Photo courtesy of Jamie Chung / Trunk Archive

Deepak Chopra on Dodging Pain and Inflammation

While pain and inflammation can be both the cause and the result of aging, in many cases, they can be prevented and even reversed. Deepak Chopra’s recent book, The Healing Self, co-authored by Harvard geneticist Rudy E. Tanzi, explores the ways stress affects the body, the distinction between acute and chronic inflammation, and their contribution to disorders and diseases commonly associated with the aging process. Chopra believes self care is the key to dealing with inflammation at any point in life, and that it can be more powerful than the most advanced medical care in terms of keeping us healthy long-term.

For more from Chopra, check out his upcoming Restore weekend series of panels, workshops, and mindful gatherings focused around healing from pain/inflammation—that he’s hosting in NYC March 23-25 and livestreaming around the globe. (If you can, be sure to catch the always brilliant yoga master Eddie Stern who is part of the expert lineup.)

A Q&A with Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP


What defines chronic inflammation?


One can think of acute inflammation as a fire lit by the immune system, while chronic inflammation is like smoldering coals that don’t emit flames. While acute inflammation responds to drastic conditions like an external wound, or a full-blown attack from disease organisms (pathogens), chronic inflammation is subtler.

In other words, chronic inflammation is low-level, typically expressed by chemical markers rather than obvious symptoms. One important inflammation marker is a chemical group called cytokines, which affect communication between cells. As a part of an immune response, cytokines can elevate above their normal range, leading to acute or chronic inflammation. Some common triggers of chronic inflammation include toxins secreted by bacteria in the intestinal tract and low-grade infections in body tissues. The usual external signs of acute inflammation—such as fever, reddened skin, blistering, or swelling—do not always appear with chronic inflammation. Since symptoms are not always expressed, it has taken medical science decades to track down chronic inflammation as an invisible culprit in many lifestyle disorders, from hypertension, heart disease, and many cancers, and Alzheimer’s.


What role does chronic inflammation play in the aging process? Can we prevent inflammation and/or slow it down over time?


Adequate research is lacking here. There is no fixed definition of the aging process. While chronic inflammation isn’t a direct result of aging, there is a connection, as inflammation may become worse and cause more damage over time. Inflammation is present in the early stages of disorders that show up in old age, like arthritis and Alzheimer’s.

Chronic inflammation can potentially be prevented and often reversed. However, we don’t know yet to what extent the body is affected by chronic inflammation. Routine medical tests don’t look for markers of inflammation in the blood, and even when these are detected, it’s not always obvious which organs or tissues they originated in.

At the moment, the front-line defenses are an anti-inflammation diet. Stress reduction also seems to play a significant role, which is why it is essential that everyone develops tools to help them relax or decrease their stress levels. The mind-body connection is important: Through meditation and yoga, one can bring the mind and emotions down to a cooler, calmer level.


There’s a lot of conflicting information when it comes to stress—what’s the evidence for (or against) a connection between stress and chronic inflammation?


Medical research proceeds at the cellular level; it will take a long time to track inflammatory markers down to every tissue type, which is necessary in order to fully connect stress to chronic inflammation. But while we await detailed biochemical findings, we already know that on their own, stress and chronic inflammation are massive contributors to reduced immunity. Fight them separately, or, better still, fight them together.

Stress also comes in two forms, acute and chronic. Acute stress is the fight-or-flight response, which can be identified by the presence of specific hormones in the blood such as adrenaline and cortisol. Subjectively, a person under acute stress (i.e. someone who has just been fired or lost her home in a fire) has no trouble identifying acute stress.

Chronic stress—such as from a continually stressful job or relationship—is subtler, and creates damage that begins with mental symptoms like tiredness and fatigue, moving on to psychological symptoms like feeling irritated and impatient, and later physical damage, which can take almost any form. When it comes to the body, too much of this stress is not beneficial. Anyone who claims to thrive on stress, or lives like an adrenaline junkie, is damaging the body over time.

Because the long-term damage caused by chronic stress is non-specific and can occur anywhere, the best prevention is to take yourself out of a stressful environment or change that environment, whether at home or at work. Meditation and yoga are probably the most effective means of stress management. In the office, I recommend taking several moments a day to breathe deeply, center yourself, and return to a sense of calm and balance.


Do you see an emotional component to longevity and lifespan?


