Science and Word

Simple English for complex ideas

The hidden sources of chronic inflammation – and how to fight back

Chronic inflammation can lead to painful and life-threatening health issues, but most of us aren’t aware of inflammation until it’s already taken a heavy toll on our health. Although chronic inflammation can lead to heart attacks, strokes, cancer and numerous other health conditions, research shows that it can take years before inflammation leads to lasting health consequences. This means you have time to fight back against the damage of inflammation.

Anti-inflammatory medications and supplements can help you regain control, but the most proactive way to fight inflammation is to identify what’s causing your immune system to overreact – and then use that knowledge to stop inflammation at its source. For those suffering from arthritis, periodontitis or another inflammatory disease, the source of inflammation may appear obvious. However, all of us – whether we’re aware of it or not – struggle with hidden inflammatory triggers every day.

Whether by avoiding these triggers or counterbalancing them with anti-inflammatory foods and exercise, you can help control chronic inflammation. Here are some of the most common hidden sources of inflammation that could be hazardous to your health, and steps you can take to stop them:

Stress

Most of us live stressful lives, but unfortunately emotional stress can spike your inflammation levels. Short bursts of stress significantly raise the amount of inflammatory molecules circulating through your bloodstream. And even worse, periods of extreme stress could affect your immune system for years: People who experience traumatic events continue to have elevated levels of inflammation when tested five years later. It’s been calculated that inflammation from chronic emotional stress accounts for 40% of heart disease in patients without other predisposing factors.

Counteracting stress: Try decreasing stress with relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga. If stress is overwhelming, don’t hesitate to seek external support through psychotherapy or medication. Many people also report benefits from cannabidiol (CBD) and other supplements to counteract stress and anxiety.

Air pollution

This may come as a surprise, but research finds that air pollution is rapidly becoming a major source of inflammation in our lives. Small particles (PM) from forest fires and general air pollution raise our bodies’ production of inflammatory molecules and free radicals, which raises our chances for heart disease, stroke and other health conditions. In addition to smoke and smog, other air-borne molecules like mold and pollen could also aggravate your immune system.

Counteracting air pollution: Unfortunately, it’s not easy to move out of a polluted city – and it’s nearly impossible to fast-forward through seasonal allergies. However, you can track your local air quality and avoid outdoor exertion on the worst days. A high-quality HEPA air filter in the bedroom could also give your system a break while you sleep.

Pesticides

Regular exposure to harmful chemicals like pesticide residue on food can lead to chronic inflammation. Imidacloprid is a particularly heinous pesticide that increases inflammation when tested in rats. And when farmers who work with pesticides are studied, scientists find they have elevated markers of oxidative stress and inflammation in their bloodstreams.

Avoiding pesticides: Organic foods are expensive and aren’t as pesticide-free as one would hope, but they generally have lower levels of toxic chemicals when tested. Alternatively, you might learn which types of foods are grown with the least chemicals and use that to make decisions at the grocery store.

Inflammatory foods

Even if you’ve never been diagnosed with a food allergy, what you eat influences your body’s inflammation. For instance, trans fats are particularly inflammatory for everyone, which has contributed to their widespread falling out of favor. Red meats are also reported to raise levels of inflammation while whole grains reduce it. However, we all possess unique digestive tracts, which means your list of inflammatory foods will be different than my list.

Avoiding inflammatory foods: There are several popular diets aimed at minimizing inflammation (ie Mediterranean), but be careful when switching to a new diet. Before clearing out your refrigerator, ask yourself how well this diet’s advice matches what you’ve already learned about your body. If possible, keep a food journal to track your signs of inflammation in response to different meals.

** Not sure what signs to look for? Each of our bodies is unique, which means you will have a unique set of personal warning signs. For example, you might experience stomach discomfort after eating bell peppers, aching joints from gluten, fatigue after eating dairy or an itchy patch of skin from chocolate. Figure out how and where inflammation manifests in your body and use this as your compass.

Sugar

Sugar isn’t included above as an inflammatory food because, in my opinion, it doesn’t really qualify as a food. This popular additive is in just about everything, which is a shame because of the strong links between sugar and inflammation, obesity and diabetes (to name just a few of its potential downsides). Research finds that fructose spikes inflammation the most, fueling the argument against high-fructose corn syrup. However, even in healthy young men, a daily dose of any sugar – fructose, glucose or sucrose – equivalent to that found in a serving of soda can significantly increase markers of inflammation within a few weeks.

