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Consider the simple pimple, sunburn or mosquito bite. Minor events such as these produce inflammation. So do larger events like a sprained or broken ankle. Experts now believe chronic inflammation in the body may be linked to various forms of cancer as well as other major diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and heart conditions. New studies continually increase our understanding of the complex inflammatory process and how it relates to breast cancer. In 2010 several piece of the puzzle came together when researchers at Thomas Jefferson University reported they could definitively show that inflammation in the breast is key to the development and progression of breast cancer. (Liu, et al. 2010)
While the relationship between inflammation levels and breast cancer continues to be closely examined, there are steps you can take to lower chronic inflammation naturally, reduce your risk of recurrence and improve your overall health at the same time. But first let's take a closer look at what inflammation is, its causes and its effects on the body.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is your immune system's natural response to an injury, like a pulled muscle, or to germs, allergens, a chemical irritant, and other threats. Your immune system reacts by releasing white blood cells and chemicals into the bloodstream that infiltrate your tissues, causing those indicators of inflammation most of us are familiar with: redness, heat, swelling, and pain.
It's a biological domino effect: all of these symptoms are created by the activity of immune cells working to break down injured and dying tissues so that new, healthy ones can replace them. This is a normal and healthy response - our bodies need to remain ready to repel an invasion or severe injury with aggressive pro-inflammatory responses such as clotting, fever, or swelling. Too often, however, inflammation becomes a chronic condition, and, in this state, we leave ourselves more vulnerable to breast cancer occurrence and recurrence.
Here's how. When inflammation arises, chemicals known as inflammatory cytokines or chemokines (proteins that serve as messengers between cells) are released into the blood and tissues. These types of cytokines are created primarily by immune cells engaged in the process of strengthening an inflammatory response, as a way of dealing with some sort of health threat to the body. By relaying messages between the cells, the cytokines help to modulate the immune system response to whatever threat is at hand.
Too many inflammatory cytokines harm our normal cells, however, and there's the rub.
Inflammation and Breast Cancer: A Nefarious Relationship
We've known for quite some time that inflammation and cancer have shared some sort of functional relationship. In fact, it was in 1863 that a German pathologist named Rudolph Virchow first hypothesized that the origin of cancer was at sites of chronic inflammation. Now it seems that modern science has caught up with the observations of the 19th Century. It wasn't easy.
It took 12 years and the creation of a highly sophisticated transgenic mouse for researchers to finally prove that inflammation in the breast is fundamental to the growth and progression of breast cancer. (Liu, et al., 2010) The researchers in this study specifically inactivated the nfKappaB inflammatory pathway to test its effect on breast cancer – not an easy task, as this pathway is involved in several functions that actually helped keep the mice alive. They had to find a way to turn off inflammation in the breasts only. And, ingeniously, they did, paving the way to their discovery.
A noteworthy 2009 study also confirmed a link between chronic inflammation and breast cancer recurrence. (Pierce, et al. 2009) In this study, scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at the University of Washington noted that women with high levels of two markers of inflammation―C-reactive protein and serum amyloid A―were two to three times more likely to die early or have their cancer return than women with lower level
Although many inflammatory substances have shown to have a relationship with cancer, three of the most widely researched compounds to date are known as COX, LOX and nfKappaB. While the particulars of each chemical are not critical for this discussion, it is critical is to understand the need to keep a balance between the "pro-inflammatory" and "anti-inflammatory" forces at work in our bodies.
Inflammation Enables Angiogenesis
Another important characteristic of chronic inflammation is its relationship to angiogenesis—the development of new blood vessels. While the COX and LOX enzymes promote inflammation, hormone like chemicals from these enzymes play a major role in creating new blood vessels. While this is a natural and normal process, it's also a process that gets hijacked even by tumors too small to detect, to build a blood supply to feed their growing needs. Likewise, these new blood vessels transport nutrients and oxygen to the inflamed tissue by way of inflammatory cells. This process is a recipe for chronic inflammation, each process promoting the other.
On the flip side, research suggests that compounds that block inflammation also inhibit angiogenesis, so by inhibiting one you are affecting both. (Jackson, et al. 1997)
Factors that influence inflammation
A number of lifestyle factors play a role in contributing to chronic inflammation. Diet is one of its most important modulators, with foods having either "pro-inflammatory" or anti-inflammatory" properties. Not surprisingly, packaged foods that are processed with a high sugar content, as well as trans fats, are among the most potent of pro-inflammatory foods. And the type of fat you eat just might play the biggest role of all in determining levels of systemic inflammation.
Your body constantly interacts with oxygen as you breathe and your cells produce energy. Free radicals are unstable, highly reactive molecules that lose an electron as a result of this activity. Since electrons come in pairs, when molecules lose an electron they "steal" electrons from other molecules. These molecules then "steal" electrons from other molecules, starting a dangerous chain reaction called free radical damage. In large amounts free radicals damage cells indiscriminately.
If you're body isn't able to stop the free radical chain reaction, oxidative stress follows, causing damage to cells, cell membranes, tissues and organs.. In an attempt to repair such damages, the body calls for an immune response which in turn, initiates inflammation. Chronic inflammation can likewise lead to free-radical generation. Therefore, one way to keep inflammation and oxidative stress under control is to eat a diet rich in antioxidants. 8-12 fruit and/or vegetable servings a day should do the trick.
Weight and Blood Sugar
Keeping your weight in-check is crucial for preventing inflammation, as well as conditions associated with it and obesity, such as heart disease and diabetes. Research indicates that visceral fat (the fat located deep in the abdominal area) is more metabolically active than other types of fat, secreting large amounts of inflammatory cytokines. The good news? Maintaining a healthy weight greatly reduces and in some cases even eliminates inflammation.
You may be aware that the hormone insulin, itself, is an inflammatory agent. So, the lower you can keep your fasting glucose and insulin levels, the less you will have to worry about them as a source of unwanted inflammation.
Stress and Sleep Deprivation
In addition to diet, certain lifestyle choices may contribute to inflammation. According to Dr. Isaac Eliaz, who practices integrative medicine in Sebastapol, California, both stress and sleep deprivation can lead to inflammation through the elevation of the hormone cortisol. (Eliaz. 2009) Chronic stress, Dr. Eliaz explains, leads to the overproduction of cortisol, the body's most abundant stress hormone. This rise disrupts normal hormonal function, raising blood sugar levels and contributing to the inflammatory cascade.
Everyone feels better with regular exercise. It can improve physical fitness, enhance overall well-being, and may also strengthen the immune system. It's tempting to be impatient and ignore our bodies' protests, when we are trying to reach a physical goal. But, be careful! When combined with inadequate rest and other stresses, over exercise, sometimes called over-training syndrome, can lead to an impaired immune system and inflammation. (Mackinnon. 2000) One theory behind what causes this chain reaction is that your over-taxed muscles and tissues trigger the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines—those proteins that act as messengers between the cells. When sufficient rest is allowed, pro-inflammatory cytokines can facilitate the healing process. That's why we often feel better resting after a long bike ride. And why it's best to alternate periods of exercise with periods of healing, recuperative rest.
In the next article we'll look at specific steps you can take to assess and lower your inflammation levels.