Inflammation is a natural response produced by the body’s immune system. The immune system activates this inflammatory response in order to heal an injury or acute (short-term) illness. This involves the release of white blood cells, immune cells, and infection-fighting substances.
When you sprain your ankle and it turns red, warm, and swollen, that’s inflammation at work trying to heal the injury. We often hear that we should fight inflammation with anti-inflammatory drugs or by applying ice to bring down swelling.
Some inflammation is necessary and helpful. In fact, our body would not be able to heal wounds and injuries or fight certain illnesses without it. The problem with inflammation begins when we have low levels of inflammation happening all the time, even when we’re not injured or sick. This chronic inflammation takes a toll on our health in multiple ways and makes us susceptible to a variety of health conditions.
A number of serious health conditions are linked to inflammation, including:
- Arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis
- Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries
- Crohn’s disease
- Gum disease (periodontal disease)
- Heart disease
- Nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys, which can cause high blood pressure or kidney failure)
- Stomach ulcers, also known as peptic ulcers
- Ulcerative colitis
Experts don’t know for sure that inflammation causes these conditions. But, they do know, at a minimum, that inflammation in the body aggravates the symptoms of these diseases and often makes them worse. And we know that reducing or eliminating chronic inflammation will help you feel your best and possibly avoid long-term health problems.
In short, inflammation wreaks havoc on nearly all of the body’s systems. It sends the immune system into overdrive, causing it to attack cells and tissues in the body that aren’t foreign invaders. It causes troublesome symptoms like chronic pain, muscle stiffness, headaches, and fatigue. It may even be life-threatening in the case of cancer and atherosclerosis.
Why is chronic inflammation so common? Unfortunately, many of today’s lifestyle habits are an open door to invite ongoing inflammation in the body. And long-term inflammation may be hard to spot: it often has no symptoms until you end up with one of the diseases or conditions listed above.
Fortunately, it is possible to reduce chronic inflammation by eating an anti-inflammatory diet and making some positive lifestyle changes. Take a look at some of the most common habits that cause inflammation:
1. Letting stress get to you
High levels of stress can harm your mental and physical well-being. In fact, research shows that stress causes inflammation, which in turn causes many inflammatory diseases.
We can’t avoid stress all the time. Don’t try to lead a stress-free life. Instead, focus on ways you can manage stress when it comes up. This will help prevent stress from becoming a long-term, regular occurrence in your life. Find an activity or hobby you enjoy, practice the art of meditation, try deep breathing, or see a counselor.
2. Poor sleep habits
When you neglect your sleep, your body pays for it — but not just with fatigue and sluggishness. Lack of quality sleep has been linked to many serious health issues, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and anxiety. We’ve also covered how lack of sleep disrupts your hormones and leads to increased hunger and weight gain.
Numerous studies have shown that depriving your body of the sleep it needs causes inflammation. This inflammation could be the trigger for some or all of the health problems linked to poor sleep.
If you’re consistently skimping on quality sleep, focus on adopting better sleep habits such as turning off screens at night, avoiding caffeine late in the day, and sticking to a consistent bedtime and wake time. If you think you have a sleep disorder, see your doctor and discuss getting a sleep study.
3. Sitting too much
You probably already know that sitting too much and exercising too little can lead to weight gain and even a depressed mental state. But research also shows that sitting all day causes inflammation in the body — and not just from lack of exercise. Sitting causes its own trigger of inflammatory processes that can lead to health issues, even if you already go to the gym a few times a week.
While we can’t all quit our desk jobs, we can make an effort to reduce sitting. Try a standing desk or get up and walk around the office once per hour. At home, do exercises while you watch TV and make a point to get up and move often, even if it’s just going up and down the stairs every 30 minutes.
4. Eating (or drinking) sugar
In previous blog posts, we discussed the negative health effects of sugar as well as how different types of sugar, particularly fructose, affect the body. Sugar is linked to all kinds of inflammatory health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
One of the best ways to cut inflammation — and your risk for chronic health problems related to sugar consumption — is to cut out sugar. Ditch the soda and juice, eat fruit instead of sweets, and avoid foods with added sucrose or one of the many different names for sugar.
It’s not easy to do, but it’s a healthy habit that will give you amazing results. Even if you don’t cut sugar out completely, make a conscious effort to cut back. You may find that over time, it gets easier to skip the sweets and soda as you learn to enjoy foods with their natural flavor, unmodified by sugar.
Smoking does absolutely nothing good for your body. It increases your risk of chronic, fatal lung problems and a host of cancers. The CDC says it causes more deaths each year than all of the following things combined:
- Street drug use
- Alcohol use
- Firearm accidents
- Car or motor vehicle accidents
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
One of the ways smoking wrecks the body and causes illness and death is inflammation. Studies show that smoking tobacco sets off an inflammatory response due to its many toxins.
Quitting smoking is hard. But if you smoke, quitting is the one thing you should focus on today to get your body healthier. Ask for help from your doctor if you need it.
6. Eating packaged, processed foods
When you’re in a hurry, it’s easy to grab that quick snack of chips or crackers, or whatever packaged food is tempting you. But eating processed foods causes inflammation for a variety of reasons.
First, many of them contain added sugar, which we’ve already discovered is a promoter of inflammation. But many of these foods also contain refined carbs, and research shows these types of unhealthy carbs are another infamous friend of inflammation.
Consuming sugar and processed carbs causes obesity and leptin resistance. Combine that with inflammation and an increased risk of disease, and we’ve really got no reason to be eating these types of foods regularly.
7. Skipping your omega-3s
We’ve discussed how fats can be good for you — if they’re the right kind of fat. One of the most important fats you should be eating is omega-3, found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines. Omega-3s have many health benefits, including inflammation-fighting power. But eating a little bit of omega-3 isn’t enough. The ratio of your omega-3 fats to your omega-6 fats is important. Eating too many omega-6 fats can promote inflammation, as they crowd out the omega-3 balance in your body.
Unfortunately, omega-6s are far too prevalent in the American diet, found in corn and soybean oils and other processed vegetable oils. These oils appear in many fried and processed foods, and we end up eating far too many omega-6s at the end of the day, inviting inflammation in the process.
While eating two servings of fatty fish a week will be helpful, especially if you remove an unhealthy food in the process, some people need more omega-3 to keep inflammation under control. Consider taking a high-quality omega-3 supplement for additional anti-inflammatory benefits.
8. Forgetting to floss
Flossing seems like such a small habit — and does it really matter if you don’t do it regularly? Actually, it does.
Neglecting your gums and allowing bacteria to grow in between teeth can lead to gingivitis, or early stage gum disease. This causes inflammation in the mouth that can spread to blood vessels and set up shop in other places in the body. Some research suggests that gum disease is linked to other serious health problems, including heart disease.
Your smile — and your entire body’s well-being — is worth an extra two minutes a day to floss. And if you haven’t seen your dentist in the last six months, make an appointment for a checkup.
Fight inflammation, get healthier
There are many ways that inflammation attacks the body, but you can fight back. Making small changes to your diet and getting more active are a great start. But you don’t have to go it alone — Garcia Weight Loss offers personalized wellness plans to help you look and feel your best. Contact us for your no-cost consultation today!
Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on February 6, 2019