***A chronic illness may be defined as a long-lasting condition that can be controlled but not cured.***
Chronic illness impacts people all over the world. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that chronic disease is the leading cause of death and disability in the United States. And, data from the World Health Organization show that chronic disease is also the major cause of premature death around the world even in places where infectious disease are rampant.
Having a chronic illness is disruptive to our lives in many ways.
- We are often tired and in pain.
- Our illness affects our appearance, physical abilities and independence.
- Eventually, we are not able to work full-time or even at all, causing financial problems.
These life-altering changes cause stress, anxiety and anger. I think it is important to begin to understand some fundamental things about chronic illness and what we might do about it.
There has been a close association demonstrated in multiple research projects between chronic illness and chronic inflammation. Inflammation has been shown to be associated with a number of chronic illnesses as shown on the following diagram. Many of us suffer from more than one of these debilitating disorders. And, they are all linked to inflammation.
The reality is that chronic inflammation can control our lives. Understanding the links between inflammation and chronic disease can help us understand how we might take steps to better control our chronic illness and thus improve our quality of life.
So how does inflammation lead to cancer? Here’s the current thinking. When a tiny tumor starts growing from a just a few cells, it can find enough oxygen and nutrients from its immediate surroundings. But as it grows bigger, demand starts to outstrip supply, and things start getting desperate. As the cancer cells struggle to survive, they begin to release chemical signals that lure immune cells called macrophages and granulocytes to infiltrate the tumor. Once inside the tumor’s inner sanctum, these cells secrete molecules (called cytokines) that stimulate the growth of blood vessels (angiogenesis), which carry much-needed oxygen and nutrients to the cancer. Other cytokines encourage growth of a sort of cellular “pillow” called the stroma against which the tumor rests. Meanwhile, other inflammatory cells shower the tumor with molecules (free radicals) that further damage their DNA. Inflammation likely contributes to metastasis by producing chemicals that help tumor cells eat through the molecules that connect them to their surroundings. Taken together, fledgling tumors hijack inflammation and use it to accelerate the progression towards full-blown cancer.
Chronic inflammation contributes to coronary arthrosclerosis – blocking the flow of oxygenated blood in coronary arteries which leads to heart attack. Also, inflammation contributes to muscle wasting in the heart which leads to congestive heart failure.
Chronic inflammation destroys brain cells contributing to dementia and death.
Type 2 Diabetes:
Components of the immune system are altered in obesity and type 2 diabetes. These immunological changes include altered levels of specific cytokines and chemokines, changes in the number and activation of various leukocytes and increased apoptosis (cell death) and tissue fibrosis (traumatized tissue). Together, these changes suggest that inflammation is a cause of Type 2 Diabetes.
Inflammatory cytokines destroy joint cartilage and synovial fluid.
An autoimmune disease is when the immune system mistakes its own tissues as foreign and mounts an inappropriate attack on the body. My paraneoplastic syndrome is one example. Inflammation is a common thread in just about all chronic autoimmune conditions. The inflammation is caused by an overproduction of cytokines and chemokines. It worsens when chemokines summon more and more destructive immune system components — cells such as macrophages, neutrophils, and T cells. Refer back to cancer. Sound familiar? And in my case, it is thought that the cancer triggered the autoimmune response.
Inflammatory cytokines induce autoimmune reactions against myelin and vascular and connective tissues which irritate nerves. Such inflammation causes a number of neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis and peripheral neuropathies among many others. Inflamed connective tissues exacerbated by secondary diet and neurological imbalances likely contribute to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a major cause of chronic illness and death. The severity of the disease is known to relate to how healthy the patient is overall. There has been a link identified between COPD and other systemic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. COPD is known to be an inflammatory condition and pro-inflammatory cytokines may be the driving force behind the disease process.
***So, what can we do?***
The fact that the immune system drives the inflammatory process in disease is well established. One is able to Google hundreds of well-controlled research studies that support this conclusion. Unfortunately, conventional medicine has not yet developed actual answers as to how to control the autoimmune process. Treatment consists of a number of therapies to suppress the immune system with or without steroids. These therapies are indeed designed to reduce inflammation but they do not usually stop the disease process or recover what has already been lost to the disease.
This approach is exactly what I have gone through with Cytoxan and IVIG and sometimes high doses of Prednisone. But it doesn’t mean that we should abandon these therapies. They have been shown to help. And, in some cases, they will significantly slow down the disease process allowing for some “normality” to life.
***From all that I have read and my own personal experience, I think that what we put into our bodies and how we take care of ourselves overall has a lot to do with the course our chronic illness takes. I also believe that many chronic illnesses can be directly tied to the changes that have occurred in our diet and environment over the last hundred years.***
The cause of chronic inflammation might come from the array of free radicals that enter our bodies when we eat foods made from processed vegetable oils – fried foods, non-fat dried milk, powdered coffee creamer, most salad dressings, most packaged cookies and crackers, potato chips, and all those other processed or convenience foods.
We might be allergic or intollerant to the food itself (gluten, for example) or we just might be suffering the combined effect of a growing burden of heavy metals, pesticides and chemicals. The stimulus might also come from an old injury or even a root canal at the dentist. There is certainly plenty of opportunity for inflammation to enter our body in today’s contaminated and junk food-filled world. A combination of factors abounds to constantly irritate the body’s normal function.
