5 Things You Should Know About Inflammation

5 Things You Should Know About Inflammation

Not all inflammation is bad—here are the facts.

Headlines declare “Our Greatest Enemy? Inflammation,” and “Inflammation in Midlife Tied to Brain Shrinkage Later in Life.” Scary stuff. But, you ask, what exactly are they talking about and what can you do about it?

Those are good questions and they’ve made us realize we often mention inflammation without really explaining the nitty-gritty of it. And that, unfortunately, may make it harder for you to take (and keep taking) steps to become your healthiest self and achieve a younger RealAge. So, here’s a short course in inflammation and how you can help put out the destructive fire that may be glowing inside you.

Acute, short-term inflammation is your friend: It signals that your immune system has been called into action to fight off invading viruses and bacteria (or helping heal an injury). Here’s the drill: Sentinel cells, the guys at the guardhouse, alert your immune system when invaders appear. Then other cells cause your capillaries to leak blood plasma; its function is to envelop and slow down the invaders. Next, macrophages release cytokines. These are germ-fighters that are then joined by your B- and T-cells, which KO the invaders. And then when the hoards are vanquished, more cytokines are released that signal the battle is over and your immune soldiers can head back to their barracks. Without an acute inflammatory response, you would get ill from every passing germ and a cut or scrape could turn lethal.

Chronic inflammation causes disease, instead of fighting it: Turns out that for a variety of reasons, the body can get enveloped in a state of persistent low-level inflammation. When that happens, your immune system warriors cruise around your body even when there is no bacteria to fight off or injury to heal. Without specific targets to attack, they begin to damage organs, nerves and arteries.

They can interfere with how the body uses insulin and that can lead to chronic-inflammatory conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and gastrointestinal woes. Chronic inflammation is also implicated in causing the tangle of amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and rogue inflammatory cells produce free radicals that cause genetic mutations leading to cancer and feed the growth of tumors.

What causes chronic inflammation? Well, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are two identified culprits. Seems excess fat cells (particularly in the belly) trigger the slow and steady release of those inflammatory first-responders, the cytokines. And a sedentary lifestyle contributes to both obesity chronic stress, which in turn feeds chronic inflammation.

In addition, chronic inflammation is stoked by a diet packed with inflammatory foods such as red meats and added sugars and syrups, lack of exercise and sleep, and environmental assaults from air pollution; toxic chemicals; hormone disruptors; and tobacco, marijuana, and hookah and vaping parlors. Johns Hopkins University researchers suggest, “avoiding contact with heavy metals such as mercury, which is found in dangerous amounts in some large fish, and limit exposure to substances, such as diesel exhaust and cigarette smoke that can set off the immune system.”

Signs you have chronic inflammation: Are you all-over achy, often fatigued, have irregular poop (either constipation or diarrhea), bloating, high blood pressure or weight gain? These can be signs that your immune system has gone rogue. But for a sure-fire diagnosis, ask your doctor for a CRP-HS blood test; it’s readily available to help in the evaluation of inflammation.

Lifestyle changes to make: Opt for seven to nine servings of fresh fruits and veggies daily; get 900mg of omega-3 DHA (helps lower background inflammation according to a Stanford U. study), aim for 7 to 8 hours of restful sleep nightly, get moving with both aerobic exercise (five days a week) and strength-building (two days). Start meditating for 15 minutes daily.

And be smart about avoiding potential toxins in plastics and receipts (phthalates and BPA), household cleaners, garden pesticides, water (use a home filter) and air. That should help put out the flame.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

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