Inflammation is one of the body’s ways of telling us something is wrong, but many of us aren’t aware of it until it reaches a crisis point.
WellTuned talked to Reena Panjwani, registered dietitian-nutritionist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, about what inflammation can tell us and how to control it.
What is inflammation?
“Inflammation is your body’s defense mechanism against many things, from trauma like a broken wrist to bacterial infections,” says Panjwani. “When a part of your body is inflamed, it means your immune system has recognized trauma or illness and is working to heal it.”
What kinds of conditions does inflammation indicate?
There are two types of inflammation:
Examples: Sprained ankle, a sore throat
Acute inflammation is your immune system’s first response to trauma. Your body sends fluid to a vulnerable area to protect it, along with white blood cells to begin repairing tissue.
The 5 signs of acute inflammation are:
- Immobility (loss of function)
Examples: Diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, COPD, allergies
If you live with a chronic condition, you may experience slow, long-term inflammation that lasts months or years. Chronic inflammation can be difficult to measure, but there are markers your doctor can test for. The better your condition is managed — through lifestyle changes, diet, medication, etc. — the less inflammation you’ll experience.
Is there any level of inflammation that’s normal?
Yes. If you eat healthy during the week but indulge in sugary snacks on the weekend, for example, you may experience short-term inflammation.
Is there any level of inflammation that’s cause for emergency care?
If you find yourself getting infections frequently, or if you experience GI complications such as diarrhea that last several days, see your doctor. Both can indicate your immune system is in a constant state of overdrive.
What are the less obvious signs of inflammation people should look out for?
- Body pain that may indicate arthritis
- Constant fatigue
- Mood disorders such as depression or anxiety
What are the best ways to prevent inflammation?
“A lot of times, people don’t notice inflammation until it’s too late for them to manage it on their own,” says Panjwani. “That’s why it’s so important to go to your annual physical so your doctor can do a blood test and talk with you about what’s going on.
“If you’re not experiencing inflammation currently, there are diet and lifestyle goals you can set to help you avoid it.”
Here are 6 ways to help avoid inflammation:
- Stop smoking
Nicotine activates immune cells that increase inflammation.
- Eat fewer refined carbs and sugary food and drink
High sugar intake can lead to chronic inflammation, in addition to increased risk of stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
- Increase your intake of whole grains, fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants and polyphenols that are anti-inflammatory. Find them in blueberries, apples, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cabbage.
- Focus on improving your sleep habits
Sleep increases your levels of growth hormone, which helps repair tissues in the body.
- Exercise more
Excessive fat tissue can release inflammatory biomarkers. Exercise can lower your levels of these molecules.
- Add stress-relieving activities
Cortisol, the hormone your body releases in high pressure situations, can increase inflammation. Use breathing exercises, yoga or meditation for reducing stress.