elimination diet involves removing all of the common food irritants from your diet, including foods that often cause allergic reactions, such as peanuts and shellfish. This requires eating a very limited diet for a period of three or four weeks while your body resets and begins to heal from existing inflammation. Then you can begin introducing these foods back into your diet, one at a time. Eat a small portion of one of the excluded foods, and wait at least 72 hours to see if you have a reaction. Some foods may affect you within a few hours, and some may not affect you until a few days later. You may get a headache two days after eating a tomato, so it’s important to reintroduce foods one at a time, and allow time for any reactions to take place. Keep a food journal and write down any food reactions you experience.
As an example, I ate a mini banana nut muffin the other day after eating no gluten for about six weeks. It was small, so I thought it wouldn’t affect me too much. Wrong. A few hours later, I had brain fog so severe that I couldn’t even understand an article I was trying to read for work. Trying to write anything was completely out of the question.
If a food causes a negative reaction, put it on your “do not eat” list for the rest of your elimination diet. If you can eat a food without any reaction, it’s safe to begin adding it back into your diet.
Once you know how different foods affect you, you can choose whether you want to eliminate them from your diet. As with most other dietary considerations, whether you continue to eat these foods or not is up to you, and depends upon several factors, such as the severity of your symptoms and your individual health goals. You might decide that you love cheese enough that you’re willing to put up with a little acne. But being equipped with this information will allow you to make an informed decision, both now and in the future as your health goals evolve.
The good news is, if you’re already following a ketogenic diet and you’re already fat adapted, you’re halfway there. You will have already eliminated foods like gluten and corn from your diet, and your appetite should be more stable, which will make an elimination diet easier. You’ll just have to take the extra step of getting rid of eggs and dairy for a while. (Yes, it’s possible to do keto without eating any eggs or cheese!) If you’re on a keto diet but still struggling with some symptoms you can’t shake, it may be worth trying an elimination diet and see if anything changes.
(Side note: I know that some people continue to eat “low carb” bagels, waffles, and pancakes while on a keto diet. I don’t recommend this. These products are typically made with wheat gluten and wheat protein isolate, which are not keto-friendly foods. You still run the risk of having an inflammatory response, and that could hold you back from seeing the results you want.)
Eliminating or cutting back on inflammatory foods can greatly help reduce inflammation, but it’s also important to include anti-inflammatory foods in your diet. Studies have shown that many foods have powerful anti-inflammatory properties, including:
- Leafy greens, such as spinach and kale
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Bone broth
- Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines
- Strawberries and blueberries
- Chia seeds
- Green tea
- Spices such as rosemary, turmeric, and ginger
Good news! All of these foods are allowed on a ketogenic diet. (Wait until you’re fat adapted before eating berries.) You may also consider taking an omega-3 supplement, as most people are deficient in this essential fatty acid, which is important for promoting healthy brain function as well as cell growth and development.
Have questions about inflammation or elimination diets? Leave a comment below!