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Inflammation: Beauty, Not the Beast

Inflammation is beautiful. It is not the beast. It is not bad, nor our enemy.

We need an intact, healthy immune system, capable of robust inflammation. When we need it. Whenever called upon–24/7.

In fact, we cannot survive without it. While inflammation results in much human misery, it does so as the wise and elegant response to real danger signals–from both internal and external sources–that present themselves constantly. Inflammation keeps us alive.

Don’t Kill the Messenger

Inflammation is at the basis of the modern health epidemics of our western world: obesity, diabetes, vascular disease, dementia, depression, autoimmune disorders, neurodegenerative disorders, persistent fatigue, cancers, and many others.

Each one of these disorders is the result of the normal, necessary, and expected response of our body’s immune system to the many danger signals abundantly present in our lives.

But inflammation is not the root cause of our problems–persistent and overwhelming triggers are. Inflammation is just the indication that our immune cells have been activated in response to predictable triggers.

One of my mentors once said, “Don’t blame the messenger molecules, understand the context of the message.”

Inflammation is just the messenger, telling us of the persistence of triggers–danger signals–including those that are within our control and self-inflicted: processed foods, sugar, nutrient-poor diets, lack of movement, environmental toxins, high stress lifestyles, poor sleep, and chronic infections.

What is Inflammation?

Our immune cells are exquisitely attuned to a multitude of danger signals present in both our internal and external environments. When these dangers are encountered by the immune cells, inflammation ensues as a mechanism to protect us.

Our immune system is comprised of a complex community of cells and tissues throughout the body. They work closely together to protect us from harm via its exquisitely orchestrated, collaborative response.

The immune cells, in response to danger signals, release inflammatory chemicals, known as “cytokines.” Cytokines do the work of the immune system to protect us from the perceived dangers and to heal any damage that that they cause. Some cytokines are directly toxic, neutralizing their threat, such as potentially lethal microbes. Other cytokines act as communication molecules, calling in reinforcement from all over the body. Still others turn on and off DNA, protein synthesis, alter metabolism, restore and repair–all to serve defense and survival.

There is ancient wisdom expressed in the body’s inflammation response to danger. When working well, there is alarm and attack, followed by retreat, repair, restoration, and healing.

When our immune systems are bombarded by signals that don’t stop, catastrophe can occur.

What Triggers Immune Cell Activation?

Immune cell activation and inflammation are completely predictable. The known triggers are:

  • Microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites)
  • Allergens (pollens, food proteins, lectins)
  • Toxins (pesticides, herbicides, plastics, heavy metals)
  • Damaged Tissue (trauma, inflamed tissue–autoimmunity, glycated tissue–from high blood sugar levels)
  • Belly Fat (visceral fat)
  • Hormones (insulin, cortisol)

Inflammation is a Dynamic Balance

In just the right balance–not too much, not too little–inflammation keeps us safe. Prolonged or intense inflammation results in damage to our cells and tissues, leading to loss of resilience, dysfunction, and disease.

The dynamic balance of inflammation depends on the perception of danger, and how efficiently and quickly that danger is recognized and reckoned with.

In the crisis of an invasion of pathogenic microbes we want our immune response (and ensuing inflammation) to be vigorous and effective. There will be collateral damage. But when successfully managed, the danger recedes, the inflammation cools off, and the body repairs and restores itself.

Sustained inflammation–when the dangers go unrecognized or are ignored–is our biggest problem.

When inflammation persists and the triggers are not reckoned with, there will not be resolution. The immune cells will continue to respond appropriately to the danger signals they perceive, spewing out inflammatory cytokines designed to protect us. However, there will be continuous collateral damage that the body will not be able to repair in an effective and efficient manner. Damage, dysfunction, and disease will result.

Causes of Persistent Inflammation

The phenomenon of persistent inflammation has led us to the most common health problems and causes of human suffering we know today. The most common causes in our western world are:

  • Standard American Diet: High sugar, processed grains, unhealthy animal products, damaged fats (hydrogenated or trans fats, polyunsaturated vegetable fats, low plant intake, nutrient-depleted foods.
  • Obesity: Especially abdominal or visceral fat. This is not the same as high weight or body mass index (BMI). There are also “skinny” fat people–those with “normal” BMI but excess fat in and around the internal organs (belly fat). Visceral fat is toxic and releases a steady stream of inflammatory cytokines into the circulation, leading to system-wide damage to cells and tissue.
  • Persistently High, Inadequately Managed Life Stress: Persistent mismatch between one’s expectations and accomplishments, perfectionism, chronic pessimism (the glass is half empty), negative stress mindset (believing stress is harmful rather than an opportunity for positive change or adaptation), social isolation, lack of connection to others, poverty, lack of control over basic security and safety needs, chronic lack of sleep, and other persistent emotional, psychological, and spiritual stresses.
  • Allergies: Persistent immune responses to environmental triggers, toxins, and foods. There is a growing epidemic of immune responsiveness to foods and food toxins, compounded by damage and dysregulation of the gastrointestinal mucosal barrier, immunity, and microbiome.
  • Chronic Infections and Microbial Imbalances: These can result from invasive infections by commonly known pathogens (strep, lyme, herpes viruses, etc), or persistent imbalances in the microbiome (gut, skin, mucus membranes).
  • Environmental Toxins: Pesticides, herbicides, plastics, and heavy metals are ubiquitous in our every day lives. They will trigger persistent immune responses that contribute to the overall “load” of inflammation that can make us ill.
  • Lack of Movement: Not moving promotes inflammation. It is well known that exercise, good posture, leading an active lifestyle, and avoiding prolonged sitting (not more than a half hour at a time) will reduce inflammation and increase positive health outcomes.
  • Spiritual Stress: We all need to know our lives have meaning and purpose, and feel empowered and inspired to contribute meaningfully to this world and one another. Loss of purpose is a pro-inflammatory state, and is connected to poor health outcomes.

