Inflammation: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Part I

Written by on December 21, 2008 in Health
Flax seeds are a good source of omega-3.

Flax seeds are a good source of omega-3.

Inflammation is often associated with painful swelling, red irritation, and generalized achiness. The literal meaning of the word comes from the Latin root, inflamatio, to set on fire. It has negative connotations, and rightfully so, but in the proper situation it is undoubtedly beneficial. In the first part of this article we will define inflammation and its causes, and then in part II we will discover natural ways to control inflammation that has gone awry.

We have all experienced inflammation when we cut ourselves or have become sick. Many people are walking around in a chronic inflammatory state without being aware of it. Inflammation is essential because without it we could not survive, but when it becomes chronic, it is detrimental to our health.

When we cut ourselves, the cells surrounding the cut immediately release special chemical signals called cytokines. Cytokines attract white blood cells (WBC) and other cells that fight infection. Blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow and then become leaky so that blood products and WBCs can easily flow through the vessel walls to the surrounding tissue. This is what produces the swelling, red coloration, pain, and warmth. When the WBCs arrive, they release more inflammatory mediators called interleukins. Interleukins create a toxic environment for invading bacteria. Platelet cells in our blood also respond by forming a clot to stop the bleeding. Over several days the inflammatory reaction begins to wane and the cut heals.

The downside of inflammation is when it is sustained. The inflammatory chemicals that fight infection end up damaging arteries, joints, and other organs within the body. Chronic inflammation is a pathological condition seen as a major factor in many common disorders afflicting Americans. These include arthritis, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, strokes, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s dementia.

One of the foremost causes of chronic inflammation is the standard American diet (SAD) which includes a high ratio of saturated and trans fats, along with simple sugars. The SAD diet produces free radicals which are highly reactive molecules that steal electrons from other molecules. This process results in cell damage.

A way to understand how one free radical can cause so much damage is to picture a football field covered with mouse traps lined up side by side and end to end. The traps represent healthy cells. On each trap lies a ping pong ball, which represents an electron. Now picture one ping pong ball, a free radical, thrown into the field of mouse traps. What happens next is a chain reaction where thousands of mouse traps begin to snap, and as they do, more ping pong balls (newly created free radicals) are thrown about setting off more traps. As the traps are set off they become damaged.

There are many reasons why our diet is so poor, but the main reason is out of convenience. To increase the shelf life of food, oils are altered by hydrogenation. Hydrogenated fats were first commercialized by Procter and Gamble who invented “Crisco” in 1911. This is a process where hydrogen atoms are added to a fat to make it saturated. The end result is a fat that is solid at room temperature and can last longer without going rancid. The saturated fats, animal fats and trans fatty acids all promote inflammation and when consumed in excess have been linked to cholesterol, heart disease, vascular dementia, diabetes, arthritis, and obesity.

As a general rule if a fat is solid at room temperature it should be avoided. Just like bacon grease will clog up a kitchen sink, these fats will harden in the arteries that supply the brain, heart, and other organs.

A saturated fat has a hydrogen atom attached to each carbon. Sources of saturated fats include animal fat, tropical oils, and processed fats. These fats are precursors to inflammation and should be limited in our diet.

A monounsaturated fat has only one double bond between carbon atoms. These fats are less stable than saturated fats and generally liquid at room temperature. Sources include olive oil, almonds, hazelnuts, avocado, and canola oil.

A polyunsaturated fat has more than one double bond between carbon atoms. This structure allows them to be liquid at room temperature. There are two types of polyunsaturated fats that our body is not able to make. These are the omega-3 and omega-6 fats. The omega-3 fats help fight inflammation, whereas the omega-6 fats can promote inflammation. The benefits of omega-3 fats were first discovered when scientists began to study why Eskimos, who consume large quantities of fat and meat, did not die of heart disease at the rate that Americans did. They concluded that their diet, rich in omega-3 fats, was the reason for their low cardiovascular disease rate. Not long ago we consumed plenty of omega-3 fats in our diet at a ratio of one omega-3 to every four omega-6 (1:4). Now the ratio is 1:25. The reason for the decline in omega-3 fats in our diet is because of the increase in hydrogenated fats. Also, our meat and eggs used to contain omega-3 fats when these animals were free range and ate their natural diet of grass and grains. Now, even our cattle and chickens eat a poor quality diet which is highly processed, and thus no longer a source of omega-3 fats.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are named according to where the first double bond occurs. The omega-3 fats have the first double bond after the third carbon atom, and omega-6 fats have the first double bond after the sixth carbon atom. Sources of omega-3 fats include cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, cod, herring, and also flaxseed, walnuts, pumpkinseeds and dark green leafy vegetables. Sources of omega-6 fats include corn, safflower, soybean, cottonseed, grape seed, peanut, and sunflower oils.

Trans fats are created by taking a polyunsaturated fat, usually an omega-6, and adding more hydrogen atoms. They are used in processed foods to increase shelf life. They are found in cookies, crackers, icing, potato chips, and margarine. Trans fats are usually solid at room temperature and pro-inflammatory. They should be avoided.

It is interesting to see the Eastern philosophical patterns reverberating in science. The idea of good and bad intertwined in a balanced dance can be applied to practically every aspect of life including science and health. Inflammation in the short term is essential to life because it protects us and helps heal wounds. Within the positive features of acute inflammation there is the negative aspect of pain and discomfort at the site of injury. When the balance of inflammation is overturned and becomes chronic the result is disease. Many Americans, through a poor diet and processed fats, help fuel the flames of chronic inflammation. The inflammation that was once beneficial begins to damage cells, tissues, and organs within our body. In Part II of this article (published in the next issue) we will discuss diet along with mind-body strategies to help quench the smoldering embers of chronic inflammation and restore the balance of health.

Web Resources

About the Author
David G. Lancaster, D.O. is a physician and a diplomat of the American Board of Holistic Medicine who specializes in holistic medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and osteopathic manipulation. He may be reached at 972-701-9696. For more information visit


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