Inflammation can be a good thing. If you are injured, inflammation is the way your body heals and ‘cleans up’ damaged tissue. If you become infected, inflammation is the way your immune system fights off the invaders (though you may feel unwell while that battle rages.) In both cases, the immune system does it’s job, packs it’s bags and moves on. That’s called acute inflammation and we couldn’t survive without it.
Chronic inflammation is a different matter.
Inflammation that persists means that something is wrong, and whereas acute inflammation is an integral part of healing, chronic inflammation can cause real and lasting damage. When we think of chronic inflammation, we naturally think of conditions like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Inflammatory Bowel disease (colitis), and Lupus. But did you know that chronic inflammation plays a critical role in Heart Disease? Diabetes? Alzheimer? Cancer? Osteoporosis? Autism? Asthma? In fact, most of the chronic conditions that afflict us involve chronic inflammation. This points out a major difference between conventional medicine and Functional/Integrative medicine.
In conventional medicine, the focus is on the damaged or dysfunctional organ. So, for example, if inflammation happens to affect the vascular system or the heart, then that person is treated by a cardiologist and given medications or procedures to improve cardiovascular function. If the joints are the target of inflammation then the doctor is a Rheumatologist and the medications are different. If both areas are involved, then you have two doctors and two sets of medication.
The alternative approach is to focus on the process of inflammation, regardless of what organs are targeted. Focusing on the process allows us to get closer to the underlying cause of the problem and perhaps identify the ‘triggers’ that are activating the inappropriate immune response of inflammation. There are many such immune triggers which include the following:
The concept of ‘triggers’ is largely ignored in conventional medicine. It’s as if diseases arise magically and fully formed, rather than being the result of an environmental trigger interacting with a genetic predisposition. Furthermore, when a conventional practitioner does decide to treat inflammation (in arthritis, for example) he or she would likely use medication that significantly shuts off part of the immune system. This can obviously be the cause of serious side effects.
- Reactive foods such as gluten, simple carbohydrates, oxidized fats and food allergies
- Toxins such as heavy metals, pesticides, PCB's, cigarette smoke
- Chronic infections with viruses, fungi or bacteria (Mycoplasma or H. Pylori, for example)
The Integrative/Functional medicine approach is quite different.
The first step is realizing that the individual’s symptoms and findings are manifestations of an inflammatory process. Only then is it possible to search for potential triggers. This is done by reviewing the person’s lifestyle issues such as diet, stress, work and home environment. Laboratory testing can also be critical in this process. Triggers can then be eliminated or reduced to diminish the degree of inflammation. For example, eliminating gluten from the diet can have a marked effect on osteoporosis in gluten sensitive individuals.
Besides identifying and eliminating triggers, the integrative physician has other tools at his disposal. Hormonal imbalances, especially adrenal dysfunction, can promote inflammation. The immune system itself can be distorted by imbalanced intestinal bacteria and improved with probiotics. Finally, there are a variety of nutritional agents such as herbs and essential fatty acids that can be used to reduce chronic inflammation. As opposed to medications, however, their effect is not as drastic and therefore they don’t interfere with normal immune function.
Inflammation is a double edged sword. Through Integrative/ Functional medicine we can direct it to do its job without the collateral damage.