Immunity Misfire

The silent smolder of chronic inflammation
has been linked to cancer.

May/June 2017

By Beverly Burmeier


Could your immune system be waging a continuous war within your body that predisposes you to cancer—and you don’t even know it?

This war is known as hidden, silent or chronic inflammation. And it has been associated with factors known to promote cancer development.

Chronic inflammation is different from the garden-variety acute type, in which inflammation represents the body’s attempt to heal itself after experiencing damage of some sort. Acute inflammation (redness, pain, heat or swelling) occurs in response to things such as joint sprains, ingrown toenails, sore throats or cuts; after the threat passes, the inflammatory response subsides. Because acute inflammation lasts for only a short time, it isn’t considered a risk factor for serious disease.

However, any number of issues—the presence of gum disease or colitis, say, or if someone is overweight or smokes—can force the body into a persistent state of inflammation that can’t be felt or seen (but can be detected through blood tests). If inflammation persists long-term—even at low levels—it creates an environment more conducive to cancer.

“The normal repair process involves cell types and substances that, when dysregulated, have the potential for leading to tumor development,” says Susan Erdman, DVM, MPH, Division of Comparative Medicine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “With chronic inflammation, the immune system is constantly adding fuel to the fire.”

Early-stage tumor cells may hijack the immune system’s inflammatory response and use it to accelerate the progression towards different types of cancer. In effect, tumors act like wounds that don’t heal.

Biological Errors

In a state of chronic inflammation, the immune system works endlessly to repair tissue, which it does by forming new cells. As these cells grow and multiply, other factors can cause the process to go awry.

“When cells grow very rapidly trying to repair an injury, and inflammatory secretions damage cells, then the stage is set for cancer to develop or worsen,” Erdman explains.

Cancer-related inflammation includes the presence of inflammatory substances such as leukocytes, cytokines and free radicals. Chronic exposure to these substances leads to cells that grow without restraint. Simultaneous damage to DNA, which provides the blueprint for each cell, and cell division while the body is in an inflammatory state could lead to cancer because dividing cells are more vulnerable to mutations caused by DNA damage.

“It’s important to note that these negative effects occur slowly over many years—like rust building up in a pipe,” adds Eduardo Grunvald, MD, who is associated with the UC San Diego Medical Center.

Specific Tumor Types

Chronic inflammation in the digestive tract, whether caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical irritants, has been linked to colon cancer. Research has shown that cancer risk increases as much as sevenfold in people with chronic ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, especially if the condition has persisted for eight years or more.

Leading an Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle

Reducing cancer risk is enough of a reason to put out chronic inflammation’s harmful fires, but it isn’t the only one. This biological burn has been linked to cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s, among other health hazards.

Avoiding persistent infections can help.

Eduardo Grunvald recommends that children be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) and adds, “People in the Boomer generation should be screened for hepatitis B
and C.”

The single biggest inflammation-fighting factor that’s under your control is the way you live.

Not smoking, or quitting if you already do, is a no-brainer. Not drinking, or drinking in moderation, also helps. A study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology found that alcohol affects the gastrointestinal tract’s ability to keep inflammation-provoking substances out of the bloodstream while also interfering with the liver’s ability to detoxify substances created by bacterial infections.

Eating a clean diet—one that’s plant-based, organic and non-GMO—provides a double benefit: Not only does it reduce your intake of such inflammatory substances as refined sugar but it also helps keep your weight in check. If your practitioner runs tests that indicate the presence of inflammation, he or she may also suggest ways to discover if you are allergic or sensitive to foods such as wheat and milk. In addition, stress reduction—through meditation, yoga or other means—reduces the risk of inflammatory hormonal changes and makes it easier to stick with a healthy eating plan.

Certain herbs and dietary factors have been found to help keep inflammation at bay. Curcumin, the substance that gives turmeric its golden-yellow color, has long been used to ease inflammatory conditions by India’s Ayurvedic medicine practitioners (as has the herb boswellia). Origanox, an extract taken from the common spice oregano, has been found to reduce inflammatory substances produced by the immune system; hydroxytyrosol, an olive extract, not only helps fight the inflammation that spurs atherosclerosis development but also inhibits plaque formation, which helps keep arteries open. Probiotics are beneficial microbes that help maintain intestinal health while vitamin D3 interferes with the chain of cellular events that promotes inflammation development.

