Why choose to be sick when you have the right to be healthy?

This column is written by Stig Bengmark – professor emeritus, researcher, lecturer and author. Read more of Stig’s columns here.

Chronic inflammation – the mother of all illnesses

Since all modern research shows that what is known as chronic inflammation is the basis for most, if not all, diseases, I intend to focus on that here. There are many ways you can counter chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, but you need to educate yourself a little first.

Some fifteen years ago, I spent more than a year studying the causes of all chronic diseases. To my surprise, I found then that each and every one of them was the same – all chronic illnesses are siblings, or at least cousins. That is when I understood that many, if not all, chronic diseases are caused by a prolonged defence response that fatigues the immune system, which is exactly what chronic inflammation is.

Let’s take it from the beginning. What is inflammation?

The term inflammation has been around for hundreds of years. It comes from The Latin inflammatio, which means fire. It was originally coined as a description of the change seen when any bodily tissue is exposed to threats from injury or infection. The five characteristic signs of inflammation were described early on: redness (rubor), swelling (tumour), pain (dolor), increased heat (calor) and impaired function (functio laesa). Several of these reactions are the result of the body mobilising its defences against injury and the body’s desire to initiate healing. We learned some time ago that the white blood cells play a major role here – as soon as tissue injury occurs, the white blood cells leave the bloodstream to surround the damage/infection and halt its spread as quickly as possible, destroying/eating the bacteria and the dead cells (called phagocytosis). Today, however, we know that this reaction is much more complex than that. The reaction has now been named the acute phase reaction, and it may leave behind permanent tissue damage such as scarring and organ adhesions.

But what is chronic inflammation?

In recent years, it has been discovered that what we call chronic inflammation is a common occurrence in most of us because we have moved away from the lifestyle and eating habits of our ancestors. In contrast to the acute phase reaction, chronic inflammation is quite inconspicuous and is often difficult to identify. Subtle signs of chronic inflammation include: unexplained fatigue, sleep problems, headaches, hair loss, premature greying, dandruff, acne, unexplained rashes and redness of the skin, dry eyes, brittle nails, dry mouth or even excessive salivation, sexual dysfunction, irregular menstruation, unexplained chronic constipation or diarrhoea, unexplained bone decalcification, frequent unexplained infections and influenza, frequent depression, unexplained shortness of breath, sweaty feet and sweaty palms, etc. Many diseases that occur in early childhood, such as allergies and the familiar diseases known by their acronyms/abbreviations, e.g. ADHD, also exhibit significant chronic inflammation.

Medication often makes the problems worse

My opinion is that the symptoms above, which are often signs of chronic inflammation, should serve as a warning sign that you need to change your lifestyle. People with these kind of symptoms often seek the help of their doctor, which often results in a prescription for some kind of drug or medication. Unfortunately, the use of medications typically does not help with chronic inflammation but instead often results in a prescription for one or more additional drugs. And this is should be considered a foolish course of treatment since the most effective way to beat chronic inflammation is to change the way you live.

If unhealthy lifestyles are not changed, it often leads to a downward spiral of illness

If you do not change your lifestyle and get to the root of the problem, inflammation will instead lead to further illness. This chronic inflammatory spiral means that an individual who has a chronic disease is at a much greater risk of contracting a second and third illness. After several years of chronic inflammation, it becomes much more likely that very serious chronic diseases will arise, such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer and many more.

On the other hand, we have yet to find an explanation for why the course of the disease starts with cancer in one person, with diabetes in another and Alzheimer’s in a third. However, the positive thing is that there is a lot of evidence that making radical changes in one’s lifestyle and eating habits not only helps combat the disease that has presented itself, it can also break the vicious cycle of diseases that follow in each other’s tracks.

There are many factors, but the way you choose to live has the greatest influence

There are thousands, probably even tens of thousands, of factors that contribute to the development of prolonged chronic inflammation – it can be anything from what life was like for your grandfather when he was growing up and your mother’s lifestyle before and during pregnancy as well as when breastfeeding (i.e. during the period when the immune system is programmed and calibrated) to the way you live your own life. It is thought that the “bad” things we inherit from our grandfathers as well as our mother’s lifestyle accounts for about 30% of the likelihood of getting chronic illness later in life.

So the good news is that you are in control of about 70% of your health outcome. Therefore, in many ways, you can decide yourself whether you want to be healthy or sick. The tools at your disposal include what you choose to eat (and what you avoid) and not least, the right exercise for you in the right amount.

This will, of course, require perseverance, willpower and often intense personal effort. But even if it can sometimes feel like a struggle to exercise properly and prepare healthy food, it is encouraging to know that lifestyle changes, even later in life, have been found to yield surprisingly large dividends – at least a 50% reduction in the occurrence of disease and a significant extension in life expectancy. Chronic inflammation starts in the gut; well-functioning gut flora is the foundation of good health.


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