There's been a lot of talk about inflammation and disease over the last few years, and none of it sounds good. But what exactly is it? Why does it happen, and how is it bad for us?
When Good Inflammation Goes Bad
If you have inflammation because of an injury or infection, it’s a sign that your body’s immune system is working to try to heal itself.
If you're injured, you might have pain, swelling and redness around your injury. That's an inflammatory response, a sign that your immune system is working on the problem.
Inflammation can also be a response to germs like bacteria that can make you sick. Your body's inflammation response can fight off germs to protect you. While it's doing that, you may have a fever and feel tired. That's because your immune system is using a lot of energy while it's working. When it's done fighting off the germs, you feel better.
This type of inflammation is called acute inflammation. It only happens when your body needs it to. That’s your immune system’s inflammatory response doing its job. And it is a very important job.
But sometimes, inflammation isn't doing good things for your body. You can have inflammation in your body that you don't see or feel but that is doing harm.
In some cases, inflammation happens because something in your immune system isn’t working as it should. When this type of inflammation happens it can cause your body to have ongoing low-level inflammatory responses. This type of inflammation, called chronic inflammation, can harm healthy parts of your body. With chronic inflammation, your immune system isn’t attacking invaders like infection or illness. It’s attacking your body’s own healthy cells.
If inflammation is a good thing that allows our bodies to fight off injury and disease, how can it become a harmful, chronic problem? It isn't completely understood why it happens. But scientists have found strong evidence about what it does to the body.
Chronic inflammation is an underlying cause in many different serious health problems. Some health problems linked to chronic inflammation include arthritis, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and Alzheimer's.
Fortunately, researchers have also found ways you can fight chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation doesn't always get noticed right away. It may have subtle symptoms like fatigue or no symptoms at all for a long time. It can take a toll on your health and wellbeing long before you're even aware of it. So it's a good idea to take steps to prevent or fight it now instead of waiting for symptoms to appear.
Managing your diet and lifestyle are thought to be the two best ways to fight chronic inflammation, according to experts at Harvard Medical School.
Here are some things you can do to reduce inflammation in your immune system for long-term health:
- Eat a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet: Eat more fruits and vegetables. Regularly include foods with omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, tuna, tofu and walnuts, in your diet. Avoid trans fats, deep fried foods and processed foods. Limit the amount of red meat you eat.
- Control your blood sugar: Start by avoiding sugary drinks and desserts and eating less white rice, bread, pasta and other foods made from refined flours and sugars. Say yes to lean proteins and foods high in fiber. Have your blood sugar checked when you get your annual exam.
- Treat your high cholesterol: Get your levels tested. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes and treatment options if they are high.
- Lose weight if you need to: People who are overweight have more inflammation. That’s because the immune system sees the type of fat cells overweight people have as something it needs to fight. And it keeps on fighting them for as long as you’re overweight.
- Add exercise to your routine: Doing it regularly is the key. Start with 30 minutes of aerobic exercise and 10 minutes of resistance or weight training four or five times each week.
- Manage your stress: Get enough sleep. Take up meditation, yoga or another healthy practice to help. You can’t avoid all stress, but you can learn skills to better manage your response to it.
- Stop smoking: The toxins from smoking have a direct link to inflammation.
Need help? Talk to your doctor.
Want to reduce your inflammation, but don't know where to start? Your doctor can help you figure out what steps are best for you. Your doctor can also help you get started with stress management techniques, stopping smoking or losing weight. The most important thing is to take the first steps toward long-term good health.
Fuentes: What is an inflammation? National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Institutes of Health, 2018; Understanding Inflammation, Johns Hopkins Health Review, 2016; Six Keys to Reducing Inflammation, Scripps Health, 2018; Playing with the fire of inflammation, Harvard Medical School, 2016; 6 Immune System Busters & Boosters, WebMD; Exercise and immunity, National Institutes of Health, 2019; 3 Vitamins that are Best for Boosting Your Immunity, Cleveland Clinic, 2016