We are always being told to improve our health and fitness. For most of us, we should. There are hardly any people who are truly very fit and very healthy.
And there are a bewildering variety of things we are told to achieve this. We should exercise more, we need to sleep more, or eat less, breathe better, get less stressed, get a pet, go on a fast and so so and so on.
But what of all these factors are the most primary; in other words, what one or two factors derive from all these others? Or, put another way, if there was one factor, or perhaps two, that we could measure to judge 'how well your system is working'. what would they be?
Well, I would argue that it is these two;
- How much energy do you have?
- How well does your body control inflammation?
Lets spend a little time exploring what we mean by these two things.
When we have a lot of energy, we feel great and we can do a lot (think of healthy kids). When we have less than we need (we have the flu, or are chronically ill), we don't. That much is obvious, in that if we are in either state, we just know it.
By energy, I mean the simple circulating physical energy that the body uses to power the brain, muscles and organs that we are made up of. If there is lots of this chemical energy we feel clear headed, our muscles are stronger and more enduring, and our 'bits and pieces' all work smoothly. Even if our spine is not working mechanically as well as it should, if we have plenty of energy we often still won't get aches and pains. But if our energy levels drop, then we can't cope with the poorly working spine, and it gradually starts to hurt. Then, of course, we think: 'What's changed in my spine?'.
But what most people don't appreciate is that there is wide blurry zone separating these two ends of the spectrum. And a lot of us spend an uncomfortably large amount of time - or all our time - in this blurred zone. Why?
- Because we are older
- We sleep less well than we used to
- We don't exercise enough
- We eat too much food
- We eat too much refined sugary food
- We eat too much protein (we need less the older we get)
- We are under too much stress
- We don't breathe well (too shallow)
- We have toxins in food and in the environment
and so on.
There's a couple of things to point out about this blurred zone. To start with, we can drift into it slowly, over a long period of time. We probably won't even notice this trend. When we haven't been in the zone too long, or at least we are in the upper (good) part of the zone, our bodies still have resilience, and they can oscillate or bounce back quite quickly to a higher, better, level if we improve some or all of the factors listed above.
But when we have been 'not quite right' for a while, or are near the mid or low points of the zone, only small adverse changes are enough to push us down so we then feel really low on energy. Then how we feel becomes obvious. We feel rough, tired, lethargic. It motivates us to do something.
So, when the body's natural tendency to want to right itself kicks in, or we make a few positive changes in one or more areas, we move up the zone a bit. As soon as we do, we feel better than we were. Being grateful for that we then don't appreciate that we are still in the blurry zone of in-adequate health and energy.
Finally, another oscillation moves us down, the cycle repeats, and if we are not careful we bob up and down from one level of energy to the other, not noticing that we bob a little lower, and bob a little less higher, gradually over time.
To most people, inflammation equals pain. To a certain extent, this is true. A naturally occurring 'acute' (i.e. short lived) inflammation occurs as a result of some kind of tissue injury (a muscle sprain or tendon problem for example). Along with the inflammation comes pain and soreness. We then expect the natural cycle of starting, building up, peaking (at 48 to 72 hours if you are healthy) and then resolving and going away as the tissue heals. Of course, if it is a serious injury, then this process takes longer, but the pattern is essentially the same.
Now, when our body is not working as well as it should, this process of managing inflammation - of regulating inflammation is a better way of putting it - does not work as well as it should. There are three ways that inflammation gets dys-regulated that directly indicate that our body is not working as well as it should;
- A 'normal' Inflammation persists for far longer than it should, sometimes even transitioning to a form of inflammation called chronic inflammation. The area just doesn't seem to get better.
- Normal strains and sprains seem to produce a greater inflammatory response than they should - for example, you only knock your elbow a bit, but it gets quite sore for a few days, or different areas of your body are always going through some form of soreness response (so called flitting pains).
- Your body's immune system (which is heavily influenced by how well your gut, especially your large bowel, is working) starts to attack your own tissues, causing an auto-immune inflammatory reaction.
1-3 above are listed in order of severity.
The first often occurs when you have poor circulation in the injured area, and/or are over-using anti-inflammatories. Osteopathy can really help here.
The second is an example of your body producing exaggerated inflammatory reactions to trauma, and is a big clue that you need to work on the overall health issues discussed earlier, and possibly supplement with vitamin D3 and high quality fish oil.
The third - well, here you really have a problem. A tendency for auto-immune reactions occurs as an unholy triad of genetics (some people have genes that predispose to these type of reactions), encounters with certain types of viruses and bacteria, and how our own immune/stress/inflammation control systems are working. If you are someone with low energy levels, poor control of inflammation, the wrong kind of genes, and you encounter certain kinds of bugs, then an auto-immune reaction may well result. If it does, you probably have a window of opportunity to get a hold of it. These types of reactions may pop up anywhere; in some people joints, in others skin, neuro-inflammatory disorders (e.g. MS) and so on.
Certain type of disorders result in elevated levels of inflammatory markers in the body (for example, polymyalgia rheumatica shows itself through a very elevated ESR test. But in a lot of the above cases, there are no simple, definitive, blood tests that reveal the problem. Even more disconcertingly, medical treatments for these types of problems are very much based on symptom suppression (e.g. steroids, other forms of chemotherapy). It really is important not to passively drift into this form of treatment as a sole solution to the problem.
As an aside, this article discusses quite well how exaggerated inflammatory activity in the body leads to significant problems over time, and even how - in some cases - regular anti-inflammatories might (leaving aside side-effects) help! Of course, it's much better to deal with inflammation in a natural way.
So the following factors directly or indirectly affect the amount of energy we have, and how well our body controls inflammation. Lets summarize how;
- Because we are getting older. We can't do too much about this, but we must not confuse the other points with age declines (i.e blame everything on age). Age related declines in energy do happen, but there is still enough left when we are older to get quite a lot done!
- We sleep less well than we used to. This factor is massive - sleep has an important effect on health and is hugely affected by health. Don't take it for granted. For example, this.
- We don't exercise enough. We must exercise more frequently, but less intensively, the older we get. Both cardiovascular exercise (hot and sweaty) and resistance exercise (make your muscles work), or exercises that combine both (e.g. the rowing machine) will generate quick improvements in energy levels and inflammatory mechanisms within the body.
- We eat too much food. The evidence for this is overwhelming (for example, this). Cutting back on the calories liberates the body and releases more energy (of course, if you go to far, you will start losing energy!).
- We eat too much refined sugary food. A big killer for modern times. The health conscious modern citizen must go beyond the big pharma, scientific medicine, and food industry agenda of pushing refined (and profitable) carbohydrates.
- We eat too much protein (we need less the older we get). This is also important. Young puppies eat a lot of meat in their food. Even the pet food companies know to scale it back as the dog ages. We need to do the same.
- We are under too much stress. For sure - persistent chronic stress simply tires out the body's adaptive systems and drains energy.
- We don't breathe well (too shallow). Perhaps not quite as important as all the others, this is still a factor, and simple breathing exercises can kick in quite quickly to help energy levels.
- We have toxins in food and in the environment. Yes - most, if not all can be controlled and reduced. For example, pesticides in food. Too much light pollution from computers and phones affecting your sleep. And so on.
Both low energy levels and poorly regulated inflammation can be helped. But only if you take charge yourself and don't solely rely on doctors or medical treatment. Work on all the areas noted above - at the same time. Don't just try one at a time. And remember, once your body has developed persistently low energy levels and poor control of inflammation, don't expect it to respond immediately to changes. It will be a bit like an oil tanker - changes of direction will take time to happen.