***Waxing and waning responses – good days and bad days, flare-ups, etc. – are typical for autoimmune related disease.***
These responses are triggered by the stressors to which you are most susceptible. And they result in brain fog, pain, fatigue, poor sleep, anxiety and/or endocrine system dysfunction. When antibodies combine with proteins from the food we eat, certain genes are turned on in a special type of immune cell in the body. As a result, inflammatory chemicals are created (cytokines), which are strongly damaging to brain function.
***Consider what our great-grandparents ate. They lived at a time when chronic inflammation and chronic disease were not rampant. Everything came from a farmer’s field, nothing from a chemist’s laboratory. Nothing was homogenized, refined or processed. There was no need for “nutrition labels” because food was not so altered and compromised that it had to have labels.***
Most of the time, autoimmune diseases are not diagnosed until you have significant tissue destruction. For some neurodegenerative conditions, there needs to be up to 70% demyelination (nerve damage) before it shows up on a MRI.
So, while conventional therapy may slow down the disease or relieve some symptoms, we must also look for other things to help us combat our chronic illness and give back as least a small part of what we have lost.
Here is what I think will help:
- Remove stressors as much as possible. Don’t over commit yourself to things that are beyond your body’s ability to withstand. Don’t over exercise. While you want to remain as active as you can, overdoing it will only trigger a flare-up, increase inflammation and worsen your disease.
- Practice good sleep behaviors. Don’t take too many naps in the daytime that interfere with your night time rest. Use relaxation techniques that are helpful. Be certain that you are using a proper sleep position and be sure that your pillows are helping and not hurting. Go to a sleep doctor and use a CPAP every night if you have sleep apnea. Use medications wisely – learn how they help you sleep or interfere with your ability to sleep. Avoid caffeine and too many fluids in the evening. Hydration is extremely important but we want to moderate our intake at night so that we may lessen trips to the bathroom when we need to be resting.
- Don’t get angry and learn proper social behaviors. When we activate our “fight or flee” response, we are also producing chemicals in our bodies that add to inflammation and autoimmune responses. So, stay cool and calm. Seek out treatment for stressors that might trigger the negative response.
- Create conditions of love and appreciation, keep positive attitudes, and find people or things that make you smile and/or laugh. These things trigger your inner endorphins (natural systemic opiates) which reduce autoimmune response and act to lower inflammation. It might not cure your disease but it will make it a little easier to live with.
- Eat a healthy and well-balanced diet. If you are sedentary which most of us are, you will need to keep the calorie count low. For small women (100 pounds), this might be only 750 calories per day. Larger size, male gender and more activity result in the ability to increase calorie count. For example, a 200 pound male who is mildly active could probably consume about 2,000 calories per day. Be sure that you eat to stabilize your blood sugar (glucose level). And drink plenty of water – about 2 to 3 quarts per day (8 to 12 eight ounce servings). Hydration is essential to removing unwanted toxins from the body.
- Eat foods that promote intestinal integrity and supplement with additional natural fiber when necessary. Also, and most importantly, eat foods with the least amount of processing possible.
- This means fresh fruits and vegetables as the foundation of the diet, preferably organically grown and certified to insure the least amount of chemical pollutants. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits and omega-3 fatty acids tones down inflammation.
- You might want to consider transitioning to gluten free grains if you find that you have gluten intolerance. Also eat yogurt and fermented foods as these will help digestion.
- Be aware of the beneficial properties of herbs and spices such as turmeric, cumin and ginger. They are anti-inflammatory.
- Eat lean protein as much as possible. This means a diet of mostly chicken and fish. Eating pork or beef on an occasional basis is okay but not more than once per week. But be certain that you choose all protein products that are raised without harmful additives as much as possible. Find out where you can buy grass-fed meats.
- Too much fish can expose you to mercury, a heavy metal that will also exacerbate autoimmune symptoms. I recommend eating tilapia and salmon. Tilapia can be prepared so many ways and it will readily absorb the flavors of what it is cooked with. Salmon gives us those good omega-3s which are anti-inflammatory. On special occasions it won’t hurt to have that special tuna or sea bass. But don’t make it a regular part of your diet.
- Shellfish aren’t bad for you as many claim. Although they contain a lot of cholesterol, it is good cholesterol and eating shellfish on a moderate basis helps give you more diversity in the diet.
- Be sure to include “good fats” in your diet. For example, butter is a good fat while all those imitation spreads and margarines are “bad fats” that will worsen your illness. So are most vegetable oils that you can buy in the supermarket. Canola and soy oils have lots of negative research and most vegetable oils are extracted from genetically modified plants.
- Altered partially hydrogenated fats made from vegetable oils block the utilization of essential fatty acids, causing sexual dysfunction, increased bad cholesterol, and the paralysis of the immune system.
- So, what to use? Traditional vegetable oils – palm oil, coconut oil and sesame oil – are all good for you and are extremely stable with high smoke points. Olive oil and avocado are fine but should be used moderately because they can be inflammatory if used too much. You need fat. Diets too low in fat will only make things worse.
- Include nuts in the diet – walnuts, almonds, pecans and macadamia nuts are best with a good mix of good fats.
- I also recommend including eggs and whole cheeses in the diet. But again watch out for too much processing. There is almost nothing worse than processed cheese. Eggs are really good for you and, again if possible, you should choose eggs from organic farms. Often a local farmers’ market is a good source of organically grown foods.
I hope that this information is helpful and is not information overload. I hate when that happens. We need to follow our treatment plans but we also need to proactively take care of ourselves.
***No one is a better advocate for our health than we are ourselves. Take it seriously. It will make a positive impact on your chronic illness.***
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