Everyone experiences inflammation, the body’s response to stress, illness, and other external inputs. People living with Gaucher disease may have a higher level of inflammatory response because their bodies are constantly working to manage the disease. The good news: You can help your body become more resilient.
Dr. Robin Ely explains the role inflammation plays within the body and how people living with Gaucher disease can take steps to naturally boost their immune systems. Dr. Ely practices integrative medicine, a discipline that approaches health and wellness by considering the whole person, including mind, body, and spirit. A founding member of the National Gaucher Foundation (NGF), she is a Clinical Director for NGF and a member of NGF’s Board of Directors.
What Is Inflammation?
In a nutshell, inflammation is your immune system’s response to many kinds of stimuli. Your immune system is an intricate network of:
- Skin, your first layer of defense
- Mucous membranes, which capture germs and alert your body’s defense system
- White blood cells (immune cells)
- Lymphatic system, which includes lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels that carry immune cells throughout the circulatory system
- Bone marrow, where blood cells are made, including various types of white blood cells (immune cells)
The immune system’s job is to protect other cells. When your body detects an intruder—such as bacteria, viruses or fungi—it sends an army of immune cells to engulf and eliminate the invading organism. As cells rush to the area, it may feel tender and warm, and it might look red or swollen. We call that feel and those changes in appearance “inflammation.”
What Causes Inflammation in the Body?
The immune system oversees the inflammatory process. “We could not be alive without the inflammatory process,” Dr. Ely explains. “If you get a cut, it’s the inflammatory response that sends white blood cells to the area and sends growth factors to the two edges of the skin to enable them to grow back together.”
In its ideal state, the immune system detects and responds appropriately to any foreign or internal microbe or atypical cell. By doing so, it keeps the body in homeostasis, or balance. Problems arise when the immune system is overactive or underactive.
“Inflammation is the body’s tool to regain homeostatic balance after some kind of an insult,” Dr. Ely says. “The response can be like the story of Goldilocks—not enough, too much, or just right.”
Examples of under-reaction or overreaction include:
- Too little inflammation results in an overwhelming infection that the body can’t ramp up to fight. No one enjoys having a fever, but a fever can help you heal. An elevated body temperature helps your immune cells move faster to the site of an injury or infection. That’s why externally applied heat—like a hot compress, heating pad, or sauna—can help people heal. Adding artificial heat may help stimulate the immune system and eliminate infection. Cancer is an example of an underactive immune system, where the immune system does not recognize or eliminate cells that no longer function properly.
- Too much inflammation can result in your body attacking itself. For example, excess inflammation causes conditions known as autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and many others. In these cases, the immune cells attack and destroy normal functioning cells as if they are invaders.
How Does Gaucher Disease Affect Inflammation?
Many people today have unbalanced immune systems. The modern lifestyle involves many stressors, including the foods we eat, lack of sleep, addiction to technology, information overload, lack of exercise, and lack of outdoor exposure to nature.
People who have Gaucher disease may have ongoing, excess immune system reactivity (also called hypervigilance). This can occur even with successful Gaucher disease treatment.
Researchers have identified a “significant role of inflammation in Gaucher disease,” according to an article published last year in Gaucher Disease News. Abnormal immune responses can cause certain symptoms such as chronic joint pain, which is due to excessive numbers of immune cells, cytokines (chemical immune mediators), and antibodies that attack the body’s own tissues.
Inflammation in the brain (neuroinflammation) plays a pivotal role in development of Parkinson’s syndrome (Parkinson’s disease or syndromes similar to Parkinson’s). People who have Gaucher disease and people who are carriers of the GBA gene both have a slightly elevated risk of Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Ely notes, “These processes are governed by both genetics (your DNA code) and epigenetics (modification of gene expression).”
The good news is that people can take action to down-regulate, or calm, the body’s inflammatory levels by epigenetic adjustment—that is, changing external and internal factors that affect your immune system.
The Role of the Endocannabinoid System
Last month’s blog on the importance of self-care for people living with Gaucher disease discussed the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS manages bodily functions like digestion, heart rate, and breathing.
Another whole-body system, the endocannabinoid system (ECS), is the governing system of the entire body. If the ECS is news to you, you aren’t alone. Scientists discovered it around 1990. Experts believe the ECS governs and interacts with all other body systems, including the immune system. It is the primary integrated network of all the signaling systems throughout the entire body.
“Some of this inflammatory dysfunction can be connected to the endocannabinoid system,” Dr. Ely says. “Ultimately, it all ties together. The question is, where do you enter into the system to try to change things?”
How to Reduce Inflammation in the Body with Food and Exercise
When your goal is to control or reduce inflammation, any of the self-care practices addressed in last month’s blog post can help. Dr. Ely suggests four ways to naturally boost your immune system and help your body regain or retain its balance.
Studies have demonstrated that changes in nutrition, exercise, breathing patterns, meditation, and prayer exert positive changes in the body. “Being mindful and in touch with how your body feels is very important,” Dr. Ely notes.
