The hidden illness that could ruin your physical (and mental) health
Imagine having a condition that makes you age faster, impairs your quality of life, raises your risk of illness, and may even threaten your mental health. Such a condition exists and I see it on an almost daily basis. I am talking about inflammation.
Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about the inflammation you get when you injure yourself or catch a cold. That sort, known as acute, is a vital part of our natural defence mechanism.
The problem arises when there’s low-level chronic inflammatory action going on inside the body over years. This slowly impacts on our bodies in multiple ways, and there’s also growing evidence to suggest that it takes its toll our mental health. But before we examine this link, let’s first look at what we know about chronic inflammation.
Causes and effects
There are often no obvious outward signs of chronic inflammation, Instead it silently releases a cocktail of chemicals that, over time, puts strain on our insides, attacking the lining of blood vessels, damaging organs and depressing the immune system.
It can happen when the body’s natural defences fail to get rid of an infection — for instance with tuberculosis or pulmonary aspergillosis, a fungal lung disease. Another cause is long-term exposure to certain inhaled substances, such as silica dust. It can also take place when the body’s immune response doesn’t work as it should and turns on its own organs, as with autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, type-one diabetes, and both underactive and overactive thyroid diseases.
Inflammation also occurs in response to damage inside the body, such as osteoarthritis or cholesterol build-up in the arteries and plays a role in long-term conditions such as type-two diabetes, asthma, chronic bronchitis, and bone loss, which leads to osteoporosis.
And finally, there’s lifestyle. Smoking, drinking too much alcohol, obesity, poor diet, stress and a lack of sleep are all linked to chronic inflammation in the body. More of this later.
Inflammation and the mental health link
These impacts on our physical health have been widely recognised. However, several recent studies have highlighted links between such inflammation and mental health.
A 2008 paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience found that as inflammation occurs our bodies produce chemicals that cause us to feel ill, both bodily and mentally. Another study found thatthe incidence of depression is three times higher among people with coronary heart disease, in which inflammation is known to be a contributing factor.
Other studies, such as the one published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2013, looked at over three million people and found that those with a history of hospitalisation for infections were at 62 percent higher risk of later developing a mood disorder. Meanwhile, another 2013 study in Clinical and Developmental Immunology highlighted the presence of inflammatory response in schizophrenia patients.
The emerging theory is that mental disorders may be a kind of reaction to physical ailments, brought about due to elevated levels of chemicals released as a result of chronic inflammation.
While we can’t do much about our genes or exposure to infections and injuries, we can exercise control over our lifestyles.
The first place to start is by eliminating known toxins that initiate the inflammatory response, starting with smoking and excess alcohol. Stress and a lack of sleep have been linked to inflammation.
The Western diet contains many foods that initiate inflammation, so avoid processed products and look for food that soothes the inflammatory response. Raw nuts can restore the body’s defences. Omega-3 fats, found in oily fish, fruit and vegetables, are all known to help.
A healthy diet goes hand in hand with exercise. Many studies have shown that regular cardiovascular exercise may reduce markers of chronic inflammation.
Finally, you should get your blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood glucose levels checked. These are good indicators of the invisible effects that inflammation may be having in your body. As I always say, prevention is always better than cure.
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Mark Janowski (MD, USA) is an internal medicine specialist at Intelligent Health, a preventative health centre located at Sunset Mall, Jumeirah. The opinions in this column are not necessarily those held by Esquire or Hearst International