Silent Inflammation Begins in the Gut: is Your Gut Quietly on Fire?

We hear a lot about inflammation these days, and this is not surprising since it’s becoming obvious inflammation is a catalyst for just about every chronic health condition.

What is Inflammation?

  • Acute Inflammation

Inflammation serves a crucial function. The word derives from the Latin ‘inflammatio’ which means fire. For many people, the term inflammation conjures up images of a swollen knee or infected cut. These are examples of short-term, acute inflammation, which is a natural response to injury or infection. This type of inflammation is our body’s defence and repair mechanism.

When the body suffers an injury, our immune system sends special types of proteins called pro-inflammatory cytokines to the site of infection or trauma. These are signalling molecules and instruct other cells in the immune system to repair the damage. Blood supply to the affected area is increased, resulting in redness, swelling, heat and pain.

Acute inflammation serves a useful purpose – in fact we couldn’t live without it. Although inflammation is devastating, rather like a fire, in this case it’s necessary to clear the area so healing can take place.

  • Chronic Inflammation

Normally, the source of the inflammation is erased and the inflammatory process can subside. But if it is not, inflammation will simply continue. If this occurs the result is chronic inflammation, and over time it’s very damaging to your body.

Chronic, low-level inflammation is often called silent inflammation because it doesn’t necessarily outwardly hurt. The immune system is constantly on pro-inflammatory mode. It can be thought of as your immune system’s heightened response to an onslaught of environmental, physical and emotional invaders – such as environmental chemicals, a poor diet and stress. Over time, the immune system may become confused between what’s an invader and what is your own body and can start attacking its own cells.

Chronic inflammation can be connected with:

  • Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety or excessive anger.
  • Metabolic syndrome, comprising high blood pressure, blood sugar control problems, obesity and disordered cholesterol. These all increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
  • Autoimmune diseases, such as Chron’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which all contribute to further increased inflammation.
  • Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

The Role of the Gut in Inflammation

Increasingly it’s becoming obvious the health of the gut determines the health of the remainder of the body. Silent inflammation in the gut can have far-reaching effects.

70% of our immune system is located in the intestines, so if your gut-based immune system is constantly responding to inflammatory foods and environmental toxins contained in them, this will lead to a state of ongoing inflammation in the digestive system.

Inflammation in the gut can have a number of effects, from disturbing the balance of the bacteria in the microbiome to irritating the intestinal lining, causing it to become more permeable than it should be.

Our Microbiome and Inflammation

Our gut bacteria are closely linked to inflammation. Under healthy conditions, the bacteria in our microbiome maintain a healthy intestinal lining. If inflammation occurs in the intestine, the delicate relationship of these bacteria may be disturbed in favour of pathogenic bacteria with the intestinal lining becoming irritated and damaged.

Friendly bacteria produce substances which support the immune system, while pathogenic bacteria release inflammatory molecules and toxins. Increased intestinal permeability (otherwise known as leaky gut) means these inflammatory molecules, toxins, bacteria as well as incompletely digested particles of food can be absorbed into the bloodstream, stimulating the immune system still further and causing systemic inflammation.

Inflammation in the gut doesn’t necessarily carry with it specific warning symptoms. It can smoulder away unsuspected for long periods of time.

How to Control Inflammation

Some foods encourage inflammation in the gut. If you’re eating these foods every day you’ll be constantly stoking the inflammatory fires. Pro-inflammatory foods include:

  • gluten grains
  • dairy products
  • refined vegetable oils
  • sugar
  • alcohol
  • food additives
  • caffeine

Lifestyle factors which encourage inflammation include:

  • ongoing stress
  • insufficient exercise
  • too little sleep

Other foods help to calm inflammation. These include:

  • green leafy vegetables
  • foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids such as flax and pumpkin seeds and wild-caught oily fish like salmon and mackerel
  • probiotic foods such as sauerkraut and kefir
  • plant-based foods containing natural fibre to feed the beneficial bacteria in your microbiome
  • spices like turmeric and ginger

Functional medicine practitioners understand the importance of controlling inflammation and restoring gut function as a key to your journey to better health. Functional testing can assess the health of your gut bacteria by looking at the substances they produce, determine the levels of inflammatory molecules and disease-causing pathogens in your bloodstream and examine the health of your intestinal lining.