Many patients come to me with a conventional medical diagnosis but aren’t satisfied with the resulting treatment. In the case of an autoimmune condition (such as hypothyroid, diabetes, pre-diabetes, obesity, or even skin issues), it’s almost a 100 percent certainty that inflammation in present in the body. And when that happens, it’s my job is to dig deeper to identify and treat the underlying cause.
Inflammation is natural and often even healthy; it is part of the body’s response to injury or infection. Chronic inflammation is not!
You twist your ankle, get stung by a bee, or contract an infection, and you are likely to experience some swelling as the body pumps blood, fluid, and other supplies to the damaged area to rid the body of any harmful agents and repair damaged tissue. The swelling — inflammation — causes pain, which is also normal, though unwelcomed. This acute pain and swelling typically subsides over the course of a few days, but it can linger for weeks. The good news is that it eventually goes away.
Chronic inflammation develops over a much longer period of time, it is less clearly connected to any physical injury or infection, and it lingers for months or years. It can contribute to a wide variety of health issues, including heart disease, arthritis, allergies, asthma, dermatitis, diabetes, digestive diseases, and obesity, to name just a few. According to a 2015 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, “The importance of chronic low-grade inflammation in the pathology of numerous age-related chronic conditions is now clear. An unresolved inflammatory response is likely to be involved from the early stages of disease development.”
This chronic inflammation is currently being reclassified as meta-inflammation (short for metabolic inflammation) — low grade inflammation throughout the body.
Meta-inflammation has a few really nasty implications.
- It alters metabolism so that energy is not burned, leading to weight loss resistance.
- It alters the insulin response, leading to diabetes.
- It causes a wide range of immunological responses that impact DNA.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “Studies in our lab and many others have clearly established that chronic, low-grade, sustained, systemic inflammation is a central feature of obesity and metabolic syndrome.”
Symptoms of Chronic / Meta-inflammation
Chronic /meta-inflammation is the result of hundreds of biochemical, immune, and hormonal changes that occur at the cellular and tissue level, creating a wide range of symptoms, including:
- Swelling and bloating
- Joint pain
- Itchy skin
- High blood pressure
- Constipation or diarrhea (irritable bowels)
- Restless sleep
- Difficulty or inability to lose weight when trying to do so
- Weight loss
Chronic / meta-inflammation also causes the following biochemical changes in our bodies, such as:
- Loss of muscle mass and strength
- Deficiencies in serotonin, the happy brain chemical
- Deficiencies in melatonin, the sleepy brain chemical
- Altered magnesium and potassium stores leading to electrolyte imbalance
Conventional Diagnosis and Treatment of Chronic / Meta-inflammation
Conventional medicine classifies each condition associated with chronic inflammation as a separate illness or disease. As a result, diagnosis goes only so far as to name the illness and stops short of investigating its cause.
Treatments often involve powerful medications or invasive medical procedures designed to disable the body’s natural function to some degree in order to alleviate symptoms. If the inflammation is causing pain, NSAIDs — nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including aspirin — or other painkillers are used to reduce the inflammation and alleviate the pain. If it is causing allergies, antihistamines and steroids are prescribed to suppress the immune response. If the inflammation causes obesity, various weight-loss treatments are recommended, which may include surgery in extreme cases. If a patient develops diabetes, insulin may be prescribed to keep blood glucose levels in check.
While such treatments often help to reduce symptoms, the underlying cause — chronic inflammation — is never diagnosed or treated. As a result, these treatments often result in only partial or temporary relief. Even worse, a patient is likely to develop other conditions related to the chronic inflammation, which require additional treatments. Over time, many patients have to take numerous medications to treat their various illnesses — antihistamines, analgesics (pain killers), anti-inflammatories, insulin, antidepressants, sleep aids, antacids, and so forth — all of which can cause additional health problems.
Functional Medicine Diagnosis of Chronic Inflammation
The first step I take in diagnosing chronic inflammation is to explore, through consultation with my patients, common factors that may be contributing to their inflammation, including the following:
- Hidden food allergies
- Unhealthy diet
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Exposure to environmental toxins and heavy metals
- Exposure to mold toxin
- Genetic susceptibilities
- Fatty liver
Physical examination and a metabolic survey can pinpoint specific areas of inflammation in the digestive tract, liver, muscles, joints, or glands, while a comprehensive lab evaluation is performed to fine-tune the diagnosis by identifying less obvious factors that may be contributing to the inflammation.
A variety of tests can be indicative of an underlying chronic inflammatory response. These tests/measurements include but are not limited to:
- hsCRP (high-sensitivity C-reactive protein)
- Uric acid
- ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate)
- Liver enzymes
- Vitamin levels
- Mineral levels
- DHEA-S (dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate)
Functional Medicine Treatment for Chronic Inflammation
Once my patient and I understand the cause and identify the contributing factors, we work together to develop a treatment plan to reduce inflammation at its source. Treatment is designed to reduce reliance on pharmaceuticals and instead use safer and more natural anti-inflammatory diets, herbs, and antioxidants that are effective at reducing inflammation by restoring proper function.
If you are currently suffering symptoms of chronic inflammation, I strongly encourage you to avoid the conventional medicine approach to diagnosis and treatment. Such treatments fail to address the underlying cause — chronic inflammation — and the causes for that chronic inflammation. While conventional treatments may help with a specific illness, you will not feel your best, and you are likely to develop other conditions related to your chronic inflammation. A doctor like myself who focuses on functional and integrative medicine is better equipped to treat the underlying causes and put you back on the path to being and feeling healthy again.
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About the Author: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., CFMP®, specializes in diagnosing and treating the underlying causes of the symptoms related to chronic and unexplained illness through nutrition, lifestyle, chiropractic, and other natural approaches to whole-health healing in Tampa, Florida. He earned his B.S. in Biology from Shenandoah University, his Doctorate in Chiropractic from Life University, his CFMP® from Functional Medicine University, and his certification as a Digestive Health Specialist (DHS) through the Food Enzyme Institute. Dr. Lewis’ passion for health and wellness stems from his own personal experience. With a family history of autoimmune conditions and diabetes, and his own lab tests showing his genetic susceptibility to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (autoimmune thyroid), he has learned how to restore his own health and vigor to prevent the onset of these illnesses and live an incredibly active life. Through this process, he acquired a deeper understanding of health and wellness, which he now offers his patients in Tampa.