Reducing sugar: This one’s self-explanatory. Although nearly impossible to avoid, if you pay attention to ingredient labels and nutrition facts, you can drastically reduce your sugar intake. If you already suffer from a health issue that’s connected to chronic inflammation, reducing your sugar could be particularly beneficial.

Excess body fat

Body fat is great for keeping our bodies insulated and storing calories to help us survive times when food is less abundant. Unfortunately, excessive body fat also increases our levels of inflammation. Fat cells, similar to our immune cells, produce inflammatory compounds – which means that many obese people also suffer from chronic inflammation. This inflammation contributes to obesity-related disorders like heart disease and diabetes.

Counteracting excess body fat: If you are technically obese or overweight but losing weight is not a realistic option, you could try counterbalancing chronic inflammation with an inflammation-reducing lifestyle – like avoiding inflammatory foods and starting a low-impact exercise routine. Even if this sounds like the same advice you might hear for losing weight, try to forget about the scale and instead re-frame your end goal as combating inflammation.

Harmful bacteria

Most bacteria aren’t harmful, but the immune system is designed to single out the bad ones and destroy them, saving you from infections. Unfortunately, some undesirable bacteria can evade your immune system, which contributes to chronic inflammation. Plaque on your teeth, an H. pylori infection, or even the wrong balance of gut microbes could all burden your immune system with a constant source of aggravation. This type of inflammation can lead to health issues like periodontal bone loss and H. pylori-related stomach cancer.

Removing harmful bacteria: Listen to your dentist: Brush and floss daily. Discuss any infections or digestive issues with a medical professional. Prebiotic and probiotic foods could also help digestive inflammation by shifting your gut microbes: Whereas some gut bacteria produce inflammatory compounds, others produce anti-inflammatory molecules.

Biology

Inflammation isn’t just about our habits – our genetics and age also directly influence our bodies’ production of inflammatory compounds. Some lucky people inherit DNA that tells their bodies to naturally produce less inflammatory molecules – and these fortunate people live statistically longer lives. On the other hand, the hormonal shift of menopause unfortunately raises women’s background levels of inflammation.

Counterbalancing biology: We can’t change our biology, but we can be aware of our bodies’ limitations and be proactive about counterbalancing them. If heart disease runs in your family or you’ve reached your golden years, prioritizing an anti-inflammatory lifestyle might be especially important.

Natural ways to control chronic inflammation

Want to read my next article on natural ways to control chronic inflammation? I’m just getting started, so send me a message to sign up for my upcoming newsletter or become one of my first followers on my new facebook page and I’ll let you know when it’s published.

Photo: (c) Flickr/Santiago Nicolau

How to read a research paper

Whether you’re a student or a self-motivated bull**** spotter, there will likely come a time when you’re face-to-face with an academic research paper. Should you read it… or just click close? Although it’s tempting to skim the title and simply confirm it’s about the topic at hand, it might be worth your time to learn how to dig deeper into primary literature. Read on if you want to learn how to judge the evidence for yourself.

Why I send my readers straight to the evidence

If you’ve read my (Genevieve R. Moore’s) health articles, you may have noticed that I love linking to primary research. I send readers directly to the scientific evidence because there are many ways to interpret data, and every extra person separating you from the evidence pushes you further away from the truth.

It’s like the Telephone Game; nobody is intentionally screwing up the message, but by the time the message gets to you, it can become completely distorted.

Far too many online authors say “research shows…” followed by a statement that no researcher has ever shown… If a blogger can’t show you the research to support their claims, don’t trust them. And if you click on their links and they only lead to other blogs and listicles, this is a serious red flag that the actual findings have been garbled.

And that’s why I like to give my readers a chance to look at the evidence with their own eyes. Even if you choose not to read the research, at least you will know where to find the data. However, there are many great reasons to learn how to read research, including:

  • You can figure out when people are exaggerating or misinterpreting a study’s results.
  • When two studies prove opposite things (ie one says the ideal diet is a low-carb diet, while another claims a low-fat diet is best), you can compare them and decide which one you trust more.
  • Most scientific findings are never picked up by journalists – you can learn about interesting topics that aren’t covered by the media.

But research papers are boring and confusing!

I’m not going to sugar-coat this: Learning how to read research is frustrating. Scientific papers aren’t written for novices, and some authors use jargon-rich writing in order to signal how smart they are. I wish things were different, but for right now, scientists don’t write research papers with you in mind.

