Dangers of chronic inflammation
Posted in General Health & Wellness on July 20, 2012. Last modified on March 26, 2019. Read disclaimer.
Inflammation Topics Discussed Here:
When we think of inflammation in the body, many of us envision the 4 signs of inflammation: redness, swelling, heat or pain that are associated with injury, infection or illness. Things like the stuffy or runny nose we get from a cold, the rash after brushing up against poison ivy, or the swelling from a sliver in our finger are common examples of inflammation at work.
Inflammation is a good thing, it is the body's way of identifying, isolating, attacking and removing a wide range of foreign and potentially harmful invaders (such as fungus, bacteria, viruses, toxins, or parasites). Inflammation also helps the body to remove damaged tissue and recover.
Ideally, once the threat to our body has been removed and the danger has passed, our immune system returns to normal -- leaving only a small number of sentry cells behind to look out for future attacks.
At least that's how it is supposed to work; the body's protective armor of skin, the sneeze or cough response of our respiratory passageways or the strong stomach acids of our stomach keeping pathogens at bay. And if the intruders find their way deeper into our body, our immune system finishes them off.
Unfortunately, in the complex operation of our immune system along with heredity, environment and nutrition, things may happen much differently. For instance...
- our immune system may mistakenly attack and destroy the wrong target (our body's own tissues), as appears to be the case for the nearly 24 million Americans suffering with autoimmune diseases like Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer -- to name just a few.
- our immune system may mistakenly respond to a substance that is not actually harmful and would normally be ignored, which is what happens in the case of food, mold or seasonal allergies. The body's responding to a false alarm!
- our immune system may continue waging war long after the pathogen has been defeated, resulting in low-grade, chronic inflammation which may be responsible for age-related diseases and deterioration. All of us have inflammation going on at some level. For some of us, it may be the source of pain, fatigue or just an overall ill-feeling. For others, chronic inflammation may display no symptoms, but is quietly doing tissue and organ damage.
What can we do to lessen excess or chronic inflammation?
In some situations, the immune system must be regulated with corticosteroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which of course come with potentially dangerous side effects when used long-term. In some, less severe cases, aspirin may work.
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For general, ongoing, overall health, the following lifestyle choices are suggested for controlling chronic or excess inflammation:
- take care of your dental health since there appears to be a link between poor oral health and systemic inflammation.
- if prescribed antibiotics, complete the prescription even if symptoms subside early.
- in order to lower cytokine levels (proteins that may contribute to inflammation), eat a diet that is low-calorie, low in saturated fats and trans fats and high glycemic index foods like white bread, chips, sweets and potatoes.
- since fat cells in the body may encourage production of inflammatory factors, manage your body weight.
- exercise regularly and moderately (vigorous exercise for extended periods may increase systemic inflammation).
- since free radicals (both from the outside environment and those created internally by our body) may promote inflammation, eat a diet that's rich in antioxidants from foods like fruits, vegetables, whole-grain products and lean protein.
- consume alcohol only in moderation.
- don't smoke.
- manage your stress and get adequate sleep of 7-9 hours per night since chronic or repeated, extreme stress can trigger production of inflammatory stress hormones.
- consider digestive probiotics (beneficial bacteria) which may help to prevent intestinal inflammation.
- drink plenty of water.
- other natural anti-inflammatory alternatives include consuming:
- omega-3 fatty acids (most commonly found in fatty fish oil)
- white willow bark (comparable efficacy to aspirin, with fewer side effects -- though not recommended for children)
- curcumin (turmeric) powder 400–600 mg , 3 times
- 3-4 cups of green tea daily
- resveratrol found in red wine, blackberries and other dark colored fruits may help the body to calm excess or chronic inflammation
- cats claw herb (Peruvian herb known as una de gato in Spanish)
WebMD offers this simple rule of thumb: "Anything highly processed, overly greasy, or super sweet isn't a good choice for you if you have inflammation."
In addition to the sodas, alcohol and sugar you mentioned, here are some specific items that commonly appear on lists of inflammation-causing foods:
Simple, refined carbohydrates (in foods such as white flour bread, pasta and pastries as well as french fries, white rice and the potato chips you mentioned). Because they are stripped of their fiber and many nutrients, simple carbohydrates get broken down quickly into sugars, causing insulin to spike and resulting in inflammation.
Trans fats (also known as partially hydrogenated oil found in some brands of margarine, coffee creamer and shortening) which are most commonly used in fast foods, fried foods and convenience foods like cookies, crackers, donuts, etc, as a way of extending the product's shelf-life.
MSG (the flavoring enhancer most commonly associated with Asian foods but also common in prepared foods, salad dressings, soups and spice mixes).
Processed meats (like deli meats, hot dogs, ham, bacon, and sausage) since these tend to be high in saturated fat.
Almost any fried foods because the high temperatures invariably oxidize cooking oils, resulting in inflammation-triggering free radicals.
High-fructose corn syrup, agave, honey and other sugar substitutes... including artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame). While your doctor mentioned sugar, these other sweeteners can be equally bad... or worse. In fact, our body may recognize artificial sweeteners as a 'frankenfood' and attack them, causing an immune response and thus triggering inflammation.
Perhaps the most surprising inflammatory food is one that we often think of as healthy... many common types of vegetable and seed oils (such as corn, safflower, peanut and soy oils). It turns out that these can trigger inflammation because they 1) tend to oxidize quickly in storage and 2) can be over-abundant in otherwise healthy omega-6 fats.
And you mentioned ALA, the plant-based omega 3 fatty acid. While its benefits may not yet be as well proven at that of the fish-based fatty acids, there is research to suggest that, "Based on the current evidence, ALA decreases CVD (cardiovascular disease) risk."
I've now corrected that sentence in my previous comment reply.