Re-thinking inflammatory events: The inflammatory bucket

At the crux of all disease is inflammation. This is no secret. The effects of inflammation are determined by a patient’s ability to cope with or mitigate inflammatory events.  This is heavily influenced by genetics/inborn errors of metabolism and environmental influences. Due to the complex nature of how inflammation is produced, it is a well-orchestrated game between the different immune cells and tissues; I found it necessary to come up with an analogy to make it easier to understand. I would like to present the concept of the inflammatory bucket. Depression, anxiety, autoimmune disease and joint pain are often times a constant struggle with patients, but there are select times when patients will feel some relief or no symptoms at all. Why is that? How can this chronic, systemic disease wax and wane abruptly? It all has to due with your LEVEL of inflammation.

One of the largest contributors to inflammation is our diet. The average American will eat over 2,000 pounds of food per year. We are currently in a state of crisis—the number of obese have surpassed the overweight, and the overweight are more numerous then the hungry! Believe it or not, although folks may be overweight, they are more often, malnourished.  Sounds contradictory…right? Many of the foods that contribute to obesity encourage overconsumption due to their lack of nutritional values and the chemicals contained that shut off certain hunger or satiety centers in the brain. You would be hard-pressed to find someone that can gain the equivalent amount of weight by eating only vegetables and lean meat. You can eat 2 fast food hamburgers and a large soda, but an entire large grilled chicken salad would be a chore to put back. This has to do with the nutritional density of the salad vs. the 2 fast food patties and large bubbly chemical cocktail.

It’s a struggle to relate your food choices to your symptoms at times, partly due to the seemingly random influence of specific foods.

Here is an actual patient example:

A patient presented to the office with nerve type pain in both his legs and numbness in his feet. He noticed it would get worse when he ate sugary foods with his granddaughter, but only sometimes. Other times he would be fine. When he would have his morning breakfast sandwiches and donuts, there were days when he felt OK and other days where it seemed the numbness got worse.  When I asked if he thought his diet was contributing to his complaint, he responded, “No, I cannot pin-point any food that consistently makes it worse”.

I believe this mentality of one-ingredient causing ‘X’ symptoms has been instilled in us through our understanding of allergies such as bee pollen causing you to sneeze or peanuts causing anaphylaxis.   We have to forget that model in the chronic disease state.

So what was happening with the patient above? One-day sweets bothered him and the other days he was fine—leading him to believe that the sweets were OK and his complaints independent. Let’s put this situation into the perspective of the proposed inflammatory bucket. An empty bucket produces no SYMPTOMS. Note: You can still have a disease process building in the background without symptoms—we like to call this the “silent killer”, as damage continues to occur 24/7 without any signs. Now fill that same bucket to the top and ta-da, symptoms present!

So did the sugary food or his breakfast sandwich have anything to do with his symptoms? Absolutely, yet on certain days he did not consume enough of them to fill his inflammatory bucket thus, no symptoms showed. A lot of other substances exist that contribute to your bucket’s load- stress, infections, chemicals, etc. So if one day you are stressed and happen to have that donut—the combination may be enough to have your bucket spill over and result in symptoms. However, a couple days later when the stress is gone you have another donut, and no symptoms seem to appear.

You cannot change the size of your bucket, but you can lower its contents consistently. Reduce those foods you know are inflammatory to humans, reduce stress and try and stay healthy. I know, easier said then done—especially that stress one, but every little bit helps. It will slowly drop the level overtime.

Many nutrients prevail that have strong anti-inflammatory properties and disease modifying capabilities that also help to empty the bucket. The ability for these nutrients to have their intended purpose is highly dependent on quality and dosage. I would recommend working with someone who is well versed in natural medicine and/or functional medicine to guide you to the best results. This will be the most efficient way to reach your health potential and probably save you money in the long run, as there are still many products out there that don’t work but have good marketing.

Next time you are experiencing pain try and think of your pain threshold as filling a bucket and remember what you came in contact with, what you ate and mentally how you felt. Is there anything you can think of that you can change or modify so it is no longer an item that fits in your bucket; changing your fast food burger to a homemade patty on top of some grilled veggies? Exercise is also a huge contributor to optimal wellness and even provides stronger effects than any natural or synthetic for mental health. Be well and stay well.