Do you remember the last time you stubbed your toe, or were gifted a nasty bite by a mosquito? You probably noticed that the injured area became red, swollen and maybe even warm to the touch. What you were experiencing, aside from the pain of the injury, was one of your body’s strongest defense mechanisms, otherwise known as inflammation.
Inflammation has been on the receiving end of some bad press lately. Inflammation is thought to be at the root of many chronic illnesses and many more people are experiencing its effects than ever before. Despite that, it is important to know that inflammation itself isn’t the bad guy. In fact, natural inflammatory reactions like the ones mentioned above are actually necessary.
Inflammation is a set of protective reactions involving blood vessels, white blood cells, fluids and proteins. These components work together to form a defense that is powerful enough to keep bacteria and other pathogens from invading and destroying your body. Inflammation also increases blood flow to an injured area which helps to speed along the healing process. As odd as it sounds, if your twisted ankle wasn’t inflamed it would actually take a much longer time to heal.
While inflammation serves a valuable purpose, long-lasting or chronic inflammation can lead to serious, sometimes devastating, health problems. Chronic inflammation is defined as inflammation that is persistent, sometimes lasting weeks, months or even years. When chronic inflammation is present, the inflamed tissues are unable to repair and recover from the inflammatory agent. This continual state of inflammation results in a progression of changes to the cells of the inflamed area, resulting in the mutation or destruction of normally healthy cells.
If you know you are suffering from inflammation, it can be easy enough to address and treat. For example, you can elevate and ice a swollen ankle. If you have an infection from a wound, you can take antibiotics or treat it topically. The real danger comes from the inflammation that you cannot see or even feel. Sometimes, somewhere within your body, inflammation can start off as a mild disturbance, but then never subside. This type of quiet inflammation is thought to be the underlying cause for many serious health conditions, including:
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Autoimmune Disorders such as lupus and Crohn’s disease
- Inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis
- Premature aging
- Chronic sinusitis
- Periodontal disease
- Depression and anxiety
The good news is that chronic inflammation, even when you don’t know that it is there, is not only treatable, but preventable as well. The first step is to recognize the sources of chronic inflammation. These are the triggers that can start the initial inflammatory reaction. With this knowledge, you can accurately assess your risks and from there start making changes and becoming proactive in the fight to protect your health.
Trigger #1: Chronic Stress
Just like inflammation, stress is a natural, necessary response to potentially harmful or dangerous stimuli. Stress can also be a reaction to the good things in life, like starting a great new job or welcoming a new baby into your life. The excitement that you feel and the butterflies in your stomach are a type of stress reaction.
Also, just like inflammation, the problem with stress occurs when it becomes chronic. Chronic stress is a condition that is experienced when there is continual exposure to stressful triggers which result in the release of stress induced hormones, such as cortisol. Excess cortisol in the body has been connected to weight gain, heart disease and diabetes.
Do you notice a similarity between cortisol and inflammation? They both appear to be precursors to the many of the same diseases. There is a delicate balance between cortisol and inflammation. Cortisol actually works to reduce inflammation. However, when there is an excess of cortisol in your body, such as the case with chronic stress, the hormone begins to weaken your immune system.
A weakened immune system combine with cortisol overload actually increases inflammation the level of inflammation in your body. This is the reason why when you are stressed, you are more likely to become sick and have a more difficult time recovering.
Trigger #2: Excess Weight
If you have been looking for one more bit of motivation to drop a few pounds, this might be it. Carrying around excess weight, even ten to twenty pounds, can cause a continual inflammatory response.
Fat cells, just like all the other cells in your body, send out signals when they are feeling distressed or sense an attack. To put it simply, as fat cells accumulate they also expand. This puts additional stress and pressure on each of the cells causing them to send out danger signals.
Given enough time, the distress signals put out by the fat cells will cause chronic inflammation, which will eventually cause healthy cells to become resistant to insulin, otherwise known as the condition called diabetes.
Trigger #3 An Unhealthy Gut
Do you know that approximately seventy percent of your immune cells find their home in your gut, primarily your small intestines? Within your digestive system resides a colony of bacteria and other microbes. Their numbers are massive and they serve the important purpose of keeping not only your gut healthy, but your entire body. This is serious work for such little guys.
