Inflammation. The word probably makes you think of a knee swollen from running or a puffed-up pimple on your faceÃ¢â‚¬”common problems that can be cured with the help of some ice or OTC meds. But there's another kind of inflammation that means something else entirely: chronic inflammationÃ¢â‚¬”a slow, silent disturbance that never shuts off. You can't feel it. You can't be tested for it. Yet it has become a medical hot topic: More and more research shows that chronic inflammation is involved in heavy-hitting illnesses. Says integrative medicine specialist Frank Lipman, M.D., director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City, "It's an underlying cause for many, many diseases."
Inflammation May be a Root Cause Of...
- Heart disease
Scientists are still in the process of decoding exactly how inflammation works, but here's what we know so far: It all starts with the immune system, the body's first line of defense against any kind of harm. When you're injured or sick, your bone marrow dispatches veritable SWAT teams of white blood cells to root out infection and jump Scientists are still in the process of decoding exactly how inflammation works, but here's what we know so far: It all starts with the immune system, the body's first line of defense against any kind of harm. When you're injured or sick, your bone marrow dispatches veritable SWAT teams of white blood cells to root out infection and jump-start the healing process. Sometimes, however, the immune system gets a faulty distress signal and deploys an unnecessary first-aid squad. Those misguided white blood cells still mobilize just like they would if you were actually under the weather, but because there's no infection for them to attack, they end up just hanging around, often for a long, long time.
Problem is, your body isn't made to accommodate this kind of unfocused immune activity, and eventually those white blood cells can start damaging your internal organs. They can also needlessly assault other cells the body routinely uses to push off disease, leaving the door cracked open for illnesses such as cancer.
Thankfully, you can do something about preventing and quashing chronic inflammation. Read on to find out how to snuff out this silent danger.
Top Inflammation Triggers
Carrying excess weight. It makes sense that when you pack on a few too many pounds, your fat cells begin to bulge. Confused by the extra stress, they send an SOS to your immune system, says Jerrold Olefsky, M.D., an endocrinologist at the University of California at San Diego. Certain white blood cells respond to the alarm, rushing to and then inflaming the cells that called for help. Over time that inflammation can make healthy cells resistant to insulin (the hormone that regulates blood sugar), which in turn can lead to diabetes. What's more, those unneeded white blood cells can start to leak into the bloodstream, eventually aggravating your liver. Noshing on high-sugar, high-carb, high-fat foods. When you eat a lot of saturated and trans fats, what you're essentially doing (besides following an ill-advised diet!) is upping your inflammation risk, says Victoria Drake, Ph.D., a researcher at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Scientists are still working out why, but they know that foods that quickly dump an excess of sugar into your bloodstream may also set off inflammation. A recent Australian study, for example, found that inflammation markers tend to be significantly increased just three hours after eating high-glycemic-index foods (think: corn chips, baked potatoes, pretzels, waffles), which are known to help increase the body's blood sugar.
Experiencing high anxiety. Unexpected nerve-racking situationsÃ¢â‚¬”like being asked to give an impromptu talk at a work meetingÃ¢â‚¬”can prompt sudden bouts of anxiety, which have recently been linked to heightened levels of inflammation. "Inflammatory activity usually increases under stress," explains George Slavich, Ph.D., a researcher in psychoneuroimmunology at the University of California at Los Angeles. That's because the parts of your brain involved in sensing pain are also activated by social stress. Other recent studies show that some people who suffer from long-term anxiety or depression also experience regular spikes in inflammation.
Breathing bad air. Hate smog? So does your immune system. According to a study in Environmental Health Perspectives, women who lived in areas with polluted air were more likely to develop diabetes, probably because air pollution can encourage inflammation and therefore contribute to insulin resistance. But much worse than living near a congested roadway is a naughty cigarette habit; tobacco smoke is such an assault on the lungs that the immune system rushes in to fix the damage. Often, though, it overcompensates and, rather than healing, the white blood cells end up on an offensive that can eventually lead to lung disease.
Top Inflammation Fighters
Eating omega-3 fatty acids. They're great for your heart and your nervous system, and now studies show that omega-3sÃ¢â‚¬”the "good fats" that are found in some fish like salmonÃ¢â‚¬”can also dial down the overeager white blood cells that lead to inflammation, says Olefsky. He recommends eating at least two servings of fish every week.
Munching on fruits and vegetables. Plants are by far your best inflammation-fighting bet. They're chock full of anti-inflammatory elements such as magnesium and antioxidants, as well as carotenoids (the orange and yellow pigments found in carrots, squash, and sweet potatoes) and lycopene (the chemical that gives tomatoes and watermelon their red hues). GrapesÃ¢â‚¬”and yes, red wineÃ¢â‚¬”also discourage inflammation, thanks to the much-hyped chemical resveratrol, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. Scientists aren't quite sure why plants pack such magic, but early research shows that following a Mediterranean-style diet full of lots of veggies, fruits, and olive oil may curb inflammation.
Moving your body. Need one more reason to work out? Early studies show that exercise has powerful effects in reducing inflammation, which, in turn, can significantly lower cancer risk. "We're talking 45 to 50 minutes of moderate exercise, most days a week," says Jeffrey Woods, Ph.D., a kinesiology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also notes that everyone should be sweating it out, regardless of your weight. Just because you look lean doesn't mean you're not harboring hidden inflammation. If, however, you are trying to shed some chub, here's extra motivation: Exercise shrinks fat cells, which automatically fights inflammation by quieting your body's immune system.
Boosting your mood. People who are anxious or depressed can lower their inflammation risk simply by getting treatment. In a recent Psychosomatic Medicine study, depressed women who went to therapy experienced a drop in inflammatory action, probably because they'd lowered their stress levels, says psychologist Barbara Andersen, Ph.D., of Ohio State University. In fact, lowering stress of any kind can be a very big key in beating chronic inflammation, says Slavich. Instead of obsessing over worst-case scenarios ("I'm going to bomb this test" or "I'm going to miss my flight"), he says, keep your immune system cool by taking a deep breath and not treating your negative thoughts as facts.