The problem with inflammation is that isn’t always a problem. Say you get an injury or a skin infection: Your body reacts with pain, swelling, redness, and warmth—all conditions you can see out there in the open, and are your body’s way of protecting you. But there’s also inflammation affecting your body that you can’t see. Many different conditions, both benign and serious, can cause an inflammatory reaction inside you—which in turn could have an impact on your overall health, and not in a good way.
“Any time you’re trying to fight an infection, inflammation is a tool your body needs,” says cardiologist Dr Sadiya Khan. “An inflammatory response activates your immune system to fight the infection, and that’s how you get better. However, the inflammation your body needs to fight infection can act out of proportion, and then you can have too much of it. This can be the result of a health problem—there’s a very wide range of conditions that cause inflammation.”
So how can you tell “good” inflammation from the kind of inflammation that you need to address pronto? It’s not as hard as it may seem. Read on to learn the facts you need to know, and to find out the right moves to make to help you control any inflammatory conditions so you can live your healthiest life, and feel your absolute best.
How your body can turn against you
There are two different kinds of inflammation, defined as either acute or chronic. Acute inflammation is activated when you get a short-term injury or illness: First, chemicals in your body are released that act as kind of a red alert, and then lots of white blood cells respond to this warning and flood the area of your body that’s hurting. The white blood cells work to neutralise the problem and acute inflammation then starts to go away, usually within hours to a few days. “Inflammation is a protective response that your body mounts to fight an infection or injury,” says biochemistry and immunology expert Erica Johnson PhD. “Most of the time, this is good, and helps the body recover.“
Chronic inflammation also starts the same way, because your body thinks it’s being invaded. The difference is that chronic inflammation doesn’t resolve. For example, often an autoimmune disorder like type 1 diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or MS can cause the body to turn on its own tissues by mistake. The tissues are then under constant assault from inflammation, which can be harmful.
This can happen with other conditions, too. For example, inflammatory cells in your arteries can cause plaque to develop and build up, which could lead to a stroke. How? Your body views the plaque as a foreign substance, and uses even more inflammation to “fight” it—and this causes the plaque to thicken even more. It’s a vicious cycle. “Chronic inflammation tied to a cardiovascular condition can be caused by poor diet, eating too much sugar, or eating too many processed foods. A lack of exercise, leading to increased weight, can be a problem. Stress can be a contributing factor, as can lack of sleep.” Basically, the worse you treat your body, the more inflammatory cells are going to be flooding your system—and that raises your chance of a serious health problem.
How do you know if you have chronic inflammation?
Most of the time, you don’t. As chronic inflammation persists in your system, you could develop some symptoms, such as feeling tired, experiencing achy muscles and joints, having GI problems like constipation or diarrhoea, getting headaches, or gaining weight. (Yes, these symptoms could be caused by so many things, including, well, life!) However, a regular check-up with your GP may well reveal the problem.
“There are no specific tests to diagnose inflammation,” explains Dr Khan. “You’re not trying to identify inflammation as much as look at why it's there. Routine screenings, specifically your annual check-up, are the way to do that.” The standard blood tests you get at the doctor’s office can help diagnose inflammation. Cardiovascular disease screening and blood testing are two other key aspects you need. “Basically, you want to get a complete profile of your health, and then treat any condition that the inflammation is related to,” Dr Khan says. Your doctor may mention you have elevated inflammatory markers in your test results, and from there, trace the problem to diagnose any illness or disease you have.
The health repercussions of inflammation
Research indicates a wide range of issues that can be linked to chronic inflammation, including Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, different types of cancer, anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, allergies and asthma, acne, eczema, psoriasis, and arthritis. If you are diagnosed with a condition linked to inflammation, your doctor may prescribe medications to help with the symptoms of the specific condition, which in turn can stop the inflammatory response. To treat inflammation, you essentially treat the problem causing it.
