The damage caused to our bodies by uncontrolled inflammation has been the subject of health warnings for a long time. Left unchecked, chronic inflammation is thought to play a role in a growing list of ailments. Fortunately, research into the relationship between inflammation and disease is ongoing. A lot is known about what you can do to prevent inflammation, as well as how to get rid of inflammation if it’s a problem for you.
Inflammation isn’t really a disease; it’s better described as a process. There are two types of inflammation, but sometimes one kind turns into the other.
Acute inflammation (1) is your body’s normal response to trauma — tissue damage caused by an injury, an infection or over-exposure to toxins. This “inflammatory response” is a healing mechanism: It initiates certain chemical reactions that signal repairs need to be made to damaged tissues, and new cells need to grow where the injury is.
Acute inflammation can be severe, but it’s temporary. An infected cut, a bee sting or a twisted ankle all result in acute inflammation. The pain, redness, swelling and heat are normal healing responses. This inflammation means your body is sending reinforcements in the form of white blood cells to the site of the injury so it can defend against invaders like bacteria and start repairing the area. When the process works as it should and the injury is healed, the inflammation subsides.
Chronic inflammation(2) is long-term and can be stealthy, its damage often spreads silently before it’s known. Sometimes inflammation may hang around after you’ve had an injury and the wound is gone, but the process doesn’t turn off and your body turns on itself looking for something to heal. Inflammation may be caused by chronic infections, and it’s why poor oral health is tied to heart disease(3). For other people, obesity or constant exposure to environmental toxins are the culprit. Other times inflammation is the result oflow-grade stress as you walk around in a constant state of fight-or-flight. Think about the health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. It’s a graphic example of a whole population of people who are likely in a constant state of stress. But it isn’t natural for humans to live this way, and the chemicals that flood your body to activate your fight-or-flight response are actually harmful if your body never returns to a normal state.
Regardless of the cause, some common signs of chronic inflammation are:
Chronic inflammation plays a role in developing disease; it’s not a disease itself. It can be hard to pinpoint because it mimics the signs and symptoms of a lot of other ailments. Left unchecked, inflammation can lead to serious health problems and contribute to other chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis (4), diabetes, cancer(5), Alzheimer’s disease (6), autoimmune diseases, as well as chronic liver and kidney diseases.
There’s a lot that’s still unknown about inflammation and what role it plays in different diseases and conditions; research is ongoing. Although we can’t always see inflammation, we know there are things that put us at greater risk for developing it.
Few things are more fundamental to our overall well being than the quality of our food. A nutritious and balanced diet is essential for maintaining health and fighting off disease. On the other hand, a poor diet of highly processed food with few fresh fruits and vegetables can actually initiate or encourage disease. Our modern diet of grab-and-go, ready-to-eat food has been shown to degrade our health. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans(9), about half of all American adults have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many of which are related to poor quality eating patterns and lack of physical activity.
Additionally, studies(6) have shown that fat tissue itself acts as an endocrine organ, producing molecules that cause chronic inflammation, which in turn alters the function of other systems in your body, eventually leading to disease.
Chemicals from cigarette and tobacco smoke(10) promote chronic inflammation in various ways. Cigarette smoke(11) is a complex mix of chemicals that directly activates immune cells in your mouth, throat and lungs. Cigarette smoke can affect your immune system in multiple complex ways, leading to chronic inflammation(12), reduced immunity, and the potential for an array of diseases ranging from oral and lung cancers to emphysema and cardiovascular disease.
Good sleep(8) habits are essential for good health, but many people struggle with this basic human function. Although getting the recommended amount of sleep doesn’t mean you won’t get sick, if you’re not well-rested itcan weaken your immune system. When you sleep, your body makes and releases cytokines(13), a type of protein that helps your body clean up and eliminate infection and inflammation. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, it could leave you with excess inflammation because your body hasn’t had adequate time to make its nightly repairs, but also because it hasn’t had enough time to make adequate amounts of cytokines to do the work.