When the balance of microbes is just right, they provide balance and harmony. When the balance is off, we are more susceptible to disease and inflammation. The overgrowth of bad bacteria, or the lack of good bacteria to fight it off, sends signals to the immune system which responds by triggering an inflammatory response.
The problem is that while inflammation works to fight off bad gut bacteria, it is also causing imbalances in the flora. What results is a vicious cycle of inflammation trying to protect the gut, while also causing further harm which in turn causes more inflammation. If you think that this sounds vaguely like the “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” dilemma, you are correct.
Trigger #4 Bad Habits
We could break apart the habits one by one, but it really isn’t necessary. You already know that bad lifestyle habits such as smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol and poor dietary habits are terrible for your health. Each of these habits can cause changes in your cells that lead to chronic inflammatory reactions, just in slightly different ways.
Smoking might lead to lung cancer, which is caused by mutated cells which were chronically inflamed. Liver disease is a result of a similar mechanism. The best way to eliminate inflammation from your body is take an honest look at which of your habits are having negative consequences on your health. If your bad habit is not getting enough sleep or holding in your emotions, you are not off the hook. These types of behaviors can also lead to detrimental inflammatory reactions.
Take Action Against Inflammation
Knowing what causes inflammation is only half of the battle. You also need to know how to fight it.
There are pharmaceutical means of calming inflammation such as NSAIDs or steroids. These might be helpful to you depending on the cause of your inflammation and how it presents itself. While pharmaceuticals have a valuable role in the treatment of some inflammation, it is also valuable to know that there are also natural ways of addressing the problem.
The everyday toxins that we encounter from the air we breathe, the products we use on our bodies and around our homes, the medications that we take and the foods we eat also contribute to chronic inflammation. If you can reduce your exposer to these elements, you can reduce the amount of systemic inflammation in your body. Here are some of the most effective ways of addressing inflammation naturally.
- Eat a diet that is rich in anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense foods. Along with this, reduce the amount of processed sugar, saturated fat and sodium that you allow onto your plate. Here is a quick list of some of the top anti-inflammatory foods to include in your diet.
Dark leafy greens including, collard greens, turnip greens, spinach, kale and swiss chard.
Fish rich in omega 3 fatty acids such as tuna, mackerel, and salmon
Plenty of antioxidant and fiber-rich vegetables such as broccoli, beets, bok choy and cabbage.
Berries of all kinds, including blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, acai berries and cherries
Nuts, particularly walnuts and almonds
Anti-inflammatory spices, which are typically the warming spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cayenne and garlic.
Pantry staples such as olive oil, chia seeds, flax seeds and don’t forget the dark chocolate.
- Keep your body moving. Regular exercise works to combat inflammation by reducing stress and helping you maintain or achieve a healthy weight. Exercising three to five times a week is optimal for reducing inflammation. Remember that overexerting yourself or trying a level of activity that your body isn’t quite ready can put you at risk of injury and even more inflammation.
- Look at ways to reduce the amount of stress that you have in your life. Are there any changes that you can make that will remove stress triggers? Is it time to look for a new job, really evaluate a stalled relationship, reduce clutter in your home, etc.? Making these changes can be very difficult, but your health is worth it, I promise.
- Take a quality probiotic on a regular basis and enjoy probiotic foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha and kimchi.
- Try to avoid unnecessary toxins in your life. This means looking at the products that you use on your body and in your home. Whenever possible, choose companies that offer natural, toxin-free ingredients or even try making a few products yourself. An all-purpose household cleanser can be made from water, vinegar, lemon juice and your favorite essential oil. A handful of Epsom salt and your favorite herbs or essential oils can replace your chemically scented bubble bath. A luxurious mixture of sugar and almond oil make for a wonderful body scrub. These are just a few examples of some of the small changes that can make a big difference.
Fighting chronic inflammation is not about one big act, but rather a series of smaller ones. It is the little moments, the little choices that we make that can often influence our health. Chronic inflammation is serious, and when given the chance it can take over your life. You have the power to control inflammation and prevent that from happening. Living a life that highlights what is natural, that is intuitively healthy and that fills your soul with happiness is the best thing you can do to enjoy being free of inflammation every day.