In daily life, all of us would acknowledge that anger, for example, is a hot emotion—the red face and heightened blood flow that appears when someone is enraged indicates a connection with the inflammation response. From the viewpoint of a cell, there is no distinction between an inflamed emotion and inflamed skin brought on by sunburn. Whatever triggers the inflammation response, whether internally or externally, emotional or physical, the response itself will be the same or similar. It took a while for this concept to be accepted in mainstream medicine, which sticks to a bias in favor of physical causes for almost everything. Psychological and mental problems were traditionally sent to the psychiatrist down the hall. That’s still largely true, so the burden of holistic care has come to rest on each person.

While there’s no medical evidence illustrating that emotionally cool people live longer, remember, chronic inflammation is invisible and without symptoms. Making a connection with longevity is a task for the future. Stress has been more deeply researched in recent years, but inflammation is only just now being connected to stress.


Is physical pain ever a normal part of aging, or what function does it play?


Physical pain is a sign of distress that can be linked back to cellular dysfunction. Pain is never normal when the mind and body are in balance. There are two states your body can be in: One state is balanced (homeostasis) which is likened to the still point a pendulum returns to when it stops swinging back and forth (although in the body’s case, homeostasis is a dynamic balance that keeps various processes working together). The other state is imbalance, caused by some kind of stressor that throws off normal cellular function. Pain is associated with the second state, and follows once the stressor reaches a certain level.

However, it would be a generalization to say that homeostasis is pain free. Sometimes pain is part of the healing process, as is the case with the acute inflammation that follows after you break your arm or undergo surgery.

The disorders of old age, especially osteoarthritis, are endemic to old age in every society, but this doesn’t make them normal. Our best hope is that by reducing or eliminating chronic inflammation at the earliest age, symptoms of many diseases won’t show up years and decades later.


What’s key to soothing physical pain?


Like inflammation and stress, pain can be defined as chronic or acute. The pain that results from acute injury, like hitting your thumb with a hammer, requires the inflammation response as part of the body’s natural healing.

Chronic pain is far more elusive. Stress and inflammation generally work silently for a long time. They could be building for years or decades before pain flares up. The good news is that if we can start early enough (ideally in early adulthood), the seeds of pain won’t sprout. It’s also good news, although not ideal, that stress and inflammation can be addressed at any age, so today is the best time to start.

The less-than-good news is that modern medicine isn’t going to offer any quick fixes, at least not anytime soon. The pharmaceutical companies are rushing to do their thing, and in some cases, such as finding a drug to combat inflammation due to brain infections, it could possibly be only a matter of perfecting an antibiotic to reverse the condition. It would be amazing if combating bacteria in the brain of a twenty-one-year-old was the key to preventing Alzheimer’s.

In the meantime, the key is self-care and self-healing. Self-care—such as eating a wholesome diet, exercising, getting enough rest, practicing mindfulness and meditation—does what even the most advanced medical care cannot do: It helps keep the body and mind in a state of wellness every day. Our present model is to haul a sick body off to the doctor’s the way we take a car to a garage mechanic. That’s now an outmoded approach. Self-care starts today, absent of any signs of pain or illness. Lifelong wellness, including freedom from pain, is now a reachable goal that we should all believe in and adopt.


How do you distinguish between genetic-related and lifestyle-related pain/inflammation? Can lifestyle changes make a difference when it comes to what we inherit?


Genes have become rooted in the public mind as a kind of biological destiny, but that’s far from reality. The good news is that only a small amount of disease-causing genes are fully penetrant—that is, they inevitably cause a disorder. So, the vast majority of the time, we can alter genetic activity even though we can’t change the genes we were born with.

Genetic activity is dynamic, changing every day according to your life experiences. Every cell in the body is eavesdropping on your thoughts, feelings, fears, and frustrations, as well as physical functions like diet, exercise, immune status, etc. The bottom line is that you can adopt a lifestyle where you choose every day either to enhance gene activity or not. Your body naturally wants to remain in balance. Remove the obstacles that block this natural state, and balance may return at any age.

Once symptoms appear, it becomes more difficult to reverse inflammation, particularly if tissue damage has occurred. For example, arthritic joints are typically inflamed and painful because the smooth protective layer of the joint has been worn down to exposed bone. By the time you are taking aspirin or any anti-inflammatory, if the reason is pain, you are at the symptomatic stage. However, it is also true that if the underlying condition is alleviated, as through joint replacement or heart bypass surgery, the inflammation should go away along with the symptoms. (Of course, a good lifelong goal includes avoiding the need for such drastic measures.)

Deepak Chopra M.D., FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of Jiyo and The Chopra Center, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation. Chopra is board certified in internal medicine, endocrinology and metabolism; a Fellow of the American College of Physicians; and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times best sellers. His latest books are The Healing Self: A Revolutionary New Plan to Supercharge Your Immunity and Stay Well for Life (co-authored with Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D.) and Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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