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Metainflammation is a hot health topic that’s gaining a lot of attention. Sometimes called “silent inflammation” or “stealth inflammation,” it’s increasingly recognized as a unique metabolic disease and an important cause of many chronic health issues. Metainflammation is difficult to detect and can have serious implications if left untreated. Ahead, the most frequently asked questions about metainflammation, how it plays a role in your health as a thyroid patient, and an overview of potential treatments.
We all know that inflammation is the body's natural response to injury or infection. And most of us are well aware of the signs and symptoms of traditional inflammation: redness, swelling, and pain. However, there’s a new term that is causing quite a bit of buzz in the health world: “metainflammation.” Unlike traditional inflammation, metainflammation is defined as chronic low-grade inflammation that occurs without an injury or infection and without any obvious signs or symptoms. It is often referred to as “hidden” or “stealth” inflammation” because it can go undetected for a long period of time and is often difficult to detect.
Research suggests that metainflammation may increase the risk for numerous chronic health conditions, including diet-induced obesity, metabolic disease, metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.
There’s no definitive explanation regarding the causes of metainflammation. It’s thought, however, that chronic, low-grade inflammation develops due to an immune system in a constant state of activation. What’s activating the immune system? Experts believe that the culprits are lifestyle factors such as an unhealthy high-fat diet, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption.
These factors lead to metabolic changes, such as increased body fat, reduced insulin sensitivity, and elevated blood sugar levels, which are primary markers for metainflammation.
Eventually, according to recent research, metainflammation usually leads to full metabolic syndrome, which includes a cluster of conditions, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. Metabolic syndrome often leads to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Since metainflammation is low-grade chronic inflammation, it doesn’t usually cause the typical symptoms of inflammation, such as swelling, redness, or pain. However, it can play a critical role in various other symptoms, the most common of which is weight gain. Other metainflammation symptoms include fatigue, brain fog, memory problems, muscle aches, joint pain, gastrointestinal issues, difficulty sleeping, depression, and anxiety.
Conventional medicine has no way to diagnose metainflammation formally. Instead, testing is done for individual conditions such as pre-diabetes or elevated cholesterol, and treatments are focused on those specific conditions.
Integrative and functional medicine practitioners look at a number of factors when making a diagnosis of metainflammation. These include:
- Inflammatory markers such as CRP (C-reactive protein), homocysteine, and ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate)
- Elevated levels of liver enzymes, to evaluate potential impairment in the body’s metabolic detox pathways
- Histamine levels, because high histamine can trigger further inflammation as a result of allergic responses
- Levels of Vitamin A, D, E, K, and various B vitamins, including B-1 and B-12
- Levels of minerals, including iodine, zinc, selenium, magnesium, chromium, and manganese
- Elevated levels of blood sugar (fasting plasma glucose [FPG]), Hemoglobin A1C (HA1C), and low insulin levels
- Cholesterol profiles
When it comes to autoimmune diseases, metainflammation can have a significant impact. It’s believed that metainflammation can trigger or worsen an autoimmune disease, leading to further complications. For example, in autoimmune multiple sclerosis (MS), the myelin sheath destruction process may be accelerated, resulting in more severe symptoms and disability. Likewise, in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), metainflammation worsens RA symptoms and exacerbates joint damage.
Metainflammation can also cause the immune system to become overactive, attacking healthy cells and tissue throughout the body. This is seen in diseases like lupus, where the immune system attacks the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs. With metainflammation present, immune cells react abnormally, and the autoimmune response is increased, leading to even more destruction of healthy cells and tissues.
Moreover, metainflammation can increase the risk of developing certain autoimmune disorders by causing an imbalance in the body’s natural defenses. For example, some research has suggested that a higher level of metainflammation can lead to an increased risk for diabetes mellitus type 1.
Thyroid disease, body weight, and metabolism have a complex relationship, and it is known that thyroid dysfunction can play a role in obesity and metabolic changes.