“A history of inflammation in a particular organ (pancreas, gallbladder or liver) increases cancer risk,” says Anne McTiernan, MD, PhD, cancer prevention researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington.

Gastrointestinal infections caused by the bacteria H. pylori, especially if the associated gastritis persists for decades, have a strong link with stomach and colon cancer. The inflammatory response to H. pylori bacteria produces nitric oxide, which causes changes in intestinal epithelial cells and sets the stage for cancer development, according to Erdman.

Although the links may not be as clear, other cancers that have been associated with inflammation include those of the prostate, lung, kidney, esophagus and breast.

Autoimmune disorders, in which the immune system mistakes healthy tissues for harmful irritants and attacks them, can also trigger a chronic inflammatory response. People with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis should ask their practitioners about looking for inflammation-induced changes to cells over an extended period of time.

Fuel for the Fire

Normal immune processes can be disrupted by factors other than bacteria and viruses.
Exposure to agents such as asbestos, coal and silica dust can result in chronic inflammation in lungs because the immune system is unable to remove those substances. In the same way, cigarette smoke induces a chronic inflammatory condition in addition to filling the body with known carcinogens. And hormonal imbalances can cause changes in the immune system that lead to chronic inflammation.

Certain lifestyle factors can also create an inflammatory state in the body. Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, discovered that sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality raised inflammation levels. Melatonin regulates the body’s sleep and wake cycles, and if a person wakes frequently, melatonin’s ability to suppress inflammation is disrupted. In addition, stress can be a contributing factor because the stress hormone cortisol triggers the release of inflammatory chemicals such as cytokines, which are destructive to normal cells.

“Societal practices from childhood on, such as compulsive cleanliness, overuse of antibiotics and eating a diet filled with sugary or processed foods high in trans-fats, can prevent the immune system from developing fully,” Erdman explains. As a result, systemic inflammation can become pervasive.

Excess weight is another inflammatory factor. Obesity increases risk for several types of cancer, including those of the colon, pancreas, liver, endometrium, kidney, gallbladder and thyroid. Myeloma as well as some types of esophagus and ovarian cancer have also been linked to obesity. In addition, fat cells secrete hormones such as estrogen, associated with development of breast cancer.

“People who are obese have greater cancer risk because excess fat tissue produces high levels of inflammation, which sends a message for the body to repair itself. Those messages are the same ones that induce cancer cells to grow,” Grunvald says.

“As fat cells degrade, they attract inflammation-producing cells, which then produce chemicals that are released into the blood and can attack other organs,” McTiernan adds.

Moreover, a study from Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, found that men who had a higher body mass index (BMI) or were out of shape had higher white blood cell levels, which affected inflammation.

A study at Fred Hutchison found that when postmenopausal overweight women lost 5% or more of their body weight, inflammation markers decreased considerably. McTiernan says, “Our research shows that if you reduce weight, you can reduce inflammation as well.”

“The body is always trying to react to injuries, whether it’s from disease, environmental factors or lifestyle,” Erdman says. “When this response is chronic, it creates a niche for cancer to develop.” That makes reducing inflammation a crucial part of cancer prevention.

 

Easing Acute Inflammation

Sprain a knee or twist and ankle and you’ll generally experience pain, redness, heat and swelling, all classic signs of inflammation. The body uses this short-term, or acute, reaction to increase blood flow and immobilize the area so healing can take place.

Your first response should be PRICE—Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. The injured area should be protected by a sling, splint or some other support to keep it from moving, and you should rest it instead of attempting to push through the pain. Wrap a bag of ice in a damp towel (to reduce the risk of skin injury) and apply as soon as possible; move the ice frequently and don’t leave it on the skin for more than 15 to 20 minutes. Allow at least 45 minutes between ice sessions. Tape the injury (or use some sort of compression device) for the first 24 to 72 hours to reduce swelling, and elevate the injured area as much as possible for the first 48 hours.

You can also try taking bromelain. A compound derived from pineapple, bromelain is an effective anti-inflammatory enzyme that decreases pain and swelling. An Epsom salt bath with lavender essential oil, along with measured doses of homeopathic arnica, will help melt away muscle strains, while magnesium and white willow bark have well-documented soothing properties.

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