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Why Everyone Seems to Be So Focused on Inflammation These Days

And a few easy lifestyle tips to help lower your risk of disease.

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Cut out of woman against a flame
Simone Noronha
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I recently went for a skin cancer check, concerned about a brown spot on my stomach. After examining every inch of my body with a bright light and magnifying tool, my dermatologist assured me the spot was nothing to worry about. “It’s an inflammatory response. It will fade,” she said. She couldn’t, alas, tell me what it was an inflammatory response to. “It could be almost anything."

If it seems as if inflammation is suddenly the word du jour to explain everything from, well, my stomach to life-threatening illnesses and the aging process itself, you’re not wrong. It is more than just a fad, though.

"One of the most important medical discoveries of the past two decades has been that the immune system and inflammatory processes are involved in not just a few select disorders, but a wide variety of mental and physical health problems,” according to a 2019 study published in Nature Medicine.

It turns out, chronic inflammation can increase your risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, dementia, and autoimmune and neurodegenerative conditions. (Maybe they should just list what it doesn’t contribute to?!?)

Before you throw up your hands in despair, there are relatively simple diet and lifestyle habits that can help reduce that risk. I, for one, am taking careful

Not all inflammation is bad

There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is your body’s response to a trauma, even just a paper cut. Inflammatory cells race to the injury to start the healing process and fight infection. (This is a good thing!) Chronic inflammation occurs when the inflammatory response continues despite the absence of an injury. Instead of promoting healing, white blood cells can end up attacking healthy organs or joints. (This is definitely not a good thing!)

Signs of chronic inflammation

A list of the potential signs of chronic inflammation reads like pretty much everything that can go wrong with your body. According to Melina Jampolis, M.D., cofounder of the nutrition company Ahara, this lengthy roster includes joint and muscle pain, chronic fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety and mood disorders, constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux, changes in weight and frequent infections.

Unfortunately, few tests can definitively tell the difference between chronic and acute inflammation, and they are not part of a regular medical screening unless you have an autoimmune disease. More often, assessing and treating chronic inflammation comes down to making lifestyle changes and observing how they affect your health. As always, speak to your doctor first.

Diet do’s and don’ts

Diet plays a significant role in chronic inflammation, as Jampolis cites. Foods that are linked to an inflammatory response include saturated fats which are found in products such as red meat and whole fat dairy items and trans fats which are found in fried foods and baked goods such as pastries, cookies and crackers.

Can we please talk about gluten? (I’m confused!)

Everyone these days seems to have an opinion on gluten but unless you have celiac disease, you don’t need to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon. “In some people, especially those who already have chronic inflammation, an autoimmune disease or who are sensitive or intolerant of gluten, it can contribute, but for the majority of people, consuming gluten in moderation likely does not contribute significantly if at all to chronic inflammation,” Jampolis says.

To find out if you are gluten-intolerant or have celiac disease, you can ask your doctor for a simple blood test. “If you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity you may still have symptoms (gut related or even other things like brain fog, fatigue or joint pain) so it may still be worth cutting down gluten if you notice this," Jampolis says, "but it is not as serious if you consume a small amount of gluten as it is if you have celiac disease."

Fight chronic inflammation with food

The Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, fresh vegetables and seafood, has been shown to reduce inflammation. “Olive oil is especially emphasized due to its ability to reduce radical oxidative species (ROS) and prevention of inflammation-related diseases due to its phenolic compounds," according to a 2021 study on the anti-inflammatory properties or diet published in Biomedicines.

Jampolis has these specific tips for an anti-inflammatory diet:

Fruits and vegetables
Berries, citrus and apples are loaded with anti-inflammatory polyphenols, as are cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.

Fiber
Beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruit.

Green and black tea polyphenols
Tea polyphenols are associated with a reduction in inflammation.

Herbs and spices
Most help to fight inflammation but the best is probably turmeric, which contains a compound called curcumin that is an especially powerful anti-· inflammatory. (Tip: Eat turmeric with a pinch of black pepper and healthy fat like olive oil to increase its activity in your body.)

Fatty fish
Salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, fatty tuna and anchovies are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce inflammation.

Micronutrients
Magnesium (beans, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts and seeds) and vitamin D (sun or supplements) also help reduce inflammation

Walk this way

According to a 2019 study in Nature titled Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life span, a sedentary lifestyle may also increase chronic inflammation. Among other things, lack of exercise contributes to obesity which is a trigger for inflammation. The study found that older adults (70 to 80 years old) who met the minimum international physical activity recommendations of 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic activity had a 40 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease as compared with their physically inactive counterparts. You don’t have to become a gym rat. Getting out for regular walks can help lower inflammation and raise your spirits.

The 3 S’s of inflammation

Smoking, stress and poor sleep all contribute to chronic inflammation. Even more reason to exercise, when it can lead to better slumber. Finally, be sure to go to your dentist for regular checkups as gum disease can also contribute to chronic inflammation.

About that brown spot

My dermatologist was right, my brown spot faded. I still have no plans to bare my stomach in public any time soon, even though it’s summer (I’m a one-piece kinda gal). But I will be walking to the supermarket with a shopping list of anti-inflammatory foods in hand.

Have you suffered from chronic inflammation? Let us know in the comments below.

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