Some meds can have an effect on inflammation in your body to some extent as well, like corticosteroids, which act like the hormone cortisol to cut inflammation. Another kind of drug, an immunosuppressant, can reduce the hyper-response of your immune system. Also, medications called biologics can be helpful; they are made from living substances and work to control cells that spearhead inflammation in your body. As of now, though, there is no specific drug that can take out inflammation completely on its own. “Medications targeting inflammation may be on the horizon, but for now, the thing to focus on is working with your doctor on your specific condition and symptoms. It's very important to take medication if you need it,” says Dr Khan.
A crucial point to know, however: All of these meds can have side effects, so you really need to work with your doctor to make sure anything you’re prescribed is right for you individually. And as we’re still in a pandemic, it’s vital to talk to your doctor about the safety of taking an immunosuppressant, since it could potentially affect your response to a Covid vaccine and put you at risk for serious Covid symptoms if you get infected.
The good news: For low levels of inflammation, easy changes in your habits can make a huge impact. “Controlling your weight, eating a healthy diet, improving your sleep—these things can nip so many health problems in the bud,” says Dr Johnson.
How to reduce inflammation
What specific changes can have the biggest impact? Follow these tips below, and you may see significant results when it comes to reducing inflammation, and also feel great in general.
Eat the right stuff
Eat a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat to lower chronic inflammation. Eating a nutritious mix of healthy foods helps your tissues repair themselves and promotes healing. Try these recommendations:
- Limit processed food. In general, they’re packed with stuff that’s bad for you, like excess sodium and sugar. When it comes to avoiding inflammation, too, lunch meats and too much red meat contain a lot of saturated fat, so eliminate them completely if you can.
- Go for nutritious whole-grain bread and rice, and ditch white starch and greatly limit sugar, which can cause inflammatory responses like weight gain, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol. A new study found that eating too much sugar and fat can adversely affect the gut and contribute to inflammatory skin conditions, including psoriasis.
- Eat a wide range of colourful fruits and veggies to maximise your vitamin intake. “Consuming leafy greens and blueberries is very helpful in terms of lowering inflammation," says Dr Khan.
- Include protein, such as lean poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts and fat-free Greek yogurt. And eat fish twice a week—it’s a great source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which can slow the process of your body making the substances that cause chronic inflammation.
- Use olive oil instead of butter or margarine when you can; olive oil is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Limit saturated fat and avoid trans fat completely—read those labels!
- Consider working fermented foods into your diet. A new study found that food and beverages that promote microbial diversity in the gut can reduce inflammation. Foods to try include yogurt, kefir, fermented cottage cheese, kimchi and other fermented vegetables, vegetable brine drinks, and kombucha tea.
Look at your lifestyle
Are you really taking care of your body and mind like you should? Prioritize these steps to maximise your health, and combat inflammation.
- Get enough sleep. The Sleep Health Foundation recommends that healthy adults get 7-9 hours a night. Make it a non-negotiable in your life.
- Move your body. A recent study showed that when muscles are exercised, damage from chronic inflammation is stopped. Choose an activity you really enjoy—walking, dancing, cycling, taking a workout class via Zoom—and indulge in it at least three times a week. Aim for 150 minutes of weekly aerobic exercise, total.
- If you smoke, quit. Get help from your doctor if needed.
- Limit alcohol—keep it to no more than a drink or two a day.
- Stay connected. Research found that socially isolated people tend to have C-reactive protein in their blood, which is a substance released into the body after tissues are injured. Therefore, it could be that loneliness causes inflammation. Cut your risk by staying in touch with people you care about. Call your family and friends, enjoy online activities together, and visit in safe ways if you’re fully vaccinated.
- Stress less. Yoga and meditation can really help. And do things that make you happy; a proactive, joyful attitude can make a huge difference in your health.
“You can improve inflammation, and improve your health every day as well, by staying active and addressing any underlying conditions,” Dr Johnson sums up. “Most of the time, lifestyle remedies can really help with the conditions that cause inflammation, if you know what you're dealing with in terms of those conditions. Knowledge is power!”