Autoimmune Disorders: Persistent Inflammation

Autoimmune disorders such as autoimmune thyroiditis (“Hashimoto’s thyroiditis”), rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and coronary artery disease (yes, this is an autoimmune disease!) are examples of the trouble that a prolonged, specific inflammatory attack can cause.

The conventional medical approach to management of these disorders is to use pharmaceutical immune suppressive medication to dampen the destructive inflammation (“kill the messenger”). But keep in mind, the immune system is responding–quite specifically–to a well-defined trigger. A deeper and more sustainable way to manage–and reverse–autoimmune disorders is to treat the underlying causes–the triggers of the inflammation.

One example of a common trigger for autoimmune illness is gluten. We know that gluten ingestion is involved in the genesis of autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease and autoimmune hypothyroidism. Both are best treated with a gluten-free diet and a gut healing strategy.

Other common contributors to autoimmune disease are vitamin D deficiency, elevated levels of dangerous estrogen metabolites (4-hydroxy estrone), heavy metals such as mercury, environmental toxins such as herbicides (RoundUp) and plastics, and persistent infections, such as strep, lyme disease, and gum disease.

How to Optimize Inflammatory Balance

How do we achieve internal balance in which our immune cells respond appropriately to danger signals to keep us safe, then retreat, heal, and restore?

  • We must identify what our common inflammatory triggers are and eliminate or minimize them.
  • We can opt to work with a practitioner of Functional Medicine to help us with this process–they are trained to find and treat the root causes of illness using the science of systems biology.

Sensible action steps for lowering inflammation:

  • Eat a healthy diet: As Michael Polin says, “Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Great rule of thumb!
    • Avoid all processed, refined, and high sugar foods.
    • Avoid all animal milk products.
    • Avoid all grains, especially gluten.
    • Avoid high lectin foods: beans and legumes.
    • Eat a wide variety of plants: vegetables and low sugar content fruit, like dark berries.
    • Eat only healthy meat: pasture-raised (“grass finished”) beef, pasture-raised chicken and eggs, and wild-caught fish (though avoid larger predatory fish such as albacore tuna due to high concentration of mercury and environmental toxins).
    • Eat lots of healthy fat: healthy meat, avocados and avocado oil, olives and olive oil, coconut milk (fresh, culinary–not from the carton) and coconut oil, medium-chain triglyceride oil (MCT), raw nuts and seeds (if tolerated).
  • Include anti-inflammatory spices, condiments, and supplements in your diet:
    • Turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, rosemary, black pepper, cardamum.
    • Garlic and onions.
    • Hot peppers (if tolerating nightshades).
    • Green tea: use ground Sencha for lowest caffeine and highest antioxidant content.
    • Omega-3 fatty acids: fish oil–2-3 grams combined EPA and DHA daily.
    • Turmeric extract: 2-3 grams daily of product containing 95% curcumeroids.
    • Vitamin D: 2000-10,000 IU daily; or quantity sufficient to maintain blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D at around 60-80 ng/ml.
    • Probiotics, prebiotic food (starchy vegetables), and fermented foods.
  • Move your Body. Find the movement or exercise that fits your body and interests and do it regularly. Variety is the spice of life! Avoid prolonged sitting.
  • Find peace. There are many ways to relax and reduce stress–do what works for you and practice it daily: be in nature, meditate, do yoga, breathe deeply, reduce clutter, take a news fast, reduce contact with electronic devices, improve time management and organization, gratitude, forgiveness, evaluate and amend expectations, love and connect to others, and sleep well.
  • Reduce toxicity: Remove as many sources of toxicity as possible: pesticides, herbicides, cleaning chemicals, plastics (especially avoid heating food in plastic or drinking water out of disposable plastic, use BPA-free plastic when necessary), and heavy metals (see EPA website for updated listing of safe versus contaminated fish).
  • Use HEPA filter: in home and work space if you suffer from environmental allergies.
  • Change body composition to reduce visceral fat: by following anti-inflammatory food plan, increasing movement, reducing stress and toxicity in your life.
  • Develop clear sense of meaning and purpose in your life. Get closer to your connection to something higher–nature, God, the Universe. Express your creativity. Get quiet. Listen to your inner wisdom. Be of service to others.
  • Balance your thinking and emotions: Toxic emotions like persistent anger or pessimism increase inflammation. Work on shifting your thoughts and emotions in a more positive direction. Reflect on what you are grateful for. Forgive those who have caused you harm (this is for you!). Turn away from the negativity of the news and social media. Resuscitate yourself with the beauty of nature.


Karyn Shanks, MD. Hypothyroidism–Part Three: How to Put the Fire Out. 2017.

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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