The Truth About Chronic Inflammation And What It Means For Your Health
It’s an underlying cause for many, many diseases.
Inflammation. The word probably makes you think of a knee swollen from running or a bad sunburn – 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 inflammation – a slow, silent disturbance that never stops. 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 Dr Frank Lipman: “It’s an underlying cause for many, many diseases.”
And the effects aren’t always just below the surface. Your endless skin woes? Whether you’re plagued by acne or uneven skin tone, inflammation is more than likely the cause. “If you have age spots or dark spots, that’s where your skin experienced high inflammation at some point, which has made it more fragile,” explains Dr Nadine Pernodet, executive director of global research and development biology for Estée Lauder Companies. “It’s where melanin accumulates because melanocytes were directed there when your skin was inflamed.
This is why it’s vital to stop inflammation and free radicals as soon as you can.” 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 defence 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 jumpstart 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 mobilise just as 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 organs. They can also needlessly assault other cells the body routinely uses to push off disease, leaving the door 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.
It makes sense that when you pack on a few too many kilos, your fat cells begin to bulge. Confused by the extra stress, they send an SOS to your immune system, says endocrinologist Prof Jerrold Olefsky. 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 white blood cells can start to leak into the bloodstream, eventually aggravating your liver.
High-Sugar, High-Carb, High-Fat Food
When you eat a lot of saturated and trans fats, you’re upping your inflammation risk. Scientists are still working out why, but they know that foods that quickly dump an excess of sugar into your bloodstream can 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-glycaemic-index foods (chips, baked potatoes, cake), which are known to increase blood sugar.
Unexpected nerve-racking situations – like being asked to give an impromptu talk at a meeting – can prompt bouts of anxiety and stress, which have recently been linked to heightened levels of inflammation. “Inflammatory activity usually increases under stress,” explains Dr George Slavich, a specialist in psychoneuroimmunology. 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. “I’ve seen the effects of stress in younger people – it leads to inflammation, which is the cause of every health issue, from acne to heart disease,” agrees Loretta Miraglia, corporate senior vice-president of product development and innovation for La Mer. “The calmer you are, the better you will look for longer, which means women should focus on relaxing. As a gender we are so self-sacrificing, so strong.”
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 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 lead to lung disease.
Getting Your Omega-3 fatty
Fatty acids. They’re great for your heart and your nervous system, and now studies show that omega-3s – the “good fats” found in some fish, like salmon – can also suppress the overeager white blood cells that lead to inflammation, says Olefsky. He recommends at least two servings of fish per week.
Munching On Fruit And Veg
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 (carrots, squash, sweet potatoes) and lycopene (tomatoes, watermelon). Grapes – and red wine – also discourage inflammation, thanks to the much-hyped chemical resveratrol. Scientists aren’t sure why plants pack such magic, but research shows that following a Mediterranean-style diet full of veg, fruit 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 lower cancer risk. “We’re talking 45 to 50 minutes of moderate exercise, most days a week,” says human kineticist Prof Jeffrey Woods. And everyone should be sweating it out, regardless of your weight. Just because you look lean doesn’t mean you’re not harbouring hidden inflammation. If, however, you are trying to shed some chub, here’s extra motivation: because exercise shrinks fat cells, it automatically fights inflammation by quieting your body’s immune system.
Boosting Your Mood
In a Psychosomatic Medicine study, depressed women who went to therapy experienced a drop in inflammatory action, probably because they’d lowered their stress levels. In fact, lowering stress of any kind is key in beating inflammation, says Slavich. Instead of obsessing over worst-case scenarios (“I’m going to miss my flight”), keep your immune system cool by taking a deep breath and not treating your negative thoughts as facts.