Don’t be surprised if your first paper takes 4 or more hours to really dig into and understand – so be choosy when picking your first paper! Make sure you’re truly excited about the topic.

Once you have that paper downloaded and printed for note-taking, this guide will prepare you for what you’re getting into. Here’s a breakdown of the standard sections found in most original research articles along with tips for reading (or skipping) each section:

The abstract is the hardest part

Don’t give up without reading beyond the abstract… because the abstract – the part of an article that’s unfortunately the easiest to find – is also typically the hardest part of the paper. That’s not just opinion; when researchers objectively evaluated top research papers for readability (based on word length and obscurity), they found that abstracts rate 2 reading-level years harder to read than the rest of the paper.

So, if you already know you want to understand a paper, but every sentence of the abstract looks like Latin – you might do yourself a favor and hold off reading the abstract till last. Think of the abstract as an obscure outline that will make more sense once you know how to fill in the spaces.

Having trouble accessing the full paper without paying exorbitant fees? More and more papers are offered online with free open access. However, many journals still require a purchase or subscription to access the article. You might check researchgate to see if the authors posted a publicly-available copy. Alternatively, if possible, you could find the paper through a local university library – which typically subscribe to most respectable journals.

The introduction (should be) the easiest part

This part of the paper dives into background. Authors use the introduction to set you up with all the pieces of information that will hopefully leave you asking the same exact questions they address with their paper.

The introduction might contain terms you’ve never heard of, but overall it should be fairly easy to read. If it’s painfully confusing, I hate to break it to you, but it’s a sign that the rest of the paper will be even worse. If this is a subject you really want to understand, then take the time to decipher the intro. On the other hand, if you’re just curious about the data, don’t stress about it and move forward!

How can you decipher a confusing introduction? What I’ve always recommended to my students is to use a highlighter to mark any unfamiliar words or phrases. Then, look them up one by one – Wikipedia might be your best choice for this step. If it helps, make a written glossary to fill in with definitions. Then, after you’ve looked up everything, go back through and read the introduction again. This might seem like a lot of work, but I guarantee it will make you sound smarter whenever you talk about this topic in the future!

Materials and methods are skippable for now

This section isn’t intended for reading from start to finish. For now, just read the subheadings and look up any unfamiliar terms. This is a rough overview of what experiments the researchers actually did to prove their points. Once you know these general categories, you can use this section like an appendix to return to later whenever you have questions while reading the results.

Some people use this section to decide whether or not the paper is worth reading. For instance, if you’re trying to learn about sexual behavior and you discover that the researchers did their experiments on fruit flies, you might decide that it’s not relevant to you. Just because a paper is published doesn’t mean you have to agree with it!

The results are the heart of the paper

Second to the abstract, the results section will probably be the next most painful part of the paper to read. And unfortunately, it’s the most important section. If you find the results section overwhelming, you could temporarily skip it and read the discussion section. But before you move forward, try at least to read and translate the subheadings into your own words.

When reading the results, there are multiple ways to tackle them. If you’re a visual person, start with the figures and their written descriptions. If you’re a numbers person, look for tables – if there are any. And if you’re a verbal person, go for the subheading titles. Whichever of these you go for first, take your time to understand all three of these pieces; they are the general overview of the results.

Once you’ve used the subheadings, figures and tables to generate an overview, you can try reading through the results from start to end. Alternatively, you could move on to the next section – the discussion – and then return to the individual sections of the results as they’re reached in the discussion.

Discussions and conclusions are OPINIONS

To be honest, many scientists ignore the discussion section because they prefer to interpret the results for themselves. Although this section should be as easy to read as the introduction, beware that it’s also where the author has the most free-reign to insert their opinions into the article.

Do you like and trust the paper? Then go ahead and read the conclusion. Authors use this space to interpret the evidence from the paper, and it can often provide the best insight into the authors’ motivations. This is where you’ll hear about their vision to improve human health, the world, etc.

However, authors also use this space to explain away inconsistencies, propose theories that maximize the cool-factor of their results, and weave fanciful stories together. So always read the conclusion with much more scrutiny than you would the introduction.

Confused? Try a review article instead

This is a lot to take in, and if you get completely overwhelmed reading your first paper, I want you to know that there is often another great option. Instead of troubling over the nuances of a single study, sometimes it’s best to start with a review article. Reviews should be easier to read, less biased, and are a great way to learn about the general topic. They might even help you discover better research articles to read than the one you’re currently tackling.

