While there’s no doubt that chronic inflammation does contribute to a whole host of diseases and health issues, there’s a lot of misperceptions about what inflammation actually is, how it’s caused and how it harms our health.
Inflammation is a normal part of our body’s healing system, and plays an important role in keeping us well. An inflammatory response — or swelling — occurs when our bodies detect an invading infection or injury and our defense system ramps up to fight it off and start the healing process. It’s an efficient process and a perfectly healthy function. However, when inflammation is triggered and there’s no injury or infection to fight, that same process can destroy healthy organs, joints and arteries instead of protecting them. Chronic inflammation generally can’t be seen or felt, but it can send our immune systems awry and have devastating consequences. In this case, the headlines are right: inflammation does indeed play a role in the development and progression of many chronic diseases, including diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and many more.
While we still don’t fully understand why or how the immune system malfunctions, scientists were long ago able to pinpoint inflammation as a contributing factor to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and lupus. More recently, researchers have identified links between lower levels of inflammation and obesity, which in turn could increase the risk for other diseases, including diabetes, cancer and heart disease. As research continues to expand our understanding of this complicated process, one thing is clear: controlling and reducing chronic inflammation is key to helping reduce the risk and avoid many chronic diseases.
While bookstores are filled with best-sellers touting the latest anti-inflammatory cure, doctors and researchers urge caution and a more pragmatic approach. Some foods and food products certainly cause inflammation, such as sugar, high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, excessive alcohol and processed “junk” food. And a healthy diet filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables has been shown to tame out-of-control inflammation. But there is no miracle food, vitamin or supplement that will magically eliminate inflammation or quickly reverse the long-term damage that it may do to your body. Instead, it’s important to adopt healthy lifestyle changes that can help keep your immune system functioning properly — and ensure that inflammation is helping to protect rather than destroy your body.
Maintaining a healthy weight is an important first step. Gaining weight means adding new fat cells, and fat cells can trigger the release of cytokines — small proteins that cause inflammation and attack healthy nerves and tissues. That’s just one more reason why eating a healthy diet and staying active — the best approach to keep weight steady at any age — is so critical. Getting enough restful sleep every night is another important factor. Multiple studies have shown that a lack of sleep can also result in more cytokines being released, furthering the cycle of inflammation throughout the body.
Other and perhaps more surprising tips to keeping inflammation at bay include regularly brushing and flossing your teeth and seeing a dentist every six months, since some studies have indicated a possible link between gum disease and inflammation that can increase risk for other diseases. Also, be certain to always complete the full cycle of any antibiotics that are prescribed for you. Stopping antibiotics or sharing your prescription with someone else increases the risk of lingering infections, as well as reinfection with resistant bacterial strains.
If you are concerned that inflammation may be impacting your health, talk to your doctor about blood tests to determine inflammatory markers, as well as ways to reduce inflammation. If you need help finding a doctor, El Camino Health can help. Search for a doctor for assistance or an appointment.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.