Here’s everything you need to know about this silent killer.
You’ve probably heard of inflammation. You may even know some of the havoc it can cause: heart disease, high blood pressure, joint pain.
But do you really know what it is and why it’s so lethal? Or why some experts believe it’s a factor in virtually every disease and condition we face as we get older, from cancer to diabetes, arthritis to Alzheimer’s?
First, a quick explainer. There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
Acute is generally the good kind. When you stub your toe or come into contact with germs, your immune system leaps into action, summoning its first responders—white blood cells known as neutrophils—to the scene within minutes. They assess the damage and, if they spot an invader like a virus, prepare for battle.
Meanwhile, the cells themselves release inflammatory chemicals called cytokines to help fight invaders and recruit other immune cells to the injury site.
Once the neutrophils defeat the enemy, white blood cells known as macrophages arrive and clean up, allowing your body to heal and resume its normal, healthy functioning. Crisis averted.
Here’s the problem: Sometimes, the switch from killing to cleanup doesn’t happen—trapping your body in a state of chronic inflammation. “It’s usually not pathogen-driven,” explains Wajahat Mehal, Ph.D., M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Yale University. That means the invader isn’t bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic.
More likely, it’s an inert enemy: air pollution infiltrating your body, cholesterol burrowing into your arterial walls, gunk building up in your brain. Even stress hormones and self-particles—bits of our own DNA from cells that have died—can send your body into attack mode, Dr. Mehal says.
The constant immune activity wreaks havoc on your organs. Inflamed fat cells promote fat storage. Inflamed arteries develop pimple-like lesions that can burst and cause sudden death. An inflamed liver can lead to fatal cirrhosis. An inflamed brain can open you to dementia.
“Chronic inflammation is like having a sore on the inside of your body that never heals,” says Lori Shemek, Ph.D., author of How to Fight FATflammation!
Make no mistake: Chronic inflammation is bad news. But there’s good news too. You can control and even largely prevent it, says Barry Sears, M.D., an expert in anti-inflammatory nutrition and founder of the Zone Diet. “Eighty percent of your ability to control inflammation comes from your diet, 15 percent comes from moderate exercise, and 5 percent from meditation,” Dr. Sears says.
So let’s fix them, one by one.
Diet: Eat to Switch Off the Inflammatory Response
To shift from killing to repair, your body relies on a group of hormones called resolvents. “These turn off the inflammatory system completely,” Dr. Sears says. “Let’s say you cut your hand. You have heat, pain, swelling, redness, but in a couple days, your hand is healed completely. That’s the resolution phase.” Good nutrition can kick-start the process, and here’s how to start.
Increase your omega-3 intake. Omega-3 fatty acids, known as healthy fats, are the primary building block of resolvents. Unfortunately, most of us don’t consume nearly enough of them.
Try to incorporate omega-3s at every meal, suggests Shemek. That could mean fatty fish—wild salmon, sardines, and mackerel—or vegetarian sources, such as ground flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts. (Try adding a tablespoon of ground flaxseed or chia seeds to your smoothie.) At the same time, reduce your intake of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in corn and canola oils, she says.
Load up on vegetables. If half your dinner plate isn’t devoted to vegetables, it’s time to rethink your meals—with special attention to leafy greens like spinach, kale, and romaine. “They’re dense with nitrates, which help with blood flow, a key component of healthy immunity,” says Shemek.
Mind your B’s and C’s too. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower are all cruciferous vegetables, which have been linked to lower levels of inflammatory markers.
Cut back on sugar. The natural sugars found in fruits can be a solid source of quick fuel. But the kind that’s added to junk food? It’s practically inviting inflammation into your body.
“Sugar is the number-one inflammatory food, if you can even call it a food,” says Shemek. There are obvious sources of the stuff—desserts and soda—but added sugar is lurking in everything from pasta sauce to yogurt. Scan the ingredients list for any words that ends in “-ose,” which is a surefire sign of added sugar. If the sweet stuff is toward the top of the list, step away.
Exercise: Prevent Fat Cells from Igniting
You may think that extra fat just sits in our bodies—but that’s not true. It can actually cause harmful changes.
“Some of the metabolic changes that come with obesity result in inflammation,” explains Dr. Mehal. Once your fat cells become bloated and inflamed, they’re more likely to store even more fat.
“When you gain weight, a compound called arachidonic acid is created and stored within the fat cells,” Shemek explains. “The fat cells do not like arachidonic acid, so they begin to produce inflammatory molecules that slow down metabolism, promoting weight gain. It becomes a vicious cycle, because the more fat that’s packed into that fat cell, the more inflammation.”
If you’re not exercising regularly, take this simple first step: Stand up. “The best exercise is basically not sitting,” says Dr. Sears. “Get out of your chair every 15 minutes or so, and walk around for five.”
Ideally, you’ll try something a little more intense too, such as a daily walk, strength training, or a SilverSneakers class. “At moderate intensity, exercise induces just enough inflammation to cause the body to repair and grow new tissue,” Dr. Sears says.
If you’re trying to lose weight, take the slow and steady approach. Aim to lose no more than one to two pounds per week so you don’t lose too much muscle, says Dr. Mehal. It’s also smart to talk to your doctor before starting a new fitness or weight loss program.
Meditation: Tame the Fight-or-Flight Response
“Decreasing stress decreases inflammation,” Dr. Sears says. That’s because you’re calming the sympathetic nervous system, which controls your fight-or-flight response.
You don’t have to chant, adopt a mantra, or hold your hands in particular poses. Really, you just need to relax and clear the chatter from your mind.
“Set aside 20 minutes of your day to sit in a comfortable chair and think of nothing,” Dr. Sears says. If you add deep breathing, great. But if that complicates the experience for you, don’t worry about it, Dr. Sears says. The truth is, simply giving your mind a chance to rest can do wonders for your body.
Need More Help Controlling Inflammation or Pain?
If you have an inflammatory condition (like rheumatoid arthritis) or a chronic condition (like heart disease, diabetes, or asthma), talk to your doctor about how inflammation affects you and what you can do about it. Your doctor may recommend the strategies here as well as treatment.
It’s also smart to make an appointment with your doctor if you have frequent pain—or if you find yourself reaching for over-the-counter pain medication often.
“At certain doses, aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs become anti-resolution drugs,” Dr. Sears says, meaning they interfere with your body’s ability to turn off inflammation. The maximum daily dose he recommends: 20 milligrams, or a quarter of the amount in a baby aspirin. To get the right diagnosis and treatment, talk to your doctor.
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