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This Is Why Inflammation Is Putting You at Risk for Health Issues

Here's how to get it in check so you can feel your best.

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What do a Thai curry dish, a meditation class, and a good night's rest have in common? The answer: They all may help combat inflammation. 

"Inflammation" isn't just a trendy buzzword; it's a physiological process that has significant implications for your health. "More and more of the diseases we're seeing nowadays, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and autoimmune diseases, are associated with chronic inflammation," says Dr. Anita Sadaty, an OB/GYN at Northwell Health and functional medicine specialist. 

So what is inflammation, anyway? In short, it's your body's response to an injury or illness, and it's not all bad. When you hurt yourself—perhaps you stub your toe—the inflammation process kicks in: Blood flow to the area increases, bringing with it nutrients and white blood cells (leukocytes). Yes, it hurts, but that pain, redness, warmth, and swelling also indicate that your body's immune system is working. Soon enough, the area heals, and the inflammation dies down.

When inflammation is chronic, however, trouble ensues. In people with autoimmune diseases, for instance, the immune system perceives a threat when there isn't one, so it mistakenly attacks—and keeps attacking—cells in one or more areas of the body. Chronic inflammation can also occur as a result of continuing to eat something you're intolerant to, ignoring tissue damage that's not improving on its own (like bleeding gums or a wound that's not healing), or simply because your immune system gets stuck in the "on" position and doesn't calm down as it should after fighting off a foreign invader, like a virus. 

You can have persistent inflammation in any part of your body, and sometimes it stays put and continues harming that one area. But inflammation can also move around. In some cases, the inflammation itself spreads; in others, the issue that caused inflammation to begin with, such as bacteria or toxins, get into the bloodstream. If you have gum disease, for instance, the bacteria from your mouth can get into your bloodstream and potentially damage your blood vessels. (That may explain why research has found that gum disease is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.)

Signs of chronic inflammation

Though you can easily see and feel bleeding gums, you may have to look for some clues to detect inflammation that's occurring deeper inside your body. Chronic illness is a definite red flag: If you have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, an autoimmune condition, or cancer, you almost certainly have higher than normal levels of inflammation throughout your body, says Dr. Sadaty. Same goes if you're obese (meaning your body mass index is 30 or higher). 

Not in one of those categories? You're not in the clear yet. If your blood sugar is elevated, even if you don't meet the criteria for full-blown diabetes, it's damaging your cells and blood vessels and causing inflammation. If you're eating a food you're intolerant to, that's creating inflammation in your gut that can spread to other body parts, including your respiratory tract. And if you're carrying a spare tire around your waist, even if you're not medically obese, those fat cells are releasing pro-inflammatory substances (cytokines) that can create inflammation anywhere in the body, Dr. Sadaty says. "That's how you get something like fatty liver disease, which is a growing problem," she explains. 

Other indicators that you have too much inflammation include frequent digestive distress (like bloating, gas, or heartburn); eczema, psoriasis, or acne; seasonal allergies; chronic joint, neck, or back pain; and migraines or recurrent tension headaches. People with mood disorders such as depression or anxiety may have an inflammation issue, too. "They may be related to inflammation in the brain," says Dr. Sadaty. 

Of course, inflammation alone doesn't necessarily explain why you have a particular ailment. Genetics, infections, and a slew of other factors also play a role, and no one is suggesting that you wouldn't have cancer or depression if only you weren't so inflamed. But if you feel lousy, physically or mentally, taking steps to get chronic inflammation in check (often in addition to taking medication or making other changes your doctor has suggested) should help you feel better and get healthier. 

Your anti-inflammatory action plan

To assess your health and figure out whether you have unchecked inflammation, Dr. Sadaty recommends asking your doctor to check your fasting blood sugar, fasting insulin level, A1c (a measure of your average blood sugar over the past three months), and liver function. She also recommends checking levels of an inflammation marker called C-reactive protein (CRP) with a "high-sensitivity" CRP test; testing for the presence of anti-nucleic acid (ANA) antibodies (when cells get destroyed, they release nucleic acid into the blood and your immune system attacks it); and doing a ferritin test (ferritin, an iron storage protein, also leaks out when cells are damaged).

But even without these tests, you can still take steps to decrease inflammation in your body. Dr. Sadaty suggests focusing on anti-inflammatory lifestyle changes. The key moves: Eat an anti-inflammatory diet, get adequate sleep, manage your stress, and get enough exercise.

Anti-inflammatory foods include fruits and vegetables, fatty fish, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and olive oil. Many spices, including turmeric (a key ingredient in curry dishes), also have potent anti-inflammatory powers. Stay away from processed foods, sugar, produce that's high in pesticides (organic foods are preferable), and canola and safflower oil. If you're currently overweight, eating a healthier diet and scaling back on calories should help you shed some pounds, which will also decrease inflammation.

Also important: If a particular food makes you feel bloated or causes you to break out in a rash, stop eating it. When you consume something that doesn't agree with you (even if you're not technically allergic), it will cause inflammation. 

Sleep is crucial because your immune system calms down and cells regenerate while you're snoozing. "Studies have shown that people with insomnia secrete more inflammatory cytokines at a higher rate," says Dr. Sadaty. Most adults need about eight hours. If you're falling short, try heading to bed 15 minutes earlier each night, cut off caffeine in the early afternoon, and stop screen time at least an hour before your desired sleep time. 

Stress management is also really important because when you're freaking out, your body secretes a hormone called cortisol. That's helpful in the short term when you're facing an immediate crisis and need to kick into "fight or flight" mode. But when cortisol levels remain elevated for too long, you end up with—you guessed it—inflammation, as well as a host of other symptoms. 

When it comes to exercise, most health experts suggest aiming for 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Whether you walk, jog, swim, or dance, regular movement helps you keep your blood sugar down and maintain a healthy weight. While most Americans fail to get enough exercise, Dr. Sadaty also warns against going to extremes. If you're constantly pushing yourself to your physical max and not building in adequate rest time, it will stress your body and contribute to inflammation.

For bonus points, talk to your doctor about adding inflammation-fighting supplements to your regimen. Dr. Sadaty's top picks are curcumin (an antioxidant-rich extract from the turmeric plant), fish oil, vitamin D, and probiotics (to reduce inflammation in the gut). "I think those four are no-brainers for almost everyone," she says.

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Published September 10th, 2019
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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