Diabetes Self-Management Blog

Inflammation is a vital body function. It fights infection and repairs injury. But inflammation can also cause insulin resistance and diabetes complications. What is inflammation exactly? And how can we make it help us, not hurt us?

Inflammation is a miraculous system for fighting invaders: germs, toxic chemicals, anything unwanted. Monica Smith reported here in 2009, that “Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury and the first step in healing. In its acute form, it can be quite dramatic. Whether you have a virus or a cut, the body sends white blood cells to the site of infection or injury, where they release chemicals to protect you. The most obvious sign of acute inflammation is pain, such as when you have a sore throat; you may also experience fever in the case of an infection, or swelling as your body deals with a traumatic injury.”

The immune system brings more red and white blood cells to the area. It opens blood vessel walls so more fluid can come out into the infected or injured parts. It brings healing substances like cholesterol to the area to make patches for damaged areas and help new cells grow. That’s fine for an infected finger, but imagine that process going on day after day in your kidneys, your eyes, or your coronary arteries!

Once the invader is defeated, the system should cool down. The active immune cells should go home, leaving a few guardians to watch for the next attack. But that doesn’t always happen. When there’s no cool-down, the tissues stay hot and swollen. When that happens in blood vessels, they can break down or become blocked.

Sometimes the inflammation becomes chronic. Chronic inflammation is like having a fire burning in your body. It causes all kinds of damage. “[Chronic low-grade inflammation] seems to play a role in all of the major diseases — heart disease, diabetes, [arthritis,] and certain cancers,” says researcher Mario Kratz, PhD. Inflammation causes insulin resistance, the main cause of Type 2 diabetes.

Inflammation may also be the main cause of diabetes complications. We know that diabetes injures blood vessels, possibly causing damage through the whole body. But how does diabetes do that? It seems that high blood sugar levels trigger inflammation, which is what actually damages the blood vessels.

Researchers now think that small irritations caused by glucose or high blood pressure (or whatever) bring the immune system roaring “to the rescue.” Plaques form, like bandages to heal damage that is already there. But if inflammation continues, the plaques break down and move through the system, causing bigger trouble. It “isn’t just sludge caking up on the vessel walls,” says Harvard cardiovascular expert Peter Libby, MD. “There is an inflammatory response” that makes plaques susceptbile to rupturing. That’s when organs can get damaged or destroyed.

So chronic inflammation is really bad — it’s what will likely kill you if you have heart disease or diabetes. But where does it come from? Known causes include environmental chemicals, stress, infections, allergies, and unhealthy food. Too little or too much physical activity can also promote inflammation.

Higher than normal blood glucose levels cause inflammation. Excess abdominal fat and high blood pressure seem to contribute. (But we don’t know which comes first, the inflammation or the fat.)

According to About.com nutrition expert Shereen Jegtvig, processed and refined foods like white flours and sugars and high-fat meats “increase the potential for inflammation in your body.”

Emotional or physical stress can cause inflammation. When stressed, the body prepares for damage by cranking up the inflammatory response. So chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation.

Turn Down the Fire
So how can we turn down the fires of inflammation? Most experts focus on food. According to many sources, omega-3 fatty acids are the best inflammation coolers. According to Wikipedia, the body uses omega 3s to produce chemicals called resolvins and protectins, which work to keep inflammatory cells quiet.

About.com says “Omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold-water oily fish, flax seeds, canola oil, and pumpkin seeds.” Other helpful fats (not omega 3) include olive oil, avocado and nuts, rice bran oil, grape seed oil, and walnut oil.

About.com also recommend fruits, berries and vegetables “rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients. Choose green and brightly colored vegetables, and whole fruits.” Get your protein from lean poultry, fish and other seafood, soy and soy foods such as tofu and tempeh, beans — see last week’s blog entry) — nuts and seeds. And drink more water, which makes sense for putting out fires.

Monica Smith reports that studies have shown that orange juice neutralizes the inflammatory effect of a McDonald’s meal.

Holistic medicine doctor Andrew Weil says that the herbs ginger, turmeric, and boswellin fight inflammation. Weil also says to eliminate polyunsaturated vegetable oils, margarine, vegetable shortening, all partially hydrogenated oils, and all foods that contain trans-fatty acids. Others say eating sugar or white flours will add fuel to the inflammation fire. So I’m thinking about that when considering whether to eat a cookie.

Gentle exercise seems to reduce inflammation. Think walking, tai chi, line dancing, swimming. Since stress contributes heavily to inflammation, practices of breathing, relaxation, and prayer can cool inflammation’s fire, as well. Living a more relaxed, low-stress life can also help.

Some medicines may help turn down the flame. Many now think that statin drugs work by reducing inflammation, not cholesterol levels. In fact, according to researchers at UCLA, half of the people who suffer heart attacks have “normal” cholesterol.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) might also help. One, baby aspirin has been used for years to prevent heart attacks. Salsalate is another that has shown success in people with diabetes.

So there are many things you can do to turn down the heat of inflammation, and many of them also lower blood sugar. Something to think about.

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