You might be hearing a lot about inflammation recently. For instance, “anti-inflammatory” diets are currently trending. Chronic inflammation is linked to many chronic diseases, so taking steps to avoid it (or at least lessen the chances) is important. What exactly is inflammation and what can you do to stop it in its tracks?
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is the process in which the body’s immune system kicks into full gear to fight off harmful things, such as injury, bacteria, viruses, toxins, or heat. When inflammation occurs, damaged tissues release chemicals such as histamine, bradykinin, and prostaglandins; they, in turn, cause blood vessels to leak fluid into tissues, causing swelling. While swelling isn’t pleasant, it’s a way that the body protects itself from further harm. White blood cells, called phagocytes, “eat” germs and dead or damaged cells through a process called phagocytosis. If you have an injury and have pus, that pus is formed from phagocytes, dead bacteria, and dead tissue.
There are two types of inflammation:
Acute: You’re probably more familiar with this type. Acute inflammation is the swelling, redness, warmth, and pain in or around your tissues and joints in response to an injury, such as a sprained ankle or a wound.
Chronic: This type of inflammation is longer-lasting and stealthier. It occurs when the immune system continues to send out inflammatory cells, prolonging the process. Healthy organs and tissues may be attacked by inflammatory cells. Many chronic diseases are linked with chronic inflammation, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, arthritis, and inflammatory bowel diseases. Alzheimer’s disease is also thought to be a result of chronic inflammation.
Type 2 diabetes is considered to be an inflammatory condition, as are the associated complications, such as heart, kidney, and periodontal (gum) disease. Researchers believe that type 2 diabetes starts as a result, in part, of obesity and extra fat in the stomach area, causing fat cells to produce chemicals that lead to inflammation. Also, the body becomes less “sensitive” to insulin with type 2 diabetes, and the resulting insulin resistance can also lead to inflammation. The end result? Blood sugars that creep up higher and higher, eventually leading to type 2 diabetes. Of course, other factors play a role in the development in type 2 diabetes, but inflammation is most certainly involved
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Signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation
It’s not always easy to tell if you have chronic inflammation. Unlike acute inflammation, you may not see or feel the effects. On the other hand, you might have symptoms, which include:
- Digestive symptoms, such as stomach pain or diarrhea
- Weight gain or loss
- Joint pain
- Skin rash
There’s no definitive way for your health care provider to diagnose chronic inflammation. But they may do blood tests for C-reactive protein (CRP), erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and/or homocysteine, which are markers of inflammation. Checking an A1C is another test — a high A1C may indicate type 2 diabetes. Depending on your symptoms, your provider may order imaging tests, such as an MRI, ultrasound, or PET CT scan.
Cooling the burn
Chronic inflammation may be treated in a number of ways. Medical treatments may include:
- NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen to relieve pain, swelling, and fever. These medicines don’t remove the cause of inflammation, however.
- Corticosteroids, such as prednisone. While effective, the long-term use can lead to other problems. Corticosteroids may be used to manage arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, and asthma.
- Topical medications, including analgesics and steroids, may be used for inflammation of the skin or joints.
- Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDS), which include Rheumatrex (methotrexate) and Azulfidine (sulfasalazine).
- Biologic drugs, such as Enbrel (etanercept) and Humira (adalimumab).
- Diabetes medications.
Lifestyle measures to help type 2 diabetes
If you have type 2 diabetes or are at risk for type 2 diabetes, medication may play a key role in helping you to manage this condition. But don’t overlook the role of lifestyle steps that you can take to either prevent type 2 diabetes in the first place or to help manage type 2 diabetes and limit the chances of complications. Steps include:
- Limiting refined carbohydrate (carb) foods, such as white bread, white pasta, white rice, sugary drinks, and foods that contain refined sugars.
- Including “anti-inflammatory” foods in your eating plan. Examples are vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils such as olive oil.
- Focusing on foods that are rich in polyphenols, types of antioxidants that can lower inflammation. Examples are berries, cherries, plums, red grapes, onions, spinach, kale, walnuts, almonds, and legumes (beans). Tea, coffee, and red wine are beverages that contain phenols (but talk with your dietitian or provider about amounts that are safe for you to drink).
- Cutting back on red meats and processed meat. These meats are high in saturated fat, which can increase inflammation.
- Cooking or preparing meals with these anti-inflammatory herbs and spices: Turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, basil, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, parsley, and peppermint.
- Taking more steps. In other words, making physical activity a regular part of your day. Physical activity helps the body to release anti-inflammatory chemicals and also helps the body use insulin more efficiently, thereby reducing insulin resistance. That means better blood sugars!
- Going easy on alcohol. Small amounts of alcohol (such as red wine) may be helpful, but overdoing it can worsen inflammation. No more than two drinks per day for men or one drink per day for women is the general recommendation. And don’t start drinking alcohol if you don’t drink already.
- Stopping smoking. Nicotine in tobacco activates certain white blood cells, called neutrophils, that release molecules that can increase inflammation, according to the November 2016 issue of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology. Plus, tobacco use is associated with other harmful effects on the body, as well.
- Reducing stress. Stress is a part of life for most of us, but you can lessen and manage it. The body responds to acute or short-term stress by enacting the fight-or-flight response; this response releases adrenaline and cortisol to speed up heart rate, breathing, and muscle contraction (so that you can run away if you need to!). Afterwards, the body returns to normal. However, constant stress causes the stress response to stay turned on and that can eventually lead to chronic inflammation. Finding ways to reduce stress can help you turn off that stress response.
- You might be wondering about taking dietary supplements to help ward off inflammation. Certain supplements, such as turmeric, garlic, ginger, lipoic acid, and omega-3 fatty acids are often mentioned or promoted. While they could be beneficial, more research is needed in order to recommend them. Always talk with your health care provider before taking any type of dietary supplement.
Want to learn about more steps for self-care? Read “Take Five for Better Health,” “The Power of Five for Health,” and “‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple: Steps for Self-Care.”