Chronic inflammation can lead to painful and life-threatening health issues, but most of us aren’t aware of inflammation until it’s already taken a heavy toll on our health. Although chronic inflammation can lead to heart attacks, strokes, cancer and numerous other health conditions, research shows that it can take years before inflammation leads to lasting health consequences. This means you have time to fight back against the damage of inflammation.
Anti-inflammatory medications and supplements can help you regain control, but the most proactive way to fight inflammation is to identify what’s causing your immune system to overreact – and then use that knowledge to stop inflammation at its source. For those suffering from arthritis, periodontitis or another inflammatory disease, the source of inflammation may appear obvious. However, all of us – whether we’re aware of it or not – struggle with hidden inflammatory triggers every day.
Whether by avoiding these triggers or counterbalancing them with anti-inflammatory foods and exercise, you can help control chronic inflammation. Here are some of the most common hidden sources of inflammation that could be hazardous to your health, and steps you can take to stop them:
Most of us live stressful lives, but unfortunately emotional stress can spike your inflammation levels. Short bursts of stress significantly raise the amount of inflammatory molecules circulating through your bloodstream. And even worse, periods of extreme stress could affect your immune system for years: People who experience traumatic events continue to have elevated levels of inflammation when tested five years later. It’s been calculated that inflammation from chronic emotional stress accounts for 40% of heart disease in patients without other predisposing factors.
Counteracting stress: Try decreasing stress with relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga. If stress is overwhelming, don’t hesitate to seek external support through psychotherapy or medication. Many people also report benefits from cannabidiol (CBD) and other supplements to counteract stress and anxiety.
This may come as a surprise, but research finds that air pollution is rapidly becoming a major source of inflammation in our lives. Small particles (PM) from forest fires and general air pollution raise our bodies’ production of inflammatory molecules and free radicals, which raises our chances for heart disease, stroke and other health conditions. In addition to smoke and smog, other air-borne molecules like mold and pollen could also aggravate your immune system.
Counteracting air pollution: Unfortunately, it’s not easy to move out of a polluted city – and it’s nearly impossible to fast-forward through seasonal allergies. However, you can track your local air quality and avoid outdoor exertion on the worst days. A high-quality HEPA air filter in the bedroom could also give your system a break while you sleep.
Regular exposure to harmful chemicals like pesticide residue on food can lead to chronic inflammation. Imidacloprid is a particularly heinous pesticide that increases inflammation when tested in rats. And when farmers who work with pesticides are studied, scientists find they have elevated markers of oxidative stress and inflammation in their bloodstreams.
Avoiding pesticides: Organic foods are expensive and aren’t as pesticide-free as one would hope, but they generally have lower levels of toxic chemicals when tested. Alternatively, you might learn which types of foods are grown with the least chemicals and use that to make decisions at the grocery store.
Even if you’ve never been diagnosed with a food allergy, what you eat influences your body’s inflammation. For instance, trans fats are particularly inflammatory for everyone, which has contributed to their widespread falling out of favor. Red meats are also reported to raise levels of inflammation while whole grains reduce it. However, we all possess unique digestive tracts, which means your list of inflammatory foods will be different than my list.
Avoiding inflammatory foods: There are several popular diets aimed at minimizing inflammation (ie Mediterranean), but be careful when switching to a new diet. Before clearing out your refrigerator, ask yourself how well this diet’s advice matches what you’ve already learned about your body. If possible, keep a food journal to track your signs of inflammation in response to different meals.
** Not sure what signs to look for? Each of our bodies is unique, which means you will have a unique set of personal warning signs. For example, you might experience stomach discomfort after eating bell peppers, aching joints from gluten, fatigue after eating dairy or an itchy patch of skin from chocolate. Figure out how and where inflammation manifests in your body and use this as your compass.
Sugar isn’t included above as an inflammatory food because, in my opinion, it doesn’t really qualify as a food. This popular additive is in just about everything, which is a shame because of the strong links between sugar and inflammation, obesity and diabetes (to name just a few of its potential downsides). Research finds that fructose spikes inflammation the most, fueling the argument against high-fructose corn syrup. However, even in healthy young men, a daily dose of any sugar – fructose, glucose or sucrose – equivalent to that found in a serving of soda can significantly increase markers of inflammation within a few weeks.
Reducing sugar: This one’s self-explanatory. Although nearly impossible to avoid, if you pay attention to ingredient labels and nutrition facts, you can drastically reduce your sugar intake. If you already suffer from a health issue that’s connected to chronic inflammation, reducing your sugar could be particularly beneficial.
Excess body fat
Body fat is great for keeping our bodies insulated and storing calories to help us survive times when food is less abundant. Unfortunately, excessive body fat also increases our levels of inflammation. Fat cells, similar to our immune cells, produce inflammatory compounds – which means that many obese people also suffer from chronic inflammation. This inflammation contributes to obesity-related disorders like heart disease and diabetes.
Counteracting excess body fat: If you are technically obese or overweight but losing weight is not a realistic option, you could try counterbalancing chronic inflammation with an inflammation-reducing lifestyle – like avoiding inflammatory foods and starting a low-impact exercise routine. Even if this sounds like the same advice you might hear for losing weight, try to forget about the scale and instead re-frame your end goal as combating inflammation.
Most bacteria aren’t harmful, but the immune system is designed to single out the bad ones and destroy them, saving you from infections. Unfortunately, some undesirable bacteria can evade your immune system, which contributes to chronic inflammation. Plaque on your teeth, an H. pylori infection, or even the wrong balance of gut microbes could all burden your immune system with a constant source of aggravation. This type of inflammation can lead to health issues like periodontal bone loss and H. pylori-related stomach cancer.
Removing harmful bacteria: Listen to your dentist: Brush and floss daily. Discuss any infections or digestive issues with a medical professional. Prebiotic and probiotic foods could also help digestive inflammation by shifting your gut microbes: Whereas some gut bacteria produce inflammatory compounds, others produce anti-inflammatory molecules.
Inflammation isn’t just about our habits – our genetics and age also directly influence our bodies’ production of inflammatory compounds. Some lucky people inherit DNA that tells their bodies to naturally produce less inflammatory molecules – and these fortunate people live statistically longer lives. On the other hand, the hormonal shift of menopause unfortunately raises women’s background levels of inflammation.
Counterbalancing biology: We can’t change our biology, but we can be aware of our bodies’ limitations and be proactive about counterbalancing them. If heart disease runs in your family or you’ve reached your golden years, prioritizing an anti-inflammatory lifestyle might be especially important.
Natural ways to control chronic inflammation
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Photo: (c) Flickr/Santiago Nicolau