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Chances are, you’ve heard of inflammation but might not fully understand just what it is or the extent of how it can affect your body and overall health. Quite often, the term gets a bad rap and is thought of as something bad. While inflammation can certainly be negative — causing pain, discomfort and a general feeling of unwell — it also serves an important purpose.
Inflammation plays an important role in our immune system, our body’s defense system against anything that may be potentially harmful to our body, which we call pathogens, explains Deeba Minhas, M.D., rheumatologist at University of Michigan Health and clinical assistant professor of rheumatology at University of Michigan Medical School.
“The soldiers of our immune system (our white blood cells) are constantly patrolling our body in search of pathogens to engulf and release their signaling chemicals that tell other white blood cells to come and help fight the pathogen,” she explains. “This process is termed the ‘inflammatory response,’ and the four main characteristics of inflammation are redness caused by the vessels dilating, swelling from the fluid going to the affected tissues, pain from chemicals, and heat from the increased blood flow.”
In short, inflammation is totally normal and an important natural process by which the immune system recognizes and removes pathogens.
An example of this is what occurs when we have a splinter. If you have a tiny piece of wood buried in your skin, you want your white blood cells to engulf these pathogens introduced by the splinter and get blood flow and other white blood cells to the area to fight off any potential infection.
“Once the infection is satisfactorily cleared, the inflammatory response will ramp down, the blood vessels will start to constrict, and the white blood cells will return to where they were previously patrolling,” Minhas says. “The healing process will occur, bringing the body back to its baseline, and, if adequately treated, the acute inflammation should go away within a few days.”
The trouble with inflammation, however, is that at chronic high levels, it can be problematic. This is especially the case when our immune system reacts inappropriately or excessively to something.
“We often associate this type of inflammation when talking about people who suffer from autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus,” explains Brian LaMoreaux, M.D., rheumatologist and medical director of medical affairs at Horizon Therapeutics. “In these diseases, the immune system inappropriately targets the person’s own body, leading to disease symptoms such as fevers, malaise, joint pains, rashes and many others.”
This is precisely why lowering inflammation is so important.
If you’re experiencing chronic pain and fatigue, it’s quite possible that you have high levels of inflammation in your body. Here are some tips for lowering inflammation.
Minhas suggests that focusing on getting plenty of fruits and vegetables, water, whole grains and fatty fish like salmon is helpful in decreasing inflammation. On the flip side, it’s wise to avoid eating simple sugars, refined carbohydrates, high-glycemic foods, trans fats and hydrogenated oils because these can increase inflammation.
Medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, may serve a purpose, but relying on them unnecessarily or for long periods can lead to inflammation. Prolonged use can harm the gut microbiome and cause inflammation in the intestinal walls known as “leaky gut,” warns Minhas, which, in turn, can release toxins and trigger chronic inflammation. She recommends only using antibiotics and over-the-counter pain relievers when prescribed or recommended by your health-care provider.
“Daily movement to maintain a normal bodyweight is important because the fat cells on the body release inflammation,” Minhas says. In fact, one study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity has shown that just 20-minute sessions of walking or other moderate exercise were enough to stimulate cells that regulate inflammation. “It is free and accessible, and if you don’t live in an area where you can regularly go for walks outside, there are several YouTube videos for walking in place, which you can do indoors in a small area,” she adds.
It’s a good idea to aim for the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, per the National Sleep Foundation. In fact, doing so can help maintain inflammation levels. “The circadian rhythm regulates our immune system, so to keep these in sync, it is important to maintain a consistent sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day,” Minhas says. “Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia has been shown to successfully reduce insomnia symptoms, lowering inflammation called c-reactive protein, and reverse activation of inflammatory signaling pathways.”
Research, including one study published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity , has shown that stress (cortisol) and inflammation levels were lower in individuals who regularly practiced yoga, a known stress-relieving activity. “Deep breathing, exercise, yoga and making time for joyful activities are helpful in alleviating stress-induced inflammation and its harmful effects on the body,” Minhas says.