When, after almost a year of my belly doing its daily distention dance, a stranger pointed at it and said, “not too long now,” I wasn’t sure whether to be embarrassed or flattered (given I’m a good decade past the age of popping out offspring being even a remote possibility). Regardless, the suggestion that I looked like I was about to give birth left me almost as uncomfortable as the abdominal pain my bloated belly brought with it.
So I decided to do something about it. But what? Because while it may have been impossible to miss my gigantic belly, the cause was way harder to pinpoint.
What causes abdominal inflammation?
My research offered up myriad environmental and dietary factors that could be leading to my belly bloat and discomfort. Dietary inadequacies, eating too fast, swallowing air, not enough exercise, high levels of stress, certain medications, hormonal changes (hello menopause), travel constipation (I couldn’t really point a finger at that one thanks to COVID), and exposure to the pollutants none of us living in urban centres can avoid were just a few of the potential culprits.
But the more careful I was –upping the exercise, eating cleaner and cutting back on booze – the worse my bloating got, and soon a laundry list of other symptoms joined the party: disrupted sleep, unsurprisingly accompanied by debilitating fatigue, joint pain, weight gain, nausea, acne, and generally feeling crapped out. I wasn’t sure if any or all of these symptoms were remotely related to my bulging belly, and my doctors threw up their hands in resignation when tests and scans found no obvious reason for any of it. The best they could offer was to suggest I lose a little weight. But that wasn’t happening no matter how hard I tried. And I tried. Until sick of it all, I gave up.
Of course, while losing weight was impossible, gaining it was a breeze and all my symptoms worsened until finally I was diagnosed with chronic inflammation.
So, what is chronic inflammation
Inflammation is the body’s way of protecting itself against illness. It acts to increase the production of white blood cells, immune cells, and cytokines (cell signalling molecules that trigger immune responses and help the body to defend itself against inflammation, infection and trauma). But instead, with no injuries or infections to fight, mine had gone rogue and was attacking me instead.
While early symptoms of chronic inflammation can be subtle, making the condition hard to diagnose, left unchecked it can cause damage to arteries, organs and joints and may contribute to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, cancer, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease, amongst other serious chronic diseases.
What are the symptoms of chronic inflammation?
Chronic inflammation symptoms can be harder to recognise than acute inflammation symptoms as they aren’t always visible and are often attributed to other conditions.
Symptoms can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Joint Pain
- Weight gain or loss
- Skin rashes
- Digestive issues (constipation, diarrhoea and acid reflux)
- Chronic fatigue
- Mood disorders
How is it diagnosed?
Doctors can test for C-reactive protein (a protein produced by the liver which is a marker of inflammation) as well as for HbA1C (a measurement of blood sugar) to assess damage to red blood cells, as well as measuring and homocysteine levels (an amino acid produced when proteins are broken down).
What causes chronic inflammation?
Sure, I was peri menopausal, so my hormones had gone a little doolally, but I ate fresh food (maybe a little much, but mostly healthy choices) and I’d upped the ante on exercise prior to my belly’s balloon animal impersonations, so what was behind this chronic inflammation?
It turns out the biggest culprits behind chronic inflammation are hormonal changes, obesity, poor diet, drinking alcohol, smoking, environmental toxins including long term exposure to mould, inadequate physical activity, stress and sleep disorders.
OK, so I had to acknowledge that my weight was less than ideal, but my diet was as I didn’t eat a great deal of the saturated fats, trans-fats, or the refined sugar and refined carbs associated with higher production of pro inflammatory molecules. I had been drinking a little more than I should (thanks COVID), stress I had in spades and my sleep patterns would best be described as erratic but not, I thought, enough to trigger inflammation. But mould, well I’d just left an apartment that had been riddled with it, so that was something worth considering.
Regardless of the why, I knew I had to fix it before it developed into something far more serious.
How to naturally treat and manage inflammation
Lifestyle changes can be helpful in reducing chronic inflammation.
A diet based on whole, nutrient-dense foods that contain antioxidants is ideal. Refined carbohydrates like white bread and pastries, fructose corn syrup. fried foods, soft drinks, processed meat and trans fats like vegetable oil and margarines are to be avoided. Better choices are fats like olive oil and avocado, tomatoes, leafy green vegetables that are high in natural antioxidants and polyphenols and other anti-inflammatory compounds, nuts, fatty fish, whole fruits (especially cherries and berries), green and black tea, garlic and spices including turmeric, rosemary, cinnamon, cumin, ginger and fenugreek are all excellent. A low-glycemic diet and the Mediterranean diet – particularly high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils – has been shown to be effective in reducing inflammation and lowering the risk of bowel cancer, insulin resistance, fatty liver disease and cell damage.
A higher intake of soluble and insoluble dietary fibre is also associated with lowering levels of IL-6 and TNF-alpha (factors responsible for the induction of the acute phase proteins production that can lead to an inflammatory state.
Micronutrients including magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc and selenium are also valuable additions to an anti-inflammatory diet
And exercise is key, not only for maintaining a healthy weight, but in lowering multiple pro-inflammatory molecules and cytokines independent of weight loss.
Where possible, keep your environment free of toxins, especially mould.
My own anti-inflammatory journey is a new one, but a mould free environment, some tweaks to my diet, working on my weight in a sensible way, and more energy expenditure through daily exercise is slowly but surely making a difference.