Inflammation gets a pretty bad rap — and for a laundry list of reasons. Some doctors very firmly connect it to heart disease — like Dwight Lundell, MD, whose essay, Making the Connection, has been shared on Facebook more than 432,000 times. Danish researchers found that inflammation could be to blame for depression and mood disorders, while other research has linked it to cancer. Some would even go as far as to say that inflammation is the root cause of all disease. So what is inflammation is, what causes it, and how you can prevent it? Hint: What’s at the end of your fork — and on your exercise agenda — matters.
An Inflammatory Process
Inflammation is the body’s protective response to injury or infection. When your ankle gets red and swollen after rolling it in a soccer game, that’s acute inflammation. But it’s chronic inflammation, the kind that happens within your body in an attempt to remove harmful pathogens or damaged cells, that is a cause for concern.
“Inflammation means to ignite or set afire,” says Steven Masley, MD, author of The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up. And this can manifest in the body — and the brain — in numerous ways. “If your joints are inflamed, they’re hot and painful. If your brain is inflamed, it shrinks and you could get Alzheimer’s. If your arteries are inflamed, they grow plaque and you could have a heart attack,” Masley says. While the more extreme outcomes involve countless factors, inflammation is almost always a part of the equation. But how?
Recognizing the Causes
Many lifestyle factors including the way you eat, smoking and alcohol consumption can cause inflammation, says Richard Diana, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and author of Healthy Joints for Life.
Research shows that stress can also be a major cause of inflammation, by preparing the immune cells to fight off infection, even when there isn’t an infection present. Even feeling unsupported in a relationship can cause inflammation, increasing your risk of heart disease.
According to Diana, one thing you might be surprised to learn that causes inflammation is having too much insulin in the body, which, he describes as a very inflammatory hormone. “If you eat certain types of foods, you’ll have high spikes in insulin,” he says. “If those spikes are there, you’ll have inflammation.”
What’s worse, the damage doesn’t end there. Mix insulin with sugar, and you’ve got a lethal combination. Why? When insulin interacts with your cells, they make cytokine molecules that create (you guessed it) more inflammation. By adding sugar to the mix, your body creates an “exponential amount of cytokines,” which Diana equates to dripping battery acid on your insides.
The trouble is, there are so many different pathways to inflammation, that protecting yourself isn’t easy. “If you have three doors that lead into your house and you lock two, a burglar can still get in,” says Diana. “It’s the same with inflammation.”
How to Fight It: Diet and Exercise
While this might seem overwhelming, there is a bright side to the story. Good old-fashioned diet and exercise can improve your chances of fighting inflammation, and the slew of health problems that could come with it. Here are just a few ways to maintain the balance.
Sweat more. Researchers from University College London found that even 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week can lower markers of inflammation by 12 percent. And a recent Ohio State University study found that 12 weeks of a regular yoga practice reduced inflammation by 20 percent among breast cancer survivors.
Get low. A healthy diet can also help fight inflammation, and some foods are better than others at doing so. Generally, foods low on the glycemic index will have an anti-inflammatory effect, says Diana. That’s because they eliminate those spikes in insulin that create inflammatory cells.
Choose wisely. Berries, especially cherries, and cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, are great anti-inflammatory options, says Diana. He also recommends salmon, high in omega-3 fatty acids, which the body turns into anti-inflammatory molecules. And foods high in antioxidants can be helpful by fighting free radicals that cause inflammation. Spices, like cinnamon, are also valuable because of they way they interact with a family of molecules specific to inflammation, called NF-κB, explains Diana. “NF-κB is the conductor of the inflammatory orchestra,” he says. “Cinnamon helps stop the conductor.”
The bottom line: There are many pathways that cause inflammation, but you can protect yourself. Simple lifestyle shifts, like knowing which foods have anti-inflammatory effects and making exercise a priority, can reduce the likelihood of suffering from it and its nasty effects.