Healthy Aging

Understanding Inflammation

When too much of a good thing becomes harmful

If you’ve ever scraped your knee, you’ve seen the healing power of inflammation at work. The body reacts to injury and invasion by sending a flood of white blood cells to the area to repair the damage, stop the spread of infection, and battle any foreign bacteria or viruses as needed. This rapid influx of immune cells is characterized by heat, redness, swelling, pain, and sometimes secretions (like pus).[1],[2] Inflammation makes the sprained ankle swollen and painful to walk on, turns the skin around a splinter red, and creates heat around an infected wound. These unpleasant symptoms are signs of a rather miraculous ragtime of immune function that serves to keep us healthy and safe – when it happens appropriately, that is.

As with many things in life, the key with inflammation is moderation: too little inflammation allows infections and illnesses to run amok, whereas too much harms the body – both in the acute setting (like a severe infection) or on a chronic basis (as seen with low grade infections and certain dietary and lifestyle habits).[3]

Whether it’s the joint inflammation seen in rheumatoid arthritis, the swollen eyes of hay fever, or the damage to the tissues of the digestive tract seen in inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s, excess inflammation can wreak havoc on and within the body. Indeed, chronic or aberrant inflammation can cause, complicate, and perpetuate numerous health problems and even contribute to the cellular changes and damage associated with increased cancer risk.[4],[5] Excessive inflammation causes oxidative stress, which can produce further damage and contribute to serious illness.

We now also know the effects inflammation can have on the brain, increasing the risk and intensity of conditions like depression,[6],[7] ADHD,[8] and even Alzheimer’s disease.[9],[10]

We now also know the effects inflammation can have on the brain, increasing the risk and intensity of conditions like depression, ADHD, and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Inflammation also can raise cholesterol levels,[11] increase blood pressure,[12] increase the risk of blood clots,[13] and contribute to stiffening of the arteries (a process associated with atherosclerosis)[14] – with each of these factors leading to compromised cardiovascular health.[15]

Without undermining the important functions of acute inflammation, we can minimize the health risks of chronic inflammation through some simple yet powerful strategies:

Get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep is crucial for controlling inflammation levels. Even short-term sleep deprivation has been shown to elevate markers of inflammation[16],[17] – and not just during the days of reduced sleep, but for two days thereafter.[18] Getting enough rest is a simple way to fight inflammation.

Manage stress

According to several studies, the body loses its ability to regulate inflammation when under chronic psychological stress.[19],[20],[21] In addition to practices like yoga[22] and meditation[23] – both of which have been shown to help decrease the acute effects of stress and lower inflammation levels in the body – a bounty of herbs known as adaptogens can also help mitigate the perceived and actual effects of psychological stress.

According to several studies, the body loses its ability to regulate inflammation when under chronic psychological stress.

Reduce excess body fat

It’s well evidenced that obesity, inflammation, and illness all go hand-in-hand. Fat cells produce inflammatory chemicals – the more fat one carries on their body, the more inflamed they’re likely to be,[24] thus placing overweight and obese individuals at higher risk of several health problems and diseases.[25]

Kick the dirty habits

Alcohol,[26] smoking,[27] and sedentary lifestyles[28] are all associated with high inflammation, and there is no shortage of evidence demonstrating that restricting alcohol intake, smoking cessation, and exercise can all support health.

Boost gut health

The composition of bacteria, viruses, and fungi populating the human digestive tract – collectively known as the microbiome – has remarkable influence on inflammatory levels and health in general.[29] The microbiome is negatively affected by the use of antibiotics, reflux medications,[30] and certain other prescription medications.[31],[32] Microbial balance is also compromised by diets high in fat, sugar, and alcohol.[33] Good gut health and a salubrious microbial mix can be enhanced with diets rich in fruits, vegetables, and fiber,[34],[35] probiotic supplements,[36] immunobiotic products,[37] strategies that enhance stomach acid levels,[38] and other approaches to improving gastrointestinal integrity.[39] 

Use anti-inflammatory herbs

A variety of allies from the plant family have been shown to possess compelling anti-inflammatory effects in the body when taken at therapeutic doses. Perhaps the best-known and studied herbal anti-inflammatory agent is curcumin, which is extracted from turmeric (Curcuma longa).[40],[41] Other noteworthy herbs include green tea extract;[42] Indian frankincense gum (Boswellia serrata);[43] bromelain, a proteolytic enzyme extracted from pineapple;[44] ginger root (Zingiber officinale),[45],[46] white willow (Salix alba) bark;[47] and chlorella.[48]

Avoid diets that trigger inflammation

Avoiding diets high in fat, sugar, gluten, and alcohol can help reduce inflammation,[49] as can eating an abundance of anti-inflammatory foods like fish (and fish oil supplements),[50],[51] dark leafy green vegetables, and various species of mushrooms.[52] The Paleolithic and Mediterranean diets, both of which emphasize a high consumption of fruits, vegetables, and lean meats with little added sugar, also have been shown to lower blood levels of various inflammatory markers.[53]

If we think of inflammation as a home fire, then through diet, lifestyle, and carefully-sourced natural products we can keep that fire flickering happily in its hearth, and prevent it from spreading throughout the house.

 

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