1. Practice mindfulness and meditation
The body and the mind are connected. Daily meditation can be an important part of helping the body’s systems rest, recover, and establish homeostasis. Research has found that a regular meditation practice can help people:
- Reduce stress
- Control anxiety
- Improve attention span and memory
- Sleep better
- Decrease blood pressure
Meditation can moderate physical responses like high blood pressure, Dr. Ely explains, because high blood pressure “is a response mediated through the inflammatory and autonomic systems. When the sympathetic nervous system is over-activated, the peripheral circulatory system reacts by narrowing blood vessels. Relaxation and meditation techniques will increase the parasympathetic tone and decrease excessive sympathetic tone and therefore blood vessels will open up to the proper internal diameter.”
To do the simplest form of meditation:
- Sit in a comfortable position in a chair or on a cushion on the floor.
- Close your eyes.
- Breathe steadily in and out.
- Notice your thoughts as they come and go. When you start attaching to any given thought, refocus on your breath.
- Continue for five, 10, or 20 minutes.
Other meditation options are:
- Apps like Insight Timer that offer guided meditation, many of them free
- Moving or walking meditation, a style of meditation that involves redirecting your thoughts while you move and breathe
- Instruments like biofeedback headbands that measure your brain waves and give feedback (ex. Muse and the Fisher Wallace)
2. Exercise for strength and flexibility
Some amount of daily exercise and movement is good for everyone, Dr. Ely points out. “Studies have shown that exercise of any type can be beneficial. If exercise is done in a moderate manner, it is extremely effective in reducing inflammation throughout the body and including the brain.”
The following exercises are worthy to consider incorporating into your daily routine:
- Walking or cycling offer ways to get outdoors (or stay indoors with home equipment).
- Yoga can stretch, strengthen, and incorporate mindfulness.
- Pilates is specifically geared toward strengthening the core from which all body movement emanate.
- Qigong and tai chi use gentle, flowing movement to build balance, resilience and out internal energy bank.
- Swimming and water walking reduce negative gravitational effects for people with bone and joint issues related to Gaucher disease.
Exercising too much or too hard can lower your immune response. That means that if you are exposed to a cold virus after you’ve worked out too hard or too long, your immune system will not be able to mount a sufficient inflammatory response.
“Exercise offers an opportunity to push ourselves to tolerate some discomfort and to cultivate patience.” Dr. Ely recommends. “We must have stresses in life to grow, learn, and build up our immune systems. Exercise creates the stresses the body requires to maintain itself in optimal condition. At any given time in one’s life, one can build muscle, strengthen oneself, and regain flexibility.”
Talk with your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen to ensure your unique health needs are considered.
3. Eat a natural diet to support a healthy immune system
A natural diet, made up as much as possible of whole foods, is the best diet to reduce inflammation. Processed foods that include trans fats and white sugar increase inflammation.
Specific foods can support a regulated inflammatory response:
- Fatty fishes, such as salmon, anchovies, and sardines
- Seeds (chia, flax, hemp, sunflower, pumpkin)
- Pasture-raised eggs
- Nuts (walnuts, macadamia, and almonds)
- Dark chocolate
- Black or green tea
- Coffee, in moderation
- Herbs and spices, especially black pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, and oregano
4. Explore energy-oriented techniques
“At the quantum level and in many ancient and modern healing cultures, the body is seen through an energetic lens,” says Dr. Ely. “This ubiquitous energy is referred to variably as qi (pronounced “chi”), ki, prana, or the bioenergetic field, among others.”
Global cultures include many different traditions to help build and maintain that ubiquitous energy. Massage, acupuncture, and acupressure are techniques that are intended to recirculate stagnant energy and balance the flow of energy that occurs in the body. Additionally, there are practices you can do yourself to nurture and regulate energy. As mentioned above, these include practices like tai chi, qigong, yoga as well as expressive/emotive dances forms.
Exploring these techniques, with the input of your Gaucher specialist as needed, can offer rewarding, pleasurable and beneficial ways to support your well-being and overall health.
- British Journal of Pharmacology — Cannabimimetic phytochemicals in the diet – an evolutionary link to food selection and metabolic stress adaptation? https://bpspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/bph.13676
- Gaucher Disease News – Gene Activity Profiling Reinforces Inflammation’s Role in Gaucher Disease: https://gaucherdiseasenews.com/2019/05/16/gene-activity-profiling-reinforces-inflammations-role-in-gaucher-disease/
- Healthline – 12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-benefits-of-meditation
- Healthline – Endocannabinoid System: https://www.healthline.com/health/endocannabinoid-system#how-it-works
- Leafly.com. How to Stimulate the Endocannabinoid System Without Cannabis. https://www.leafly.com/news/health/how-to-stimulate-the-endocannabinoid-system-without-cannabis
- Lu, Hui-Chen and Mackie, Ken. An introduction to the endogenous cannabinoid system. Biological Psychiatry Journal, April 1, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4789136/
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – Overview of the Immune System: https://www.niaid.nih.gov/research/immune-system-overview
- Physiopedia – Gaucher disease. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Gaucher_Disease
- Science – How does coronavirus kill? Clinicians trace a ferocious rampage through the body, from brain to toes: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/04/how-does-coronavirus-kill-clinicians-trace-ferocious-rampage-through-body-brain-toes
- Tantawy, Azza A.G. Cytokines in Gaucher disease: Role in the pathogenesis of bone and pulmonary disease. Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics, July 2015. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1110863015000087