May 29th 2015

Inflammatory Claims About Inflammation

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

"We know for example that serious overeating in one sitting can trigger inflammation: what we need to focus on is eating less, not inflammation. Fixating on inflammation misses the point, unless you are a researcher studying disease.......For the rest of us, we need to avoid behaviors that promote ill health in general"

"We also know that two things can reduce inflammation: fasting and exercise."

"We need to get our priorities straight. Forget inflammation and pay attention to what matters: eat healthy, eat little and exercise if you want to reduce the chance of suffering from the many diseases associated with bad diet."

We all appreciate the elegance of simple solutions to complex problems. But we know too that simplicity can often masquerade as truth, hiding a more nuanced reality. Such is the case with inflammation, where pseudoscience, exaggerated claims, false promises, and dangerous oversimplification have dominated for too long. Here is a typical missive:

"Inflammation controls our lives. Have you or a loved one dealt with pain, obesity, ADD/ADHD, peripheral neuropathy, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, migraines, thyroid issues, dental issues, or cancer? If you answered yes to any of these disorders you are dealing with inflammation."

Well, no, inflammation does not control our lives. Like many others, this author claims inflammation is responsible for a huge range of maladies, ranging from Alzheimer's to lupus to stroke to fibromyalgia; I counted 30 on this site. As a biologist, and author of a book on diet and nutrition, I find this to be nothing but cringe-worthy. Yes, inflammation is terribly important, and as we will see, associated with disease. But the oversimplification and weak link to biology that we find on sites like these are misdirection from understanding what is actually happening in our bodies. Such misunderstanding leads to odd nutritional or medical recommendations that are useless at best or dangerous at worst.

Dr. Wajahat Mehal has written an excellent lay-person-friendly overview of the latest in inflammation research that can be found in the most recent issue of Scientific American. I urge anybody making any claims about inflammation, or contemplating dietary or behavioral changes based on concern about it, to read this article.

Here is the crux of the problem. Yes, indeed, as Dr. Mehal notes, "inflammasomes are at the heart of a wide range of diseases and disorders." But before we go nuts here, let's take a deep breath. Often lost in conversation is the distinction between inflammation causing disease and the role of inflammation as a mechanism of disease progression arising from different pathologies. Be clear that "at the heart of" does not mean "causes." This distinction is critical. Cancer offers a good analogy. At some point, all cancers result when cells start dividing uncontrollably; but there are many causes of cancer leading to that cell condition. If we wish to avoid lung cancer, the answer is to stop smoking; this is a better strategy than looking for ways to interfere with the cellular mechanisms of malignancy, after we have set them on a path to malignancy with our unhealthy behavior.

The same applies to inflammation; yes, many disparate diseases have inflammation somewhere in their pathways, just as almost all cancers share a similar mechanism of cell physiology in taking the last step to malignancy. But that last step to uncontrolled growth is not the cause of cancer -- what causes cancer is what leads eventually to that last step. Likewise, inflammation is not the cause of disease; it is a shared mechanism of disease progression following various assaults on our bodies, just as different cancers sharing comparable physiological processes are the consequence of being exposed to various carcinogens. Exposure to asbestos fibers can cause mesothelioma; high levels of radiation can cause leukemia. Once we are exposed, both insults (if resulting in these very different cancers) ultimately lead to malignancy through similar cellular mechanisms. The same idea applies directly to inflammation. We know for example that serious overeating in one sitting can trigger inflammation: what we need to focus on is eating less, not inflammation. Fixating on inflammation misses the point, unless you are a researcher studying disease. Inflammation is a legitimate and important target for research as we learn more about disease progression and means of combatting pathologies once initiated. For the rest of us, we need to avoid behaviors that promote ill health in general (which as a consequence will reduce inflammation and many other cellular mechanisms that ultimately lead to disease). Our goal is not to reduce inflammation to prevent disease any more than our goal is to stop phosphorylation in cells on the verge of malignancy as a means of preventing cancer; instead, we need to adopt habits do not result in disease in the first place. And this is where misinformation has run wild. We do ourselves a disservice by trying to attack the process of how a disease progresses rather than preventing the disease to begin with.

