If you think of inflammation as a painful part of old age and arthritis—something to worry about many, many years from now—listen up. Prolonged, or chronic, inflammation is a newly recognized factor in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even cancer. In fact, there is a growing understanding of how keeping chronic inflammation at bay plays an important role in your health, no matter what your age. The questions is, is your inflammation in check?
Acute and Chronic Inflammation: What's the Difference?
Inflammation is the process in which the body's white blood cells protect us from injury, infection, and irritation. White blood cells are constantly patrolling and searching for anything harmful, dangerous, or unknown, and when they detect something—say a bacteria, virus, or an injury—they immediately rush to the site of the attack to help start the healing. This protective process causes pain and swelling when you bump your head or hurt your knee, redness and itching when you get a bug bite, and sneezing and aching when you suffer from the flu. This type of inflammation, called acute inflammation, is a short-term, necessary process that allows the body to heal itself, and then winds down once the original stimuli has been removed, broken down, or sealed by scarring. Without it, your body would not be able to heal itself. In this case, inflammation is a good thing.
But acute inflammation's longer-lasting cousin, chronic inflammation, can cause serious problems. The trouble begins when the inflammatory process becomes chronic; staying around long after it's needed, and increasing our risk of disease. The immune system works overtime trying to remove the inflammation and therefore cannot help you with other problems that our body might be having. Chronic inflammation is characterized by concurrent active inflammation, continual recruitment of immune cells to the inflamed area, and cyclical tissue destruction and attempts at repair.
Studies indicate that people with chronic inflammation (elevated C-reactive protein—the blood measure of inflammation) have a greater risk of heart disease and stroke from damage to their blood vessels. And chronic inflammation also has a cancer connection. Inflammation can damage genes, leading to increased cell turnover (which provides more opportunities for a change in DNA), and may increase development of blood vessels that make it easier for cancer cells to grow and spread. Gulp. And while researchers are still trying to verify whether diabetes increases inflammation, or whether inflammation leads to diabetes, one thing is very clear—chronic inflammation is really, really bad for you.
The Good News: You Can Help Prevent It
Obviously, taking steps to prevent unnecessary injuries and illnesses that lead to acute inflammation is a no-brainer. But what many people don't know is that lifestyle and nutrition choices can dramatically reduce your risk of chronic inflammation. Focusing on inflammation prevention will not only help reduce your risk of disease, but will also help you develop healthy habits to last a lifetime. Get started with these important health changes:
- Shed those extra pounds: Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best ways to stave off chronic inflammation. Why? Well, basically, extra fat in the body fuels an inflammation response in people, so too much of you can lead to too much inflammation.
- Eat like a Mediterranean: A diet loaded with antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits, and fiber-rich whole grains and beans, has been shown to reduce and prevent inflammation. In fact, study after study link the type of Mediterranean-style diet with lower levels of chronic inflammation.
- Get more Omega 3's: Found in higher-fat fish like salmon, as well as canola oil, walnuts and flaxseeds, a healthy balance of omega-3s with other fats reduces production of hormone-like substances that encourage inflammation.
- Get moving: Studies show lower levels of inflammation in those who exercise regularly. Exercising is also an excellent way to help maintain a healthy weight, another important inflammation-reducing strategy.
- Get tested for food and other allergies: Some food allergies have been shown to lead to chronic inflammation of the digestive system. If you suspect you may be allergic to some foods, get tested so that your doctor can help you modify your diet accordingly.
- Quit smoking: Smoking has been shown to contribute to chronic inflammation in organs of the body like the pancreas, which can lead to cancer. Yet another reason (did you really need one?) to throw away your last pack.
- See a dentist: The mouth's gums are one of the most likely tissues to become chronically inflamed. Keeping your teeth and gums healthy will help prevent chronic oral inflammation.
Supplements like glucosamine, sulfur, and chondroitin have been shown to reduce inflammation, but keep in mind they only alleviate inflammation symptoms, and don't address the underlying causes of the chronic inflammation, as do the lifestyle changes. That said, relieving inflammation is important to your overall health and happiness, and using these supplements can do just that. Just be sure to consult your doctor before you take any supplements, as these over-the-counter substances are not as regulated as drugs and can cause problems if not taken with care or if taken in conjunction with other drugs.
About H.K. Jones: H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.