Think about the last time you hurt yourself. It could have been a sprained ankle, jammed finger, or something as minor as a papercut. Do you recall the sensation of pain, swelling, warmth, appearance of redness and/or throbbing to the area? These are cardinal signs of acute inflammation. Inflammation is a natural mechanism created by our immune system and a normal part of the healing process. After an injury occurs, white blood cells enter the area to destroy bacteria and remove debris to prepare the site for tissue repair. This increase in blood flow can help explain why you experience sensations of warmth, redness, swelling, etc. Another example of inflammation occurs when fighting off a virus, infection, or an allergen. You can thank your immune system for the swelling and/or fevers and body aches, as your body reacts to the presence of foreign invaders.
Did you know inflammation can occur without a physical injury? Referred to as systemic inflammation; this type of inflammation occurs when the immune system is in a constant state of defense. Symptoms can be widespread throughout the body and may present as fatigue, brain fog, body aches, GI problems, skin issues, anxiety/depression, and joint pain (just to name a few). Factors that cause or worsen inflammation include smoking, stress, poor sleep, obesity, diet of high sugar/high processed foods, and drinking alcohol. Those who have autoimmune illnesses can also experience inflammation due to a faulty immune system that attacks its own healthy tissue. This is often hereditary; but can be worsened by environmental factors, infections, and certain foods. Examples of autoimmune illnesses include rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, lupus, and type I diabetes.
You might be surprised to learn that the gastrointestinal (GI) system plays a large role in regulating our immune system. Our gut microbiome contains trillions of microorganisms and accounts for the majority of our immune producing cells. A healthy gut microbiome needs a variety of different bacteria to keep the digestive lining strong and clear of invaders. A weak gut barrier does a poor job of protecting you, which can trigger inflammatory responses that can spread into the bloodstream, causing problems throughout our whole body.
How do we strengthen the gut barrier? Increasing bacterial diversity is one step toward a healthier gut. Probiotics, which can be ingested as a capsule, or eaten (fermented foods), boost beneficial bacteria. Increasing fiber intake is also recommended. Fiber is the best fuel for gut bacteria. When bacteria digests fiber, it produces short chain fatty acids that nourish the gut barrier and help improve immune function and prevent inflammation. Foods that are low in fiber and are highly processed do not provide adequate fuel for the good bacteria, resulting in decreased bacterial diversity. When this happens, hungry bacteria start feeding on the mucus lining of the GI system. Fiber is also known to lower cholesterol levels, control blood sugar levels, and reduce cardiovascular disease. Dietary fiber can be found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains; or can be consumed via fiber supplements (ex: Metamucil, Benefiber, etc.).
Our digestive system does a lot more than just digest food. Scientists have discovered a huge link between our brain and gut, referred to as the “brain-gut axis.” Our digestive system contains over 500 million neurons, including the vagus nerve, which directly communicates to the brain. The vagus nerve is a key player to our parasympathetic nervous system (helps decrease blood pressure and heart rate, as well as regulates calmness, relaxation, and digestion) and demonstrates a connection between stress and gut health. Another interesting fact is that the gut also produces neurotransmitters, (such as serotonin and amma-aminobutyric acid) which control our feelings of happiness and regulate fear/anxiety.
Inflammation is a double edged sword. The same response that helps heal us from injury can also hurt us if left unchecked. Increasing intake of probiotic rich foods (ex: yogurt and fermented foods), eating enough fiber (fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains), and decreasing intake of processed foods are simple actions you can take right now. It is important to note that healthy eating is only one piece of the puzzle. It may not solve all of your problems, but may be worth investigating to maximize your healing. Whether you are rehabbing an injury or not, the stronger our gut health is, the stronger our overall health is!