Of all of the risk factors for chronic inflammation, stress is the one that’s probably the most prevalent, yet hardest to pin down. In our fast-paced and competitive society, we are exposed to stress-inducing factors multiple times every day. The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of a situation thatcould cause continuous stress for many people. More and more, research is pointing to a connection between inflammation caused by this kind of chronic low-level stress and disease.
In the early days of our evolution, the fight-or-flight response — a type of stress — served a useful purpose. It elevates blood pressure, increases your heart rate and dilates your pupils. These changes prioritize your body’s most important functions, crucial if you’re being chased by a tiger, for example. The changes are triggered by hormones released into your bloodstream. When the system works like it’s supposed to, after the danger has passed, your body’s functions and the hormone levels in your blood return to normal.
Stressful events still cause this kind of response in humans, and fight-or-flight can still serve a useful purpose in our modern world. But health problems can develop when we have constant, slightly elevated levels of these stress hormones circulating our bloodstream. If your body never returns to a state of balance, it can initiate or exacerbate disease.
Over roughly the past two decades, accumulating research has identified a group of physical and psychiatric disorders that are prolonged or made more severe by chronic stress. This group of disorders are called stress-related disease (14), and many overlap with the conditions already identified as being exacerbated by chronic inflammation. More research is needed to understand exactly how stress and inflammation interact in different diseases.
As dire as the disease process we’ve described sounds, there are plenty of things you can do to cast off inflammation and rebalance yourself.
Wherever you are on the inflammation spectrum, a common risk factor is age. Older age is a risk factor for a lot of things, and although there isn’t anything you can do to stop the years from adding up, there are important steps you can take now to slow the process and help minimize systemic inflammation down the road. To fully address inflammation now, and to keep it at bay in the future, it’s helpful to look at your existence in a holistic way. In addition to minimizing destructive behaviors, it’s important to add healthful ones.
All of the risk factors listed for chronic inflammation can be improved by the addition of exercise. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans(16), regular physical activity is one of the most important things anyone can do to improve their health, but nearly 80 percent of Americans do not meet the minimum recommendation of 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate intensity activity each week. This breaks down to just 30 minutes of brisk walking 5 days a week! Some research indicates you still get the benefit even if you break the activity into smaller chunks, like three 10-minute blocks. It’s also important to add some form of strength training a couple times a week, in addition to the aerobic activity. For older adults who naturally experience muscle loss, strength training is especially important to protect against falls and other injuries.
Food is medicine. The choices you make now about what you put inside your body can influence how well you feel immediately and well into the future. Nutrients in the food and drinks you consume determine whether your body has vibrant energy and strong immunity or feels sluggish and develops disease.Eliminate foods that cause inflammation
Some foods can exacerbate inflammation. Highly processed foods should be avoided in general because the saturated and trans-fats contained in most processed foods directly cause inflammation. A steady diet of prepared and fast food typically causes weight gain, another risk factor for inflammation. Because these foods take little effort to digest, they often cause a spike in your blood sugar, followed by a crash. This pattern can set you up for problems like metabolic syndrome and type-2 diabetes.Add anti-inflammatory foods
The good news is you have choices. Just as some foods cause inflammation, other foods can calm and fight inflammation. High-quality supplements can be a helpful addition to bring your body back into an anti-inflammatory state of balance, especially if you aren’t able to meet all of your nutritional needs with food. To help get rid of inflammation:
There are many things each of us encounter on a daily basis that influence whether we maintain a state of balance and health or develop disease. The good news is, it isn’t just up to chance. Your health is greatly influenced by the choices you make every day about whether you spend time doing beneficial activities and making healthful choices. If you’re concerned, talk to your doctor or dietitian for some recommendations about how to get rid of inflammation.
Sticking to the recommendations set forth in the physical activity and dietary guidelines referenced above, will go a long way toward fostering health.
If inflammation is a concern, consider adding a supportive supplement to your routine. In addition to a healthful diet, or in its absence, natural, high-quality supplements can keep inflammation at bay and support your body in ridding itself of inflammation if it has already appeared.Laura High - Contributing Writer, Physician's Choice