Just like wildfires that have scorched homes in the American West, inflammation can spread through the human body and cause devastation. But in some ways, wildfires aren’t completely destructive. Rather, they are a part of the natural cycle of life, helping to clear out dead plants, reduce the number of parasites, and recycle nutrients back into the soil so that new life can grow.
In some cases, inflammation in the body is much the same: It is part of our maintenance and repair system. Without it, we can’t heal. Understanding the distinction, and doing everything possible to keep the former, chronic type of inflammation at bay can help you stay young, lean, and healthy.
This article will discuss inflammation by looking at five causes of inflammation in our lives today and finish up with proven strategies for offsetting it.
The Two Types of Inflammation
There are two types of inflammation: Acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is an essential component of the immune response in reaction to an assault to the body such as injury, invading pathogens, or toxins. Without it, you would become ill from every passing infection and wound. You wouldn’t be able to recover from exercise, languishing with days of muscle soreness and fatigue after tough workouts. The body marshals a healing response, and with a period of rest, your body is able to recover and bounce back from injury, soreness, or illness.
Chronic inflammation—that destructive fire that leaves devastation in its wake—accumulates due to a number of factors that have become ubiquitous in our modern lives: Inactivity, poor diet, excessive stress, elevated blood sugar, and obesity are the primary contributors to chronic inflammation. When inflammation gets whipped into overdrive, it increases the chance that you will develop a disease such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, cancer, or autoimmune disorder such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Chronic Inflammation Is A Stronger Predictor Of Heart Attack Than Cholesterol
One example of the harmful effect of inflammation and its role in disease came to light with the recently published CANTOS study that set out to emphasize the role of inflammation in heart disease. Public health experts are still obsessed with lowering LDL cholesterol despite accumulating evidence that other factors have a more powerful impact on heart disease.
The CANTOS study was designed to explore how lowering inflammation would impact cardiovascular-related events in high-risk patients who had already suffered a heart attack. When given a drug that precisely targets cardiovascular inflammation, people were protected from future heart attacks even if they had no change in LDL cholesterol levels.
The CANTOS study hints at the power of anti-inflammatory approaches for reducing disease in areas other than heart disease. But it leaves us wondering, what exactly is chronic inflammation? It’s difficult to conceptualize because unlike the swelling that comes from an acute injury such as a sprained ankle, chronic inflammation is often invisible to the naked eye. Our only evidence is when we develop chronic pain in a joint, diabetes, or obesity.
When a cell is in distress, it sends out signals for help. Chemicals from your immune system’s white blood cells increase blood flow to the distressed area, and inflammatory proteins called cytokines rush to help. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, but when the cell’s distress becomes chronic, this response is repeated over and over, further inflaming cells in your blood vessels, organs, and other tissues.
Obesity & Chronic Inflammation
Obesity offers an interesting if distressing example of how chronic inflammation manifests. Fat tissue functions as an endocrine organ, releasing compounds known as adipokines that act as hormones. When these compounds interact with a cell, they “unlock” a message.
For instance, the adipokine resistin induces the expression of VCAM and ICAM molecules in the endothelial cells of the blood vessels, causing adhesions that accumulate in plaque that turns into atherosclerosis. As fat cells grow larger, other adipokines are released, binding with cells and organizing an immune response, which impairs a variety of processes including insulin signaling and blood vessel function.
Diabetes & Chronic Inflammation
In the case of diabetes, insulin, which is the hormone released by the pancreas that stores glucose from the blood stream, is unable to bind with cells effectively when the inflammatory compound TNF-a is released from cells in fat tissue, the muscles, and the pancreas. Because insulin can’t do its job, blood sugar remains elevated, cruising around in the blood stream and damaging cells. Blood vessels experience a thickening and hardening, and plaques accumulate. Nerves can be damaged due to lack of oxygen, which causes neuropathy or pain and tingling in the limbs.
Although chronically elevated blood sugar is a cause of inflammation in and of itself, it’s also the result of other factors that are pro-inflammatory: Inactivity and poor diet. It might seem counterintuitive that inactivity would cause inflammation since being sedentary minimizes the disruption to your muscles and joints. Plus, we’re always told to rest any time we have an injury and are experiencing a large inflammatory response. However, studies show that inactivity is terrible for the body and highly inflammatory.
Inactivity & Chronic Inflammation
When you become inactive, tissues experience a cascade of events that promote oxidative injury to cells. Insulin receptors are impaired and muscle cells die. Lean tissue breaks down due to lack of stimulation. Fat accumulates in the blood and cells become resistant to insulin, causing inflammation in cells throughout the body. Activity of the hypothalamus, which is the region of the brain that regulates release of the most important hormones, becomes impaired. This is one reason that sedentary men tend to have lower testosterone than their active counterparts.
