Focus: Connections - Reducing the Sludge

Tools, tips and tricks to help you stay healthy and connected

Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

Let’s talk about sludge. I know I said we were going to talk about connections today, and we will, but let’s start with sludge. The sludge I’m talking about is the stew that runs through your system created by chronic inflammation. YUCK! Don’t get me wrong. Inflammation is vital to our wellbeing. Chronic inflammation is the problem. So let’s start with the good news.

The wonderful world of inflammation

Inflammation is a wonderful biological process that sends worker crews to cells in your body that have been damaged. The first crews are the demolition crews. They break down the damaged cells and send them to the dump. When they are done, if there are enough of them, they call the contracting crew to build up new cells. Did you know that the muscles in your thigh are completely replaced about every 4 months? That leg that you’ve walked around on, chased your kids or grandkids on, and jumped for the basketball on… mostly new since the beginning of summer. Why? Because old, damaged cells don’t work the way your body wants them to work. Your body wants NEW, healthy cells to weather life’s storms. Wow. Who knew you were a whole new person over and over again on this journey? And inflammation helps turn over those cells when they are damaged.

Then, why don’t I like inflammation?

So, if inflammation is so great, why does it get such a bad rap? Well, inflammation that is acute enough to call out the construction crew is good for you. If you do enough damage to your cells, the inflammatory chemicals come out in force to break down the damaged cells and that causes a reaction that brings out the fixit chemicals to build brand new shiny, clean cells in their place. Diseases, cuts, scrapes and, it turns out, exercise, do enough cell damage that the demolition crew calls out the fixers and then goes away and the fixit crew builds all new, healthy cells. But, chronic inflammation doesn’t trigger enough demolition chemicals to call out the construction guys. It just moves through your system as sludge, breaking stuff down like a bully. That leads to just about every preventable ailment that Western doctors are aware of - things like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease and even the dreaded cancer. I think you can see how cancer could get a hold, here, if we are damaging cells without calling out the clean up and reconstruction crews, right?

What triggers chronic inflammation?

Chronic inflammation is triggered by stuff like stress, smoking, processed foods and red meat and too much alcohol. And, unfortunately, aging. (Back in the REALLY old - like dinosaur - days, old people were meant to break down and go away for the good of the tribe, so our bodies are designed to do that. But you and I are NOT Neanderthals and we have more livin’ to do!) You already know the ways to fight this trend - eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, cut out red meat, cut way back or eliminate alcohol, stop smoking, meditate or find other ways to reduce stress. Aerobic exercise that makes you break a sweat will clear you out some, but you have to do it 4-6 days a week. Yeah… been there, tried all that. Isn’t there some kind of magic pill?

The magic of connections

Well, happily, maybe there is. Maybe there is a real-life lifeline that you can use to control chronic inflammation. Actually phoning a friend! It turns out that social isolation increases chronic inflammation and social connections help to reduce it. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why it works. Speculation includes an idea that talking to people about your problems helps relieve stress and thereby the “drip, drip, drip” of the inflammatory chemicals, or maybe, as this paper suggests, your body reacts to social isolation or loneliness by “anticipating” a vulnerability to survival (if you’re alone on the Serengeti you’re more apt to be in a world of hurt than those in a pack) and prepping the body to take care of it by sending out the inflammatory chemicals. Whatever the reason, studies and medical trials have consistently found that people with more social connections (all else equal) have less inflammation and, therefore, less morbidity and even less mortality (ie death). It has even been found by some studies that social isolation is more dangerous than smoking or obesity! Have I convinced you to find a buddy and huddle up?

Start now

While you are working, these social connections come more easily. The old “water cooler” talks, for instance, or meetings or “happy hours” or other social events that are sponsored by your employer help keep you connected in social ways while you are working. But when you are no longer at your job, those connections tend to fade away and social isolation may take over. So, my advice is to START NOW making those connections deeper and more lasting - and maybe even finding some connections that aren’t work-related at all. That will be much easier than starting from scratch after you have retired. Invite someone to lunch or to an event on the weekend. Find things you have in common with some of your favorite colleagues and act on those.

At the end of the day, you have a choice, invite someone to the movies or change your diet and exercise practices. Regis - I’d like to phone a friend please.

Last note

One thing I DON’T want you to take away from this post is that you don’t have to eat right, cut down on chemicals like cigarettes and booze, or do any exercise if you have a friend. It really doesn’t work that way. It is good to eat right. It is good to exercise. It is good to have a friend. It is phenomenal to do all three. Your body needs exercise, good nutrition and good connections to minimize inflammation and be at its best. But, as I’ve said before, when it comes to health, I’m all about damage control. None of us is perfect; we all have our weaknesses and vices and we are all going to die of something. The idea is to do as much as you can to reduce as much sludge as you can to be as healthy as you can for as long as you can. Connections reduce sludge. If starting with a trip to the movies with a friend seems doable by all means DO IT. And, maybe ask for no butter on your popcorn, too.