4 Things I Did To Heal From Chronic Inflammation: An M.D. Explains
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. "Was this just what aging felt like?," I wondered. Was it hormonal? Could I chalk up my symptoms to my busy schedule as a physician and mom to a toddler and new baby?
In the end, I was right to keep investigating. I eventually found out that even though I was exercising every day and eating a “healthy” diet, I was chronically inflamed. Here are 4 things that really helped me heal and feel like myself again:
1. I took herbs and adaptogens to ease stress.*
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During this time of my life, I was constantly busy. And thought I had to be; How else could I "have it all"? Looking back, I realize that my chronic stress was contributing to inflammation. This is confusing because initially, surges of cortisol (a stress hormone) are very anti-inflammatory. But hours later, and especially if they are happening often, they become pro-inflammatory.
When I was tackling my stress, I looked for adaptogenic herbs such as rhodiola, ashwaganda, ginseng, phosphytidly serine, and maca to help me strengthen and stabilize my body and feel more at ease. For my ongoing, chronic stress mindbodygreen's hemp multi+ eases anxiousness and love the inclusion of super-herbs like cumin seed, rosemary, and hops.*"
2. I overhauled my diet.
Although I considered myself a healthy eater since I had plenty of fruits and salads throughout the day, I didn't realize that I was also consuming a lot of hidden sugar. Starbucks lattes and granola bars were my staples. And having grown up in New York, bagels were one of my favorite meals to take 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. I knew I had to really increase the amount of anti-inflammatory foods in my diet and kick out the main inflammatory ones, so I did the following:
- Reduced omega-6 fats, such as vegetable oil.
- Got lots of omega-3s from sources like seaweed, hemp, and flaxseed.
- Took care of my gut with fermented foods, probiotics, and fiber.
- Cut out processed sugar.
- Focused on healthy fats and proteins.
- Limited caffeine, which can lead to dehydration, triggering inflammation.
- Avoided any known foods that cause food sensitivity (the most common are gluten and dairy), as they can also create inflammation in the gut.
3. I quit intense exercise.
My pattern used to be that when I started to gain a little weight, I exercised 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) is shunted to make more cortisol (stress hormone).
Of course, exercise is good for our bodies and muscles overall. But when you exercise too much and too hard, you start stealing from your hormones. I backed off of doing long cardio sessions five to six days in a row. Instead, I started doing yoga and shorter burst trainings 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.
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. I had to remind myself that short sleep durations and poor sleep quality are associated with higher levels of inflammation markers. 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.
Until I started to finally feel better, I didn’t even realize how inflamed I really was. Overall, I found that focusing on anti-inflammatory herbs and foods really helped me de-stress to heal from chronic inflammation. I hope my story helps you in your own wellness journey, too.