Same goes for inactive women who often have altered sex hormones and are at greater risk of reproductive problems. Stress also becomes elevated with inactivity, partly due to a problem in the feedback loop via which the stress hormone cortisol tells the hypothalamus to chill out and lower release of cortisol’s precursor molecules.
Exercise Protects Against Chronic Inflammation
Fascinatingly, certain forms of exercise can reset the hypothalamus and strengthen its message to the other key organs involved in hormone balance: the pituitary and adrenals. Additionally, exercise has a powerful effect on blood sugar and insulin, lowering both so that they do less oxidative damage.
Perhaps most interesting and least known is that exercise reduces inflammation and pain in the joints. For example, there is evidence that regularly loading the knee joint with running or full squat training can reduce inflammatory markers linked to arthritis, while improving synovial fluid that protects the knee joint. Instead of resting your aching joints, move them, focusing on full range-of-motion exercises and working up to loaded motions that use weights or resistance bands.
Nutrition Counters Chronic Inflammation
Diet is probably the most popular tool for lowering inflammation. Lists of anti-inflammatory foods abound on the internet, however, critics stress that the overall dietary pattern is more important than adding certain ingredients. For example, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce markers of inflammation and lower the risk of heart disease.
Of course, there is no single Mediterranean diet: The Greek eat differently from the Italians and Spanish. But the principal aspects are the same, emphasizing inflammation-fighting whole foods, and banishing processed and refined products that dominate the western diet.
Now that you know the main causes of inflammation, let’s look at actions you can take to tamp down inflammation for a longer, leaner, pain-free life.
#1: Eat The Rainbow
Every meal should include a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables that contain phytonutrients to help neutralize free radicals: Leafy greens, red and purple fruits and vegetables, berries, peppers, cruciferous veggies, kiwis, cherries, beets, radishes, citrus, and plums and other stone fruit, etc.
#2: Avoid Refined Foods
Inflammation is triggered in response to high calorie meals and by high blood sugar levels, both of which are more common when you eat refined or processed foods.
#3: Eat Fish
Part of the Mediterranean diet, fish provide high-quality protein and healthy fats that have been shown to be a potent remedy for inflammatory diseases by lowering C-reactive protein.
#4: Shun Trans Fats
There’s a mountain of evidence showing trans fats are dangerous for humans because they damage cells, cause inflammation, and are implicated in the development of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
#5: Eat A Mediterranean Diet
Remember that healthy eating is about context: Simply including anti-inflammatory foods into an otherwise unhealthy diet is not a good solution. Legumes and whole grains, olive oil and nuts, fruits and vegetables, fish and poultry, and whole dairy are all consistent players in the Mediterranean Diet.
#6: Avoid Added Sugar
Sugar consumption leads to the release of free radicals as a byproduct of energy metabolism in the body, which can easily build up and lead to chronic inflammation.
#7: Cook With Spices
Turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and chilies can help you re-train your taste buds if you need help shifting away from processed foods, and they contain antioxidants that help the body eradicate inflammation.
#8: Avoid Excessive Alcohol
The process of metabolizing excess alcohol causes significant damage to the liver, which often leads to an increase in abdominal fat—the dangerous kind of fat that releases inflammatory compounds.
#9: Reduce Oils High In Omega-6 Fat
In large quantities, oils high in omega-6 fat (i.e. corn and soybean oil) lead to an increase in compounds called eicosanoids that mediate inflammatory responses.
#10: Train With Weights
Strength training keeps joints strong and healthy, while also lowering inflammation and resetting the HPA axis that regulates hormone release in the body.
Mindfulness activities like meditation or deep breathing improve the HPA axis and balance hormone release for lower systemic inflammation.
#12: Supplement With Depleted Nutrients
Lack of certain nutrients leads to an increased free radical load in the body: Vitamin D, magnesium, and alpha lipoic acid are three that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects in research.
#13: Use Melatonin
The sleep hormone melatonin can eradicate inflammation, however, our body’s natural release decreases with aging. Supplementing can improve sleep and lower inflammation in the brain and GI tract.
#14: Use Curcumin
Found in the spice turmeric, curcumin can counter the inflammatory response associated with diabetes, cancer, and osteoarthritis.
#15: Avoid Regular NSAID Use
Although non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can be great alternatives to opioids for pain relief, they have harmful side effects when used regularly, reducing healing from fracture, causing complications following surgery, and damaging the GI tract when combined with exercise.