Inflammation – When Healing Turns Harmful

Ongoing research gives a deeper understanding into why lifestyle choices matter

By Dr Mark Janowski, Internal Medicine Specialist

Our body’s ability to heal itself through inflammation is truly amazing. If you stub your toe, get an infection or catch a cold, your immune system springs into action, sending specialized white blood cells to wage battle at the scene of attack. These cells can stop illness or infection spreading, repair damage and sometimes obliterate the intruder. The white-cell-filled blood that accumulates at the site of infection or injury can accumulate, producing swelling, heat or redness typical of inflammation.

Sometimes, however, inflammation harms rather than heals your body, and this is strongly linked to poor lifestyle choices. If inflammation sticks around longer than it should, it can cause serious health problems.  Studies indicate that inflammation, promoted in part by such factors as obesity, smoking and a sedentary lifestyle, contributes to a broad range of diseases. Among others, it is linked to gout, psoriasis, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease and altering blood flow in the brain, leading to tissue damage that can result in disability and sometimes loss of cognitive abilities. The latest studies indicate that it may even be linked to depression.

While there are some medications that can help control inflammation, research gives fascinating insights into why unhealthy lifestyle choices are linked to chronic diseases, and a lot of it is due to increasing inflammation. Below are some widely recommended health principles, and an explanation of how these are beneficial in controlling inflammation.

Dont smoke: As if you needed one, here is another reason to quit. Smoking exacerbates chronic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Studies have shown that CRP levels – a reflection of chronic inflammation – is higher in smokers, and these levels decline when a person quits.

Eat healthily: Polyphenols, found in plants, have multiple anti-inflammatory properties. Foods high in these organic chemicals include dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, as well as red grapes, onions, turmeric, green tea, cherries and plums. Nuts and seeds are also inflammatory, but can be high in calories, so should be consumed in appropriate amounts. The same goes for oils such as flaxseed and olive oil, and oily fish such as salmon and sardines, which are abundant in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. At the same time, there are foods that encourage inflammation and should be avoided, for example, those high in sugar, processed foods, meat and dairy, especially cheese.

Watch your weight: Fat tissue actively produces hormones and inflammatory chemicals, so being overweight in itself contributes to inflammation.

Exercise regularly: This is one of your main tools to control inflammation. In addition to being useful in managing weight, research has shown exercise lowers the amount of inflammation-promoting macrophages in fat tissue. In addition, it is believed to prompt muscles to release anti-inflammatory proteins and stimulate brain chemicals that block cytokines – chemical messengers that are key to the development of inflammation.

Get enough sleep: Studies show that sleep-deprived people have higher blood levels of stress hormones that promote inflammation. In addition, there appears to be an association between lack of sleep and obesity, which itself is linked with inflammation.

See your doctor and dentist regularly: Of course, it is important to have regular check-ups to detect inflammation-related diseases early, but did you know that regular dental visits and good oral hygiene play a role too? People with gum disease are more likely to have heart disease, and some researchers believe this is because the inflammation and bacteria spread via your blood to provoke inflammation of arteries around the heart. In addition, gum disease has been linked to other inflammatory conditions such as osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes.

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