Before you experience pain, your nerves need to transmit an unpleasant experience to your brain. This is done by relaying electric signals over multiple nerves. The first nerve receives the painful stimulus and sends an electric signal to your spinal cord. From there, your spinal cord relays the message to a part of your brain called the thalamus. Nerves from the thalamus then inform a part of your brain, called the Limbic system, that something problematic is going on. Finally, you experience the sensation of pain! As you can see, pain doesn’t occur until the electric signal gets to the brain – which means it can be altered along the way. What might alter the electric signals? One enormous factor is chronic inflammation.
There are receptors on your nerves that carry pain messages. These receptors, known as nociceptors, have to reach a certain threshold before they dispatch a message to the brain. It is like an overflowing cup of water. At first, water begins to build up in the bottom of the cup. Progressively, the level moves up and when it finally reaches the top, it will spill over. Your pain receptors work like the overflowing water from a glass. Everything that happens before the cup fills does not matter. However, after it reaches a certain level, a message is created that tells your brain you are in pain.
If we have a large 24-ounce cup, we are in luck. It takes longer for the water to spill over and for us to experience pain. However, what happens if this 24-ounce glass shrinks to 12 ounces? You will experience pain more frequently, and to a greater level. Chronic inflammation essentially shrinks your cup – or more accurately, lowers the threshold your nerves require to send a pain message to the brain. Therefore, chronic inflammation has a role in producing pain.
How Does Chronic Inflammation Lower the Threshold?
The nerves in your body that conduct pain have receptors on them as I mentioned previously. These receptors respond to inflammatory mediators. Some examples you may be familiar with are prostaglandins. When you injure tissue in your body, inflammatory mediators are released and bind to the receptors on your nerves. This causes a sequence of events where electric signals travel to your brain and you experience pain. Now, what happens if you constantly have inflammation in your body? It will lower the threshold required to cause pain. When this happens, regular movements that should not cause discomfort will! They basically “preload” your nerves. So, what causes chronic inflammation then?
What Causes Chronic Inflammation?
Diet plays a huge role in chronic inflammation. Humans are genetically adapted to eat predominantly vegetables, fruits, nuts, and animals that also eat vegetation. Our modern diet tends to revolve around grains, animals that eat grains, refined starches, soda, and engineered foods! Our current food supply promotes chronic inflammation because:
- Omega 6 – Modern foods are high in Omega 6, which is pro-inflammatory. Ideally, we want a 1:1 ratio of omega 6 fats to omega 3 fats (anti-inflammatory). A diet is pro-inflammatory if it contains 4 times the omega 6 relative to omega 3. The typical American diet contains 20-30 times more omega 6 fats, well above 4:1 ratio!
- Potassium – Most Americans do not get enough potassium. Low potassium results in decreased glucose usage, free radical release, acidic body pH.
- Magnesium – Low levels of magnesium increase blood substance P levels. Substance P is inflammatory.
- Phytonutrients – High in compounds that counter free radicals in our diet.
As you can see, our choices at dinner, lunch, and breakfast have profound consequences on our body. Do you eat lucky charms in the morning? It may contribute to your back pain. Review the charts provided below for more information.
What can we do?
For one, we need to make healthier decisions when it comes to what we eat. Unfortunately, if it comes pre-packaged or contains wheat, it is probably pro-inflammatory. One of the worst offenders are refined carbohydrates. As bad as they are, it is estimated that 36% of an American’s energy intake from food comes from refined carbs! We want to replace pro-inflammatory foods with anti-inflammation foods. For some examples, review the charts listed.
You can also supplement your diet with ginger, turmeric, and fish oil. Fish oil is great because it is a substantial source of omega 3 fatty acids. This helps counterbalance the abundance of omega 6 fatty acids in the American diet. It also helps slow the destruction of your joints. Inflammatory mediators actually stop the cells in your body from fixing the cartilage in your joints!
As you can now see, inflammation has a large role in many body functions – even pain. A little bit of inflammation is a good thing. Your body requires it to heal. A chronic inflammatory response, however, is bad and progressively wrecks your entire body. We need to change the way we eat and supplement appropriately to counter this problem. Stay tuned for next week’s blog on the same topic when I discuss how it is involved in many chronic diseases!