The Dangers of Repeated Injury and Chronic Inflammation
I am currently reading the book, The End of Illness, by Dr. David Agus. He discusses and suggests a number of relatively small changes that we can make to our everyday routine that could potentially add years to our life. The book is engaging and the topics well-explained, which isn’t always possible for physicians to do as coming down to the layman level is often poorly done.
He talks about NOT taking a daily multivitamin, NOT eating fresh vegetables when out of season, and making all and every attempt to reduce inflammation of any kind.
Take for example, the common cold. When you’re suffering from a cold, your body is being exposed to “a dangerous storm of molecules” as Agus puts it. A little dramatic, yes, but true. He goes on to say that this storm produces “a flurry of chemicals called cytokines” which can have a detrimental affect on your blood vessels. Specifically, it causes them to age, become weathered, and more stiff (which is not good for blood pressure, etc.). Now, just because Agus is a renowned oncologist does not necessarily make him right and thus, further investigation is warranted. Yet, when you’re sick with a cold, you can feel the inflammation taking hold. You feel it in your nose, eyes, throat, lungs, head, etc. When you’re sick, you feel it everywhere. Thus, it is not unreasonable to imagine the damage that said inflammation is having on your vasculature.
Agus also discusses the dangers of repeated injury, specifically repeated injury in sports such as football and hockey. There has been a multitude of studies in recent years that have investigated the consequences of sub-concussive hits on the brain in football players. While concussions are detrimental (which we have known for years), there is also great risk in sustaining repeated small-impact hits. This has been highlighted in a number of NFL players over the years, but was never more clear than in the case of Owen Thomas.
Thomas, was a junior lineman for the University of Pennsylvania. In the spring of 2010, he hanged himself after what his friends and family called an emotional collapse. His breakdown was out of character as he had never experienced depression before. The autopsy of Thomas’ brain yielded very telling results.
Thomas had suffered from the same trauma-induced disease found in more than twenty deceased NFL players – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a disease linked to depression and poor impulse control. Thomas had never sustained a blow big enough to cause a concussion. Yet, his years of playing football as a teen and during college had caused him to sustain repeated sub-concussive collisions. While the suicide cannot be solely attributed to the brain swelling, it likely played a major role in Thomas’ decision to take his own life. This particular scenario, while devastating, is demonstrative of the damaging effects of chronic inflammation.
There is another reason chronic inflammation is so damaging – it can lead to cancer.
When the body is dealing with chronic inflammation, it tends to focus solely on combating and eventually reducing the inflammation. This takes energy and resources. Specifically, energy is taken away from our “DNA repair shop”. This is because our DNA repair shop requires a lot of energy as it is performing a very intensive and critically important function: it is dealing with the mutations that our DNA is producing all the time. As Agus puts it, “we are cancering all the time”. That is, our DNA is making mistakes left, right, and centre, but we have a backup crew that comes in and cleans up the mess to ensure the newly developed cancer cells don’t build up.
But when we’re in the throes of inflammation, our body tends to focus its energy reserves on combating that problem. And thus, as already mentioned, the DNA repair shop closes down for a while. When the inflammation issue is dealt with it’s back open for business, but sometimes it is too late. Sometimes the cancering has already gone too far and the DNA repair crew cannot undo the already-done damage.
While this information is slightly frightening, it is also empowering as it sheds light on what activities and life events may increase our risk for disease. I have never taken multivitamins due to my fathers lack of faith in them. I do eat fresh vegetables out of season and will likely continue to do so as I strongly dislike frozen. When it comes to inflammation, I’ve always known that the common cold was bad, but I didn’t realize how bad. Now, I will take further steps to avoid catching a cold. Fortunately, I have a fairly strong immune system and rarely get sick. I’ve always known that my son (or daughter) would never play football and this book reaffirms that.
There are a few other tips Agus has for reducing any and all kinds of inflammation:
1. NOT wearing high-heels or any type of uncomfortable shoe (sorry ladies, but would you rather have nice calves or a longer life?)
2. Get an annual flu vaccine (I have never and will never get the vaccine, but Agus recommends it)
3. Asking your doctor why you’re not on a statin and / or taking a daily aspirin if you’re over the age of 40
Completely avoiding inflammation is impossible as it is taking place all the time within our system. Yet, we can make small changes to reduce the likelihood of causing our body to experience further inflammation.