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Mindful : August 2019
WHY WE GET INFLAMED To understand why med- itation may work against metainflammation, it helps to understand exactly what inflammation is, and what effects it can have on our health. First, there’s more than one kind of inflammation. Acute inflammation is trig- gered when you’re wounded or battling an infection. One of the body’s most elegantly engineered processes, your blood vessels constrict to stop bleeding. Then swarms of inflammation-promoting cells, starting with neutro- phils, flood the injured area. (You may notice redness and swelling at the wound site during this process.) These trigger scab for- mation and skin healing, and help form new blood vessels, until it’s almost like the whole thing never hap- pened. The inflammation naturally ebbs away once healing is completed. If acute inflammation is like a raging fire that burns in place until an infection is obliterated, metainflamma- tion is like having embers burning deep within your body. You may never notice the smoldering until it erupts as chronic illness, notes Garry Egger, PhD, Director of the Center for Health Promotion and Research. Instead, this low-grade, chronic, and systemic in- flammation quietly spreads, affecting arteries and certain organs and causing allostasis, a disruption of their normal processes. Allostasis is present in many, if not most, forms of chronic disease. “We can’t say it ‘causes’ such disease, but it is highly correlated,” Dr. Egger says. A CHRONIC CONNECTION The triggers of metainflam- mation are like a huge crazy quilt that reflects the costs of living in a modern, indus- trialized society: processed, packaged, and fast foods; inactive lifestyle; obesity; not enough fruits and vege- tables; too little sleep; pollu- tion; chemicals that disrupt our endocrine system (and promote obesity); and social issues, including inequality and economic insecurity. These familiar life condi- tions all cause physical and psychological stress, which in turn can ignite the slow burn of metainflammation deep within the body. But as with many phys- iological processes, how metainflammation leads to disease isn’t cut-and-dried. Instead, research suggests it’s a response your immune system mounts to a variety of triggers, which over time leads to the development of various chronic conditions. In other words, how peo- ple develop chronic diseases related to inflammation is complicated, says Leonard H. Calabrese, DO, Profes- sor of Medicine, Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Metainflammation can interfere with immune system regulation, says Dr. Calabrese. People’s immune systems react differently to this dysregulation—de- pending on myriad factors, from your genetic history to environmental or lifestyle factors—and they may respond with inflammatory diseases such as rheuma- toid arthritis, Crohn’s dis- ease, or psoriasis, to name just a few. In fact, some 70% of all diseases, including diabetes, arthritis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary dis- ease, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, chronic anxiety, and even some forms of cancer may have an inflammatory trigger. PUTTING OUT THE FIRE Reversing widespread in- flammation doesn’t happen overnight, but a good start is reducing the physical and psychological stressors that can be triggering the reaction. Along with a diet rich in plant-based foods and exercise, mindfulness meditation is a noted help. “I think the evidence is strong that mindfulness— especially the more you practice—‘downregulates’ inflammatory genes,” says Dr. Calabrese. Simply put, that means that a consis- tent mindfulness practice can “turn off ” the process by which genes trigger inflammation. In a UCLA/Carnegie Mellon study conducted in 2012, a course of Mindful- ness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) reduced C-reactive protein (a significant mark- er for inflammation). The researchers concluded that MBSR could be an effec- tive treatment for blunting pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults. It seems to target neuro- genic inflammation—which is caused by inflammatory mediators released from sensory nerve endings, and is a key factor in chronic → 22 mindful August 2019 mindful health ILLUSTRATIONBYANNA&ELENABALBOSSA