Food Claims

What drives me to distraction are false and unsubstantiated claims linking foods to inflammation. Have no doubt; eating can trigger an inflammatory response. That much is true. But not much of what else you read is. Here is what we know. We already mentioned that eating too much at one time can lead to acute inflammation, which will dissipate as the body metabolizes the meal. Habitually eating an excess of calories forcing the body to store the extra energy as fat can trigger chronic inflammation. Evidence is growing that eating high concentrations of saturated fats can lead to an inflammatory response. We also know that the resulting inflammation from these assaults impacts a number of organs, and particularly the liver. We also know that overeating, obesity, high fat diets and other unhealthy eating habits can lead to diabetes, cancer, stroke, heart attack and host of other nasty problems, all of which involve inflammation in the progression of those diseases. But inflammation is not the problem; it is a step in the development of diseases that we generally set on course with unhealthy habits.

We also know that two things can reduce inflammation: fasting and exercise. These result in an increase in blood levels of beta-hydroxybutyrate and lactic acid; these chemicals through a complex series of biochemical reactions turn off genes involved in triggering the production of inflammasomes. Any other claims of foods that reduce inflammation are hype, and unproven.

That is what we know. And yet, we are bombarded with false or exaggerated claims in popular literature, websites and the blogosphere. Google any of these claims for citations:

"Ginger and turmeric have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties." I love ginger and turmeric, but there is scant epidemiology to support the claim. It is just wishful thinking and the kind of bogus claim that distracts us from reality.

"Excess sugar intake will contribute to inflammation. It's not just the obvious sugar but also the hidden sugars." There is no such thing as hidden sugars; and sugar itself has nothing to do with inflammation, other than adding calories, which in excess we know can cause inflammation.

"Phytochemicals - natural chemicals found in plant foods... are also believed to help reduce inflammation." There is no evidence for this statement. Of course, eating plant rather than animal products would reduce saturated fat intake, which in excess can cause inflammation.

"Inflammation has also been linked to unbalanced levels of certain hormones, such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. That's why chronic inflammation often inflicts menopausal women, causing conditions like osteoporosis, weight gain, and adult acne." This claim is not substantiated by any serious clinical research.

"Foods that combat inflammation include tomatoes, green leafy vegetables and nuts like almonds and walnuts." Well, no, that is not true at all. These foods simply do not promote inflammation, which is not the same as combatting it. Avoiding rotten food is not the same thing as treating food poisoning.

"Monica has done exhaustive research on the nutritional components of 1,600 common foods, and rated them according to scientifically validated factors related to inflammation." Well, scientists would be surprised by this since there are no "scientifically validated factors related to inflammation." Just foods with or without saturated fats, which we know in excess can lead to inflammation. This does not require "exhaustive research."

Disease Claims

These two examples are what are typically found on the web now; there are multiple dozens of similar claims screaming across the internet:

"Chronic inflammation is the root cause of many serious diseases." No it is not; it is an important step, but one of many, in the progression of diseases generally caused by bad habits.

"Inflammation is the cause of nearly all disease." Wrong at every level; there are many diseases not associated with inflammation, and it is not typically the cause of disease. Rather inflammation is a pathway to pathology shared across many diseases (remember the cancer analogy).

Confusion of Ideas

The misinformation surrounding inflammation is not a simple case of confusing correlation with causation. True enough, inflammation is correlated with many diseases, and this correlation is mistakenly thought to prove causation. But the problem is deeper than that.

We have confused the cellular processes of disease development with the initial assaults that lead to these cellular processes. It is as if threw a ball at a friend's head knowing that this will cause damage that we really do not want to cause; but we throw the ball anyway, and our solution then is to try to shoot down the ball in mid-flight before impact. Our priorities are misplaced.

I strongly support research into inflammation and its broad association with the progression of many diseases. This important and growing field of study will help us understand the many cellular mechanisms that lead to pathology. Surely, too, such research will identify targets for treatment, just as cancer research has helped identify cellular targets for attacking that disease. The rest of us should stop focusing on inflammation; it is a distraction. Unless you are in the lab, inflammation is not something you should be concerned about any more than you care about the role of kinases in the development of cancer. We need to get our priorities straight. Forget inflammation and pay attention to what matters: eat healthy, eat little and exercise if you want to reduce the chance of suffering from the many diseases associated with bad diet.

To follow what's new on Facts & Arts please click here.




  

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."