An expert at Harvard Medical School refers to inflammation as the body’s “check engine” light. It’s not necessarily its own issue, but a sign that something else needs fixing. Sometimes, that’s a good thing; inflammation is an immune response that helps your body fight infections. But chronic inflammation is linked to several health conditions, ranging from high blood pressure to Alzheimer’s disease.
We’ll break down when inflammation is good or bad, some common causes of inflammation, and what you can do to help keep chronic inflammation at bay.
Have you noticed how your skin gets red, hot, and swollen after a cut? That’s acute inflammation at work. The inflammatory response is an immune response, helping your body heal the injury while preventing infection.
Acute inflammation uses inflammatory mediators to increase the blood flow to the injured area. Then, your immune system sends white blood cells and cytokines, substances that help produce more inflammatory cells. The entire process helps heal injured tissues and fight any infection that may be present in the injury. Your body does the same process with internal foreign bodies as well, such as with a cold or flu.
Did You Know? Inflammatory mediators irritate the nerves around the injured part of your body and send pain signals to your brain. This is also part of the immune response: if part of your body hurts, you’re going to protect it from getting hurt again.
So that’s acute inflammation, but what makes inflammation chronic? Chronic inflammation is the result of this process occurring when it’s no longer needed. Your immune system creates inflammatory cells when there’s no foreign body present, sometimes attacking healthy tissue in the process. Long-term chronic inflammation can last for months or even years, and it’s linked to numerous health concerns, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer.
With an autoimmune disease, your body’s immune system mistakes healthy tissue for a threat. As a result, your body creates an immune response, which can often include inflammation.
Some autoimmune diseaes lead to chronic inflammation in different tissues or organs of your body. For example, psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of your skin. Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation in your joints, most commonly in your hands and feet. And lupus can lead to inflammation in multiple organs and tissues.
Quick Statistics: Approximately 24 million people in the U.S. are living with autoimmune diseases.
Obesity, the accumulation of too much fat, can cause your body to stay in a state of chronic, low-grade inflammation. That’s because fat cells release pro-inflammatory proteins throughout the body. Obesity can also make some chronic diseases more difficult to manage. For example, those with arthritis (inflammation of the joints) may have greater joint pain if they also struggle with obesity.
Quick Tips: If you are overweight and have osteoarthritis, losing just 10% of your body weight can reduce arthritic pain by half.
It’s well documented that smoking is bad for your health, with links to heart disease, high blood pressure, and numerous other conditions. But a recent study also found that smoking is also directly linked to chronic inflammation.
When comparing blood samples between heavy smokers versus non-smokers, the study found that the blood samples from heavy smokers had higher levels of cytokines (the substances that produce inflammatory cells) than non-smokers, while also decreasing the immune response when a foreign body was introduced. This means that smoking not only increases chronic inflammation, but it weakens the immune system as well.
Refined carbohydrates (white breads), fried foods, sugar, and processed meats are all linked to increased levels of inflammation. And while these foods are also linked to weight gain (and, in turn, an increased risk for inflammation), studies have found that even when obesity was taken into account these foods were still linked to inflammation. This means that, even if you don’t easily gain weight, these types of foods may still cause inflammation in your body.
There are multiple ways you can decrease inflammation in your body, and most of them don’t require your healthcare provider.
The Mediterranean Diet has been called an anti-inflammatory diet, and for good reason: it focuses on foods clinically proven to have anti-inflammatory effects.
Anti-inflammatory foods include:
Quick Tip: The Mediterranean Diet is often said to include red wine; however, alcohol is linked to inflammation. If you’re trying to increase the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet, limit your alcohol intake, or don’t drink alcohol at all.
Exercising is a great way to manage your mental and physical health. Not only does it provide weight loss benefits, it also boosts your mood and can help manage the symptoms of some chronic diseases. Since exercising too frequently can stress out your body (and in turn increase the inflammatory response), try taking a walk every day. It’s a low-impact exercise, which can be especially helpful if you suffer from joint pain.
If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do, talk with your healthcare provider about ways to quit. Quitting smoking isn’t easy for everyone, but it’s one of the most beneficial things you can do for your overall health.
Some providers may recommend anti-inflammatory medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, or supplements such as zinc or vitamin D to help reduce chronic inflammation. Other conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, will require consistent management to help manage inflammation. Follow your provider’s instructions about how to take medications, including vitamins and supplements.
While chronic inflammation can lead to an increased risk of certain health conditions, focusing on anti-inflammatory lifestyle choices, especially an anti-inflammatory diet, is a great way to reduce your risk. And if you’ve been diagnosed with chronic diseases that can cause inflammation, you’ll benefit from the anti-inflammatory effects of a healthy lifestyle.