How do you find review articles? One thing you could try is including the word “review” in your google scholar search term. And if you’re searching pubmed, you can check the review box under “article type.”

Best wishes and I hope you have fun learning!

Why are research papers hard to read?

The first time I read a research paper was in college. Or, what I really mean to say is that I tried to read a research paper – it felt like my brain was going to melt.

Instead of finishing reading the scientific article, I dropped the class and switched majors.

If you’ve ever tried to read primary literature and felt completely overwhelmed, you are not alone. That confusing jumble of words, numbers and charts was practically designed to be complicated and boring. But why? Read on for a little history about academic literature and its current crisis.

An ancient history of elitism

Scholars across the world need a universal language. They need a way to collaborate and teach each other. Currently, that language is jargon-heavy English.

However, not long ago, all scientific literature was written in Latin – even though Latin had been “dead” for a thousand years. And before that, when the Roman Empire was thriving, and commoners spoke Latin, academics communicated in Greek instead…

Secret professional languages were historically used to protect the average person from learning about sensitive topics – such as medical diagnoses and religious dilemmas. Unfortunately, specialized language also locks away knowledge that only the educated class can access.

As Europe discovered during the Middle Ages, this strategy can backfire. After the Roman Empire collapsed, the ability to read and write in Greek was lost. Although Europeans still possessed books containing medical and scientific knowledge, they were useless without a translator.

In this way, elite scholars helped bring about the Dark Ages… because they didn’t record their knowledge in a way that the average person could understand.

But it’s getting even worse

Perhaps scientists switched to English in the 18th century because they wanted to make their findings more accessible – but that gesture has been lost on today’s researchers.

In an era when books, the media and presidents are all using quantifiably simpler English, scientists are using increasingly complex English. That’s not just an opinion: Researchers examined hundreds of thousands of abstracts from research papers written between 1881 and 2015 and found that they have become less readable over time.

How are they less readable? Words are esoteric and contain more syllables – and sentences are longer.

Not only that, but a smaller study of neuroimaging research articles found that the more important a paper is (published in journals with a higher impact factor), the less readable it is.

It’s not that scientists are trying to confuse the general public… they aren’t thinking about the average person at all. Scientists write with a narrow audience in mind, and they use highly specialized and complex language to signal to reviewers that they are experts in their field.

We’ve all heard that the English language is evolving. However, it appears that scientific English is diverging – evolving towards increased complexity.

Lack of quality control

A quick aside: If you can’t make sense of what you’re reading, there’s also a good chance it simply doesn’t make sense. An increasingly large number of research papers are being published despite having terrible grammar.

Why the flood of poorly written papers?

For one reason, there’s no reward for a well-written paper. So long as the English is passable, further improvements on a paper’s readability will not help it get published in a better journal.

Others might point to the growing numbers of publications by non-native English speakers.

However, one of the worst problems is a spiraling number of for-profit journals popping up which publish research articles that may not have even been reviewed. A recent estimate suggests that up to 400,000 articles were published last year in these journals.

Everyone suffers

Scientific research is accelerating, and the world is drowning in papers that will go mostly unread because they are too complex or poorly written (or a combination of both). How does this impact us?

Authors suffer because, after years of hard work, their final masterpieces often go unnoticed. Most researchers avoid the limelight and rely on reputation and the media to spread their ideas. But the media covers only a tiny fraction of scientific discoveries – and they often mangle the findings.

Researchers in other fields also suffer because knowledge becomes trapped within fields… like neighboring villages that cannot communicate or trade because they speak different dialects.

And most importantly, the public suffers.

Instead of struggling to interpret research papers, most people rely on the news to deliver the most *important* scientific updates. Unfortunately, media only covers sensational findings, which often disagree with numerous reports methodically proving the opposite point.

Then, the topic is forgotten until a year or two later when a new sensational article is published that claims something entirely different. What’s the best diet to extend your life? How much alcohol is safe to drink?… The way media covers scientific research leaves the public with no choice but to mistrust scientists.

So… if you’re wondering why research papers are so hard to read, you should first congratulate yourself for your desire to read them and judge their evidence for yourself. Most people don’t even try.

Now we just need to get the message out to scientists that we are thirsting for knowledge – it just needs to be slightly more palatable.

This is the first of a series of articles about how to critically read research papers. Stay tuned for more!

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