Do you suffer from “chronic illness”? Checks NO for “arthritis,” “asthma,” “cardiovascular disease,” “diabetes,” . . . . Do you have symptoms or complaints that have occurred during a period longer than three months? Um, good lord. Yes!
So chronic illness, unlike the sudden onset, predictable course, and typical resolution of an acute illness or injury, is just one thing or another we’ve had a problem with—for longer than three months.
Let’s start at the beginning of the chronic alphabet: ADHD, allergies, Alzheimer’s, anemia, anxiety, asthma, arthritis, A-fib, autoimmune disorders (more about that last one in a minute). It’s a very long list. There are acute varieties and multiple causes for many of these conditions. But when you can rule out known causes and/or the condition is deemed “idiopathic” (huh, weird, we don’t know why this is happening to you), think inflammation.
And what is inflammation? In the simplest terms, inflammation is when your immune system responds to stimuli. This is to save us from invading pathogens (viruses, bacteria, other organisms), toxins, and trauma. When your immune system responds appropriately, it creates and dispatches (throughout your system or only to an injured/stung area) different types of immune cells that act like branches of the intelligence community, military, law enforcement, and clean up services. Those cells do their jobs and then are told to retreat, cease fire, take a break, etc. (this is that “typical resolution” phase mentioned earlier).
For a complex bunch of reasons and triggers, the resolution phase can become dysfunctional. So even in the absence of pathogens or toxins or new injuries, the immune response continues. This excess immune response can affect/inflame just about any tissue in the body—sometimes along a previous pathway (like to the site of an earlier injury or illness) or to a new, innocent target (any organ or tissue, and this = the autoimmune disorders mentioned a minute ago).
We’re plenty aware of fever and aches when we’re sick, and swelling when we’re injured, but that’s just the tip of the immune / inflammation iceberg. Some excessive immune responses are rapid and obvious (anaphylaxis) but many are subtle and can simmer quietly for long periods of time before becoming problematic.
Things to remember: —we all have different genetic predispositions, exposures, events, and lifestyles —the causes of symptoms are sometimes simple, and sometimes not —assessment and recommendations for treatment approaches or lifestyle changes are therefore very individualized
And this brings me to “anti-inflammatory diets.” There are a variety of approaches and most offer a lot of good advice. But even my favorite resources have conflicting information. NO single diet is right for everyone (other than eating more actual foods and avoiding processed stuff), and when the “right” diet isn’t actually right for you, you may feel worse, not see desired results, and then you’re frustrated, demoralized, and give up . . .
So one of my heroes, Andrew Weil, MD, has an anti-inflammatory food pyramid that contains soy and grains. He’d of course tell you that if soy and/or grains are your major triggers of symptoms, recently or always, avoid them for now, or forever.
Another recommended diet is very big on fish intake (because of Omega 3s, and this is still being debated) but fish consumption can be a big problem of safety and sustainability.
Another promotes anti-inflammatory compounds in meat, fish, eggs, and nuts. And of course eggs and nuts are a problem for a lot of people, and others are less inclined to eat animal protein.
Some say to avoid conventional meat, trans fats, refined corn and soybean oils, and sugar. That’s ALL good advice. Some promote the Mediterranean diet, but that’s more of a whole lifestyle than just what’s on your plate. And again, some common Mediterranean diet foods are harmful to those needing to avoid grain and dairy proteins, or other things.
Some suggest supplementation with Omega 3s, E, D, certain B vitamins . . . but that’s tricky too, now with what we know about genetic metabolic variants and that many of us can only utilize particular, converted forms of the very essential B vitamins, or we have D receptor variants and other things that again mean individualized protocols, no matter how great our diets!
So what’s my point?
If Donald Trump tweeted about chronic illness and inflammation, he might say:
“Not feeling terrific. Who knew it was so complicated? Sad!”
Okay, really. If you have chronic pain or symptoms of mysterious origins, look them up with “inflammation” and lists of triggers. The triggers do include foods—some of which are more known for causing an immune response (allergy. And people with leaky gut can react to just about anything (sensitivity). Start avoiding triggers one by one and see what happens.
It can be simple (more often not). One friend didn’t think she had any problems with food but had “arthritis” in one hand and one knee. No GI distress or allergy-like symptoms. Turns out that after years of this, the pain went away when she avoided dairy. It recurred when she consumed dairy. Immune over-response in previously injured areas? I don’t know. She just still doesn’t drink milk and reports not being in pain.
Another “simple” story is a woman I met while volunteering and helping her around the house since she had trouble with painfully swollen knees. Turns out she’d given up dairy a few years ago at someone’s suggestion and had been drinking soy milk every day since. Soy is the best food ever for some and a top allergen for others. I told her about how soy swelled my joints so badly I could barely walk so she said she’d switch to almond milk (no trouble with nuts). And the next time I saw her she was a different person. Moving around and thrilled at the vastly decreased pain and swelling.
The trigger lists are long and infuriating, but if you figure out what some of your triggers might be and you avoid them and feel better, well then. Great. If you need help, just holler.
p.s. I am a health coach. I will not diagnose you or tell you to eat, take, or do or not eat, take, or do anything, but I will listen and I will pester you. And I can help you along a path similar to the one many of us have been on to figure out most of what was going wrong and how to get better. And I’ve got a lot of good resources.
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