There is evidence that, as with other autoimmune conditions, metainflammation is a trigger factor for autoimmune thyroid disease like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Recent research has also examined the relationship between thyroid function and the prevalence of metabolic syndrome, which is associated with metainflammation.
In people with metainflammation – including those with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and/or hypothyroidism – the balance of hormones that regulate appetite and energy expenditure is disrupted. Research has found that this imbalance leads to increased food intake and decreased physical activity. As body weight increases, metainflammation triggers an immune response that interferes with the body's ability to burn stored fat for energy, leading to excess fat accumulation, especially around the abdomen and waist. This increased fat contributes to the development of insulin resistance and metabolic disorders, which can cause further weight gain and metabolic dysfunction.
Thanks to research, we now know that Immune cells infiltrate the fat tissue, and release additional pro-inflammatory cytokines, worsening the body’s ability to burn fat.
It should be clear by now that reversing metainflammation should be part of an overall approach to managing Hashimoto’s and hypothyroidism. Experts are now recommending that apart from a focus on weight loss and control of blood sugar, there should be an “independent anti-inflammatory strategy” put into place to help reverse the course of chronic inflammation and prevent progression to obesity-associated insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
What goes into an anti-inflammatory strategy to reduce metainflammation? Treatment primarily involves ongoing lifestyle changes, starting with diet. Specifically, you should focus on reducing your intake of inflammatory foods, including:
- Dietary sugar
- High-glycemic foods
- Refined carbohydrates
- Animal protein and red meat
- Processed meat (like salami and hotdogs)
- Processed foods
- Artificial trans fats like partially hydrogenated oil
- Saturated fats
Make it a goal to increase your intake of anti-inflammatory foods, like:
- Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs and PUFAs)
- Vitamins A, D, E, K, B-1, and B-12
- Minerals, including zinc, iron, selenium, magnesium, chromium, and manganese
- Polyphenols like resveratrol, quercetin, and EGCG
- Spices like cinnamon, ginger, cumin, garlic, and turmeric
- Probiotic and prebiotic foods and supplements
A note about monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs): Recent research suggests that a diet rich in (MUFAs) can help reduce metainflammation. Make sure your diet includes ample amounts of MUFAs, which are found in olive, peanut, canola, sesame, and safflower oils, avocados, nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and peanuts, and seeds such as pumpkin and sesame seeds.
Other lifestyle-based ways to manage metainflammation include:
- Engaging in regular physical activity
- Getting enough sleep every night (from 7 to 9 hours is recommended)
- Practicing stress management techniques like mindfulness exercises, deep breathing, or yoga
- Stopping smoking
- Cutting back on alcohol intake
On the medical end, there is also evidence that, even in people who do not have type 2 diabetes, the drug metformin (Glucophage) may help reduce inflammation levels in the body beyond its glucose-lowering properties. Studies show that metformin suppresses the inflammatory response.
In some cases, traditional non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen may also be helpful.
In people who are significantly obese, bariatric surgery is associated with reductions in metainflammation.
Metainflammation is an emerging concept in medicine that is gaining more attention as its potential links to chronic health conditions become more apparent. While the causes of metainflammation are still not fully understood, there are several potential lifestyle changes and approaches you can take to help reduce it. If you think you may have metainflammation, it is crucial to speak to your healthcare professional for further advice and treatment options.
Also, remember that metainflammation is not something that can be cured overnight. However, by understanding the causes and effects of metainflammation, we can take steps to reduce our risk of developing chronic metainflammation and improve our overall health and well-being.
If you have Hashimoto’s or hypothyroidism, Paloma's team of thyroid-savvy healthcare providers can work with you to develop a plan for optimal treatment of your thyroid condition. They also have the expertise to develop a complementary anti-inflammatory strategy, including nutritional and lifestyle guidelines, to help prevent metainflammation from interfering with your future good health!