Inflammation: What It Is & What You Can Do About It

Your immune system is a complex network of organs, cells, and proteins.  It protects your body by recognizing and removing harmful and foreign stimuli through the process of inflammation.  Acute inflammation is temporary and has a purpose, it initiates healing.  When inflammation becomes chronic it does more damage than good.  

Chronic inflammation changes your metabolism.  Your metabolism consists of the chemical processes within you that keep you alive.  Your DNA (or genetics) hold the code for how your body is built.  But not all the genes in your DNA get expressed thanks to epigenetic markers on your DNA that change the expression of your genes.  The CDC defines epigenetics as, “the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work”.  So how you live, what you breathe, eat, think, say, and do affect your epigenetics, which in turn affect gene expression and your metabolism and, therefore, your overall health.  

I studied epigenetics when it was still in its infancy.  My graduate research at UC Davis focused on how folic acid and folate affected one-carbon metabolism and DNA methylation, a form of epigenetic regulation, and, consequently breast cancer progression.  While I can’t change my genetics, I can, and have, changed my epigenetics and, therefore, my metabolism.  Tuning into my metabolism started with bucking the beauty “ideal” of looking young and flawless and has expanded into the rest of my life.

In autoimmune diseases such as Sjogren’s (SHOW-grins), chronic inflammation occurs when your immune cells, which are supposed to protect you, instead, attack you.  Part of living with Sjogren’s and other autoimmune diseases is managing inflammation, ideally keeping levels low enough to reduce tissue damage and allow healing to take place.  For most people, this typically is achieved with a combination of medications, diet, and lifestyle changes.

Given the right conditions, our bodies are innately self-healing.  Environmental, dietary, and other lifestyle changes can help reduce chronic inflammation and promote healing.  

Before being diagnosed with Sjogren’s, a largely invisible autoimmune disease that can affect your entire body, I had 3 kinds of skin inflammation (dermatitis): irritant contact dermatitis, allergic dermatitis, and atopic dermatitis (eczema).  

Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when something damages your skin directly, e.g., frequent contact with detergents, such as when washing your hands or brushing your teeth.  Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when your skin reacts to a particular substance, e.g., nickel, preservatives, fragrance and other ingredients in personal care, makeup and skincare products, and laundry detergents.  Atopic dermatitis is caused by a malfunctioning skin barrier and can have genetic and/or epigenetic origins.  

Given that all three forms of dermatitis look the same on your skin (and under a microscope), the treatment for my skin inflammation from my doctors was the same, hydrocortisone creams of varying strengths to be applied as needed, which was usually twice a day.  But prolonged use of hydrocortisone cream can lead to nasty side-effects, including topical steroid withdrawal, so I was driven to find other ways to reduce my skin inflammation.

I tuned into the clues my body was giving me to try to find the underlying causes of my skin inflammation.  I constantly had cracked, dry lips and irritated, broken skin all around my mouth, which I noticed was worse right after I brushed my teeth.  The skin on my hands would dry and crack when I washed them with the antibacterial soap in the laboratory but not with the soap I had at home.  My face would be dry, red, and itchy whenever I worked in the lab, which was a lot.  

After some sleuthing I figured out that my whitening toothpaste was causing the irritant dermatitis around my mouth.  When I switched to a non-whitening toothpaste the inflammation went away and never came back.  I discovered that the hand soap in my lab contained triclosan, an antimicrobial agent that was irritating my skin.  So, I kept a bottle of my own hand soap in lab and the skin on my hands improved.

I was using all kinds of skincare products to try to soothe my dry, itchy, red face, and achieve the beauty “ideal” of looking young and flawless.  Little did I know that my skin was being irritated by contact with aerosolized ethanol and other organic solvents and that all those skincare products were making things worse instead of better.  Over the years I found that I was allergic to over 20 skincare ingredients, including fragrances, trademarked ingredients, and preservatives.  When I went in to see an allergist, he told me that there was not much he could do for me given how many allergens I’d already identified on my own.  All of those allergies and dermatitis went away when I started making and using skincare products made with whole food.

There are many other stressors we encounter daily that produce inflammation.  Laundry detergent, personal care products, makeup, and skincare products are some of the most important because they are in direct contact with our bodies for long periods of time, giving them the opportunity to do a lot of damage.  

The price I paid for pursuing the beauty “ideal” of looking young and flawless included unnecessary chronic skin inflammation that exacerbated my undiagnosed Sjogren’s.  I’m glad I bucked the beauty “ideal” and literally saved my skin.

 A version of this blog post is published in my local newspaper, the Davis Enterprise.  You may have to create a free account to read the article

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