They say that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
Running, for instance, is considered generally good for your health. Overdo it, though, without allowing your body proper rest, and you could suffer injuries that sideline you for months.
The same could be said of cherries. They’re full of healthy antioxidants and fiber, but eat too many and you could end up spending the day in the bathroom.
There’s something else that in small amounts is good for you, but in large amounts can be horrible, even deadly.
What is Inflammation?
You know what happens when you scratch or cut yourself. The skin turns red and swells up. That’s your immune system working to eradicate the bacteria and other potentially harmful microorganisms so that your body can heal. We call that swollen, red reaction “inflammation.”
A little bit of inflammation is your body’s way of repairing itself. It comes, it repairs, and it goes. There’s another, more dangerous kind, though, that many women have in their bodies right now, and most don’t even know it.
This type of inflammation increases risk of diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and more. What is this dangerous type of inflammation, and what can you do to snuff it out?
Dangerous Chronic Inflammation
Inflammation becomes dangerous when it doesn’t go away. Imagine that wound you had. Usually it turns red, swells up, and then within a few days, the swelling and redness go away and the wound is healed. What if that didn’t happen? What if the swelling and the redness continued, or even got worse?
That’s what can happen when you have “chronic inflammation,” a type of inflammation that continues on for months and even years. Plaque buildup in the arteries, for example—part of the artery narrowing that can occur in atherosclerosis—is linked to chronic inflammation.
With this type of inflammation, something is causing the immune system to continue to fight. As a result, the body’s systems engage in a continuous low-level inflammatory response that over time, can cause serious damage.
What Causes Chronic Inflammation?
In general, chronic inflammation keeps going because of the following three reasons:
- Some type of infection in the body
- Irritants or foreign bodies that the immune system sees as threats
- Overactive or malfunctioning immune system
What’s behind these three factors? In recent years, scientists have found that our modern-day lifestyle of eating too much and exercising too little can trigger chronic inflammation. There are a number of other potential causes, as well.
- Overweight or obesity: In a 2013 study, researchers found abnormal amounts of an inflammatory protein in the fat tissues of overweight humans. The lead author of the study, Dr. David Fairlie, noted that their findings linked obesity and “high-fat, high-sugar diets with changes in immune cells and inflammatory status, highlighting an emerging realization that obesity is an inflammatory disease.” Another study published that same year found that obese women were more likely to have higher levels of an inflammatory protein called “AIF-1” than women who were not overweight. In fact, fat tissue was found to secrete this protein, suggesting that fat actually stimulates inflammation.
- Sleep problems: Poor sleep encourages inflammation in the body. In 2010, for example researchers reported that people who sleep poorly or do not get enough sleep have higher levels of inflammation. Levels of C-reactive protein, for example—a common measurement of inflammation—were 25 percent higher in those who reported fewer than six hours of sleep per night.
- Disrupted gut microbiome: You may have heard that we need good bacteria in our guts to experience optimal health. Antibiotics, poor diet, and disease can all affect that delicate balance, which can lead to inflammation. A 2015 study, for instance, found that emulsifiers, which are common in many processed foods, can increase risk of inflammation in the gut, which could, in turn, increase risk of inflammatory bowel disease.
- Autoimmune diseases: These types of diseases involve overactive immune systems, and create chronic inflammation. They include rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, lupus, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, Addison’s disease, and more.
- Viral and bacterial infections: H. pylori, for example, is a bacterium in the stomach that causes stomach ulcers, which are related to inflammation. Other types of internal infections are typically accompanied by inflammation.
- Poor diet: A number of studies have suggested that an unhealthy diet—particularly one that includes a lot of added sugar—can encourage chronic inflammation.
- Stress: We know that too much stress isn’t good for us. Recent research has also indicated that it can contribute to chronic inflammation. A 2014 study, for instance, found that stressful experiences triggered a response in the immune system linked to inflammation. A later study also found that dwelling on stressful events can increase inflammation in the body.
7 Ways to Reduce Chronic Inflammation
Knowing what we now know about chronic inflammation and disease, the next question becomes: How can we reduce the inflammation inside us?
We have some exciting research on that. Turns out you can take control of this part of your health, and help reduce your risk of several major diseases by taking the following steps.
1. Lose weight: A 2008 study review found that weight loss does improve inflammation. The greatest results were seen in participants who lost 10 percent of their weight or more. A later 2012 study, however, found that women who lost even 5 percent of their body weight had a measurable reduction in inflammation.
2. Get enough vitamin D: A recent 2015 study found that participants who lost weight and took vitamin D supplements had a greater reduction in inflammation than those who lost weight alone. More specifically, those who lost 5-10 percent of their weight and took 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily experienced a 37 percent reduction in inflammatory markers. The study was conducted in overweight women who tested low for vitamin D in the first place, but considering that vitamin D deficiency is believed to be widespread, most women would be wise to get more of this vitamin.
3. Get enough sleep: As noted above, sleep loss can contribute to inflammation. If you suffer from insomnia or sleep apnea, treating it can help you sleep and improve your inflammation levels. A 2014 study, for example, found that treating insomnia led to decreases in inflammation that lasted even 16 months later. An earlier 2013 study also found that participants with sleep apnea who used a CPAP machine to treat the condition significantly reduced levels of two proteins associated with inflammation.
4. Try the Mediterranean diet: This diet, which is rich in fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and whole grains, has been found to have anti-inflammatory effects. A 2010 study reported that in 772 subjects at high risk for cardiovascular disease, this diet reduced levels of inflammatory markers better than did a low-fat diet. A second study involving over 14,000 people, confirmed these results, showing that sticking with this diet reduced inflammation.
5. Meditate: Since inflammation is connected to stress, anything you can do to reduce stress will help bring down the fire in your body. Meditation is a great stress reliever to try. A study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers found that mindfulness-based stress reduction, which included mediation and yoga, was more effective at bringing inflammation down than other relaxation techniques, like walking and music therapy.
6. Take a fish oil supplement: Omega-3 fatty acids are known to have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Several studies have shown these supplements to help reduce symptoms in inflammatory diseases like psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. Combining this supplement with weight loss may also be helpful. A 2012 study found that omega-3 supplementation lowered inflammation even in overweight adults by more than 10 percent.
7. Move more: Need another reason to exercise? It can help reduce inflammation. We have a lot of studies connecting the two. In 2007, scientists reported that the faster participants were able to return to their resting heart rate after strenuous exercise (a measure of fitness), the lower their inflammatory markers were. A 2012 study also reported that regular exercise targets chronic low-grade inflammation.
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