An Intro to Inflammation: the Good, the Bad, and the Preventable

"Inflammation" isn’t exactly the first word people want to hear when it comes to the state of their body, but inflammation isn’t always a bad thing. After all, inflammation is your body’s natural response to protect itself against harm, removing harmful and foreign stimuli (think bacteria and viruses) to begin the healing process. That being said, not all inflammation is created equal. Inflammation can be acute (like a scrape on your knee) or chronic (like too much stress) and there are some *major* differences between the two. 

Acute vs Chronic Inflammation 

A familiar scenario: you’re chopping up veggies for dinner and slice your finger. This triggers acute inflammation and white blood cells rush to the site of the cut to protect the body. That is why cuts, scrapes, and bruises can be red and/or swollen. Acute inflammation works similarly inside the body, for illnesses like the flu or pneumonia. Without that inflammation, these things could actually be deadly.  Acute inflammation=good!

Chronic inflammation is a slow-moving inflammation that lasts for months or even years. As you might imagine, your immune system holding down the panic button for that amount of time is very taxing to the body and can create a ripple effect of negative consequences that we often associate with the word inflammation: things like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis.

Chronic inflammation can come from a variety of sources, including continued exposure to environmental toxins and autoimmune disease. But everyday habits like lack of exercise, not eating the foods your body needs, and stress also trigger inflammation. And when factors like these trigger your immune system to go into fight mode without anything to fight and heal, immune cells can actually begin to attack healthy arteries, organs, and joints.  

No matter the source, chronic inflammation is nothing to take lightly. Chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death in the world, so much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) ranks chronic diseases as "the greatest threat to human health." That's some serious stuff. But thankfully, there are things we can do to control inflammation: that 30-minute workout, 10-minute meditation, and morning smoothie really do matter to your overall health. 

Signs and Symptoms of Chronic inflammation

The start of chronic inflammation can be tricky to detect, because the symptoms are in “starts with fatigue” vague. That’s why it’s important to see a doctor when something feels off; a blood test can give much more insight into what’s going on. According to Scripps, “The most common way to measure inflammation is to conduct a blood test for C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), which is a marker of inflammation. Doctors also measure homocysteine levels to evaluate chronic inflammation. Finally, physicians test for HbA1C — a measurement of blood sugar — to assess damage to red blood cells.”  Let's leave the diagnosing to the experts, shall we?

Over time, the damage from chronic inflammation to arteries, joints, and healthy tissues can get serious, and those major diseases like cancer, heart disease, and obesity can rear their ugly heads. That’s why it is super important to jump on this early.  Making sure you get your annual physical is a great way to start.  Because we all know the best offense is a good defense, right? 

Ways to Prevent Chronic Inflammation (That Are Totally Reasonable and Easy to Start Now) 

Your defense against chronic inflammation starts with lifestyle. Eating right, exercising, and managing stress are all great ways to manage inflammation, and all will have a positive effect on your life overall.  According to Harvard Health, diet and exercise have an especially strong impact on managing chronic inflammation, since they both also can help control weight and improve sleep. 

Controlling your blood sugar is super important in an anti-inflammatory diet. Foods and drinks with added sugars, refined carbs, and processed meats all can spike blood sugar, so it’s best to limit those foods. Cutting back or eliminating inflammatory foods (think processed foods, trans fat, hydrogenated oils, and fried foods) will help, too. 

Controlling inflammation through diet isn't only about what we're taking out.  The good news is, there are *plenty* of delicious foods you can eat to help your body fight back against (or decrease even if it's started) including fruits, veggies, fish, healthy fats, and herbs. Short version: eating an anti-inflammatory diet is a total win for your taste buds, too! If you’re looking to zero in on the best anti-inflammatory foods, the honor roll looks something like this: foods high in omega-3s like salmon, tuna, tofu, grass-fed beef, walnuts, and flax seeds; foods high in polyphenols (which help fight free radicals, a common source of chronic inflammation) like celery, garlic, olive oil, all types of berries, cherries, plums, red grapes, onions, turmeric, ginger, green tea, and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale. 

Regular exercise can help fight off diseases caused by chronic inflammation, like heart disease and obesity. A 2017 study showed that even 20 minutes of moderate-intensity daily exercise can have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. So doable, right? 

And, of course, there's stress. We might not be able to control everything that causes us stress (hello, living through a pandemic) but we can work to control how we deal with stress. Yoga, meditation, and getting enough sleep shouldn’t be put off until retirement—they all go a long way to help you manage stress. Don’t discount things like quality relationships and hobbies to help manage stress, too.  (And maybe the occasional glass of wine or bowl of ice cream, because we’re realists, too.)

Want to start kicking chronic inflammation to the curb? Here are a few real-world tips from our team:

“Most days, I have an Unbelievaberry or Tropical Zing smoothie. Yay for anti-inflammatory foods and polyphenols!”  -Colleen 

“I’ve recently discovered the app Insight Timer and it’s made starting (and maintaining) a meditation practice so much easier." -Lindsey

Even a brisk 20 minutes walk with my golden retriever Kingston to break up the WFH day does wonders for my body and my mind!” -Kerry

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