Recently, I reposted an article, The Top 15 Anti-Inflammatory Foods, by Dr. Axe, and a reader asked a very logical question.
"How can we tell if we have inflammation? Are there any tests or markers to determine the extent of inflammation? Knowing what these tests are would give us a "starting point" (i.e. baseline assessment) and would be useful in determining what, if any, of the actions we are taking (like changing our diets, taking anti-inflammatory pills, and reducing our stress), are working."
Let's review what inflammation is...
Inflammation is a normal immune response in your body. It's our body's first line of defense against injury. Pain, swelling, redness, and warmth are all signs of inflammation arriving at the site of injury, helping your body begin the healing process.
Acute inflammation is a brief inflammatory response to an injury or illness that only lasts a few days. A twisted ankle, broken bone, viral infection, and sunburn are all examples of acute inflammation. (Ironically, I took a break from writing this blog to play racquetball with a friend, and accidentally twisted my ankle, which produced redness and swelling at the site of injury. Great example of acute inflammation!)
Chronic inflammation, however, is when your body no longer has the ability to turn off the inflammatory response and it starts damaging healthy tissue in your body. Chronic inflammation has the ability to affect every one of our body's systems: digestive, endocrine, respiratory, cardiovascular, skeletal and even our nervous systems. Without a doubt, chronic inflammation, can and will lead to most illnesses we know of today including heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel, asthma and allergies, arthritis, and cancer to name just a few. This is serious stuff.
It would be really helpful to understand and be able to quantify the amount of inflammation in our body today. Once we know where we are today (called a baseline assessment), we can make changes to our medicines (both prescribed and over-the-counter, with doctor approval) and lifestyle choices to reduce inflammation, eliminate disease, and hopefully feel better and live longer. There are two kinds of assessments, medical and subjective.How can you tell if you have inflammation?
Medical TestsProbably, the first assessment should be a comprehensive blood panel with the following tests. Please note, this list may not be complete, and you should check with your personal doctor regarding what tests are right for you. Each of these tests can help indicate inflammation in the body. (For more information on each of these tests, just Google each test individually.)
- Elevated C-Reactive Protein (CRP)
- SED Rate
- High levels of Homocysteine
- Elevated Ferritin in the blood
- Elevated HDL
- Elevated Monocytes
- Elevated Blood Glucose
If you suspect inflammation in your body, learn to listen to your body and begin to keep track of the signs and symptoms. Assigning each test a number on a scale of 1-10, would be helpful in determining what things increase and/or decrease inflammation.
- Energy level - How do you feel?
- Pain level - How much pain do you feel (and where)?
- Mood level - How irritable or happy are you?
- Ability to do certain tasks - How much does your knee hurt when walking or taking the stairs? How much do your hands hurt when opening a jar?
- Digestion - How constipated are you?
- Comfort - How comfortable or uncomfortable are you?
- Mind - How sharp is your mind? Are you forgetting things?
Technology Can HelpToday's wearables and activity trackers that measure heart rate and other biometrics may be useful in assessing the level of inflammation in your body. Specifically, there are two kinds of wearables that may help.
- Heart rate monitor - Whether you have a heart rate monitor with a chest strap (very accurate and best for people who don't mind wearing a chest strap), or a Garmin Vivosmart HR (with heart rate), knowing your heart rate trends can be a strong indicator of inflammation. For instance, if your one-minute recovery heart rate is less than 13 beats in one minute, or if your recovery heart rate is trending downward, this could be something as simple as a cold or influenza or as serious as heart disease. Tracking your ambient heart rate may also be useful. (For more information on heart rate tests, please visit the leader in the industry, HeartZones for more information.)
- Stress monitor - Technology is starting to catch up to what the leaders in our profession have been asking for. By using sensors that track skin sweat rate and temperature, and heart rate, we may be getting closer to a monitor that can actually monitor stress. Check out the Feel wrist bracelet, which is in the early stages of development. (Note, I have not tried this one out yet, and cannot vouch for it's reliability.)
Medical and Lifestyle Changes
Once you have some baseline assessments for your current level of inflammation, it's time to look at your current list of medications (prescribed and OTC), and your lifestyle habits to determine how you might be able to improve your tests results. Your doctor should be your first line of defense to discuss what, if any changes to your medications can be made. (I'm not a doctor, so I won't even go there.)
Actual situation: A friend of mine was taking up to 24 Ibuprofen a day to manage arthritic pain. When a doctor asked him, "Is it helping?" He replied, "No. I still have significant pain." So, the doctor said, "Why don't you cut back your dosage by 50%, and see if there's a difference." Upon reducing his ibuprofen by 50%, the friend still reported "about the same" level of pain (using the subjective test above). The friend then eliminated all ibuprofen, and after a couple weeks indicated "about the same" level of pain. The conclusion: ibuprofen was not helping manage pain; discontinue use.Examining your current lifestyle and making modifications are the next most important things you can do.
- Physical Exercise - How much exercise do you current get?
- Nutrition - What is your current diet?
- Emotions - What is your current level of stress?
Actual situation: The friend, above, who had chronic pain because of arthritis, maintained a regular exercise routine, but he noted that his pain increased when he did not exercise regularly. Nutritionally, there were a three things in his diet that were "highly inflammatory": an excessive amount of alcohol, large amounts of red meats and white breads. Each of these food items have been documented to increase inflammation. Recommendation: work on reducing and/or eliminating these foods.For more information, please read my previous article on inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods. Read also, "How Colorful Foods Fight Disease". Finally, tracking your current level of stress (using a scale of 1-10), and working specifically on reducing and/or eliminating stressful situations will also help reduce inflammation. Here's a great guide to "How Stressed Are You?.
For additional information, the Living 365fitt, 12-Week Program to Lifestyle Wellness is a great self-help program that, over the course of 12 weeks, will walk you through assessments and worksheets, with education and motivation, to help keep you on track physically, nutritionally and emotionally. If followed, I guarantee you can reduce any inflammation you might currently have!