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In this piece, double-board-certified physician Amy Shah, M.D., explains how she healed from chronic inflammation. If you're interested in learning more, check out her mindbodygreen course, The 7-Day Gut Reset: How to Get Your Digestion Back on Track in Just One Week.
My doctor told me that my labs and physical were “fine." But deep down, I knew there was something wrong.
I was experiencing fatigue, sleep issues, mood swings, weight gain, skin breakouts, belly bloat, and brain fog—and I didn't think that my busy job or being mom to a toddler and a new baby could possibly explain all my symptoms.
Of course, my first thought was to consult with my fellow physician colleagues. We ran some basic labs, and they interviewed me. I was reassured that my blood work was fine. Everything normal and in range. No red flags. Great news—but then, why did I feel so...off?
Is this just what “aging” meant? Or was it hormones? Because of my lagging energy and new weight issues—which had never been much of a problem before—I kept on searching and reading. And I found out that even though I was exercising every day and eating a “healthy” diet, I was chronically inflamed.
In fact, until I started to finally feel better, I didn’t even realize how inflamed I really was. I want to share my story because many of us “healthy” people actually have underlying inflammation that's often written off as simply aging or something else.
Why I was chronically inflamed:
Inflammation is the body’s way of protecting itself from harmful stimuli, such as bacteria and viruses. Short-term inflammation is good and necessary—think of the way a cut becomes inflamed to properly heal itself.
But chronic, silent inflammation is not good. It's associated with many chronic diseases as well as the symptoms I was experiencing on a daily basis. Here's why I was inflamed:
1. I was eating too much sugar, carbs, and processed foods.
Although I considered myself a healthy eater since I had plenty of fruits and salads, I didn't realize that I was also consuming a lot of hidden processed foods and sugar. Starbucks lattes and granola bars were my staples. And having grown up in New York, bagels were one of my favorite meals on the go.
Turns out that a diet of sugar, carbs, processed foods, and caffeine produces a factory for chronic, or "silent," inflammation in the gut. Increases in blood sugar from processed carbohydrates or sugar itself contributes to an increase in free radicals and pro-inflammatory cytokines. These are chemicals that kick off chronic inflammation in the body.
2. I was working out too hard.
As I started to gain a little weight, I started exercising harder. But when I didn’t see immediate results I pushed myself even more—sometimes running for hours a day. It was a stress-inducing exercise regimen instead of stress-reducing.
Not only was I generating tons of cortisol-induced inflammation, but I was contributing to my “cortisol steal” syndrome. Also called “pregnenolone steal,” this is a process in which pregnenolone (a precursor to hormones) will be shunted to make more cortisol (stress hormone).
Of course, overall exercise is good for our bodies and muscles. But when you exercise too much and too hard, you start stealing from your hormones.
3. I was stressed out.
This goes without saying in most of our lives today, but I felt like I was constantly busy. And thought I had to be—how else could I "have it all"?
Chronic stress contributes to inflammation. This is confusing because initially a cortisol surge is very anti-inflammatory. But hours later, and especially if it’s happening a lot, it becomes pro-inflammatory, not to mention, stress has a negative effect on the gut, hormones, and heart.
How I tamed chronic inflammation:
Once I realized I was inflamed and incorporated a number of key changes into my life, I finally started feeling better. Here's what really helped:
1. I changed my diet.
Food can either increase or decrease your level of inflammation. I knew I had to really increase the amount of anti-inflammatory foods in my diet and kick out the main inflammatory ones.
To reduce inflammation with your food choices, I recommend:
- Reduce omega-6 fats, such as vegetable oil.
- Get lots of omega-3s from sources like seaweed, hemp, and flaxseed.
- Take care of your gut with fermented foods, probiotics, and fiber.
- Cut out processed sugar.
- Focus on healthy fats and proteins.
- Limit caffeine, which can lead to dehydration, triggering inflammation.
- Avoid any known foods that cause food sensitivity (the most common are gluten and dairy), as they can also create inflammation in the gut.
2. I started taking adaptogens.
Adaptogen refers to a plant’s ability to adapt to its environment, to survive and adapt to exterior stress.
Adaptogenic herbs—such as rhodiola, ashwaganda, ginseng, phosphytidly serine, and maca—help strengthen and stabilize the body, thereby mollifying the impact of stress. Adaptogens also improve the entire body’s resistance to stress (not just a particular organ or system) and create balance and harmony in the body, helping to reduce chronic inflammation.
When I was transforming my body, I found a combination of these herbs to be really helpful.
3. I quit intense exercise.
I backed off of doing long cardio sessions five to six days in a row. Instead, I started doing yoga and shorter burst training to prevent that chronic cortisol elevation. I still like to go for runs from time to time, but I don’t go as hard or as often as I did before. Shockingly, I actually got in better shape after I reduced my cardio.
4. I made sleep a priority.
I have to admit that I'd been guilty of trying to be supermom and running on six hours or less of sleep a night. A study from the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta found that short sleep durations and poor sleep quality are associated with higher levels of inflammation markers. In fact, individuals who reported six or fewer hours of sleep had the highest levels of inflammatory hormones and changes in blood vessel function.
I started making time for sleep and made getting eight hours a night, every night, a priority. Some days, I even allow for a bit more.
Overall, I focused on anti-inflammatory foods and found ways to de-stress to heal from chronic inflammation. I hope my story helps you in your own wellness journey.