Medical treatments for chronic disease and even weight loss are focusing more and more on the need to prevent and reduce chronic inflammation. Studies show that inflammation is a common underlying factor in all major degenerative diseases — including heart disease, cancer, hypertension, and diabetes — and that it can also cause weight gain and difficulty losing weight.
The good news: inflammation is linked to several diet and lifestyle factors. By making key changes in these areas, you can reduce inflammation in the body, lower your risk of degenerative disease, and help your body shed excess weight. Continue reading to learn more about inflammation, how it affects your health, and how to reduce it.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s response to an injury or threat. In certain situations, inflammation is necessary and helpful. Stubbing your toe or cutting your finger can cause what’s known as acute inflammation, which is characterized by four key markers: redness, heat, swelling, and pain. Blood flow increases to the area so that white blood cells can accumulate at the site of the injury and help protect the body against disease and foreign invaders, such as bacteria.
This inflammatory response is your body’s way of defending itself and repairing damaged tissue. Without acute inflammation, wounds would never heal. Acute inflammation is temporary and typically goes away after a few days.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, occurs inside the body, and can lead to major health complications — including weight gain.
What is chronic inflammation?
When cells are damaged on the inside of the body, the same inflammatory response occurs. However, chronic inflammation can persist for months or years if the problem is not eliminated. In some cases, inflammation can continue even if the threat is eliminated.
Chronic inflammation, also referred to as systemic inflammation, puts your body into an emergency state for a prolonged period of time, which can lead to health problems. White blood cells may begin attacking healthy tissue and organs, causing even more inflammation that can affect processes throughout the body.
How inflammation affects the body
Chronic inflammation can impair functions throughout the body related to cardiovascular health, cognitive function, digestion, metabolism, hormone levels, and more.
When inflammatory cells are present in the body for an extended period, it can promote the buildup of dangerous plaque in the arteries. As plaque continues to build, it increases the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Similarly, inflammatory cells in the brain may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. High levels of inflammatory markers have also been linked to depression.
Chronic inflammation damages the lining of the gut and can lead to leaky gut syndrome, also known as intestinal permeability. In addition to causing digestive issues, leaky gut syndrome allows substances from food and other sources to leak into your bloodstream and cause damage to internal organs and normal bodily processes.
Research also shows that inflammation is involved in tumor progression, and that many cancerous tumors begin at sites of chronic irritation and inflammation.
How inflammation causes weight gain
Inflammation can also affect body weight in numerous ways. When the immune system detects a threat, the body releases substances called cytokines, which activate the body’s immune response. Cytokines are pro-inflammatory, and they also interfere with the body’s insulin response.
When the body becomes resistant to insulin, the pancreas must release more of it, which triggers the body to store fat. Individuals with insulin resistance tend to store more fat in the abdominal region.
Inflammation can also interfere with the body’s response to leptin, a hormone that tells the brain when you’ve had enough to eat. If your brain doesn’t receive this signal, it can cause you to eat more than necessary. Resistance to leptin is now thought to be a major driver of weight gain in humans.
What causes inflammation in your body?
Anything that causes cellular damage or malfunction can trigger an inflammatory response inside the body. This cellular damage can be caused by factors such as exposure to toxins, poor nutrition, and bacterial imbalances in the gut.
Some common causes of inflammation include:
- Chronic stress. Stress leads to elevated levels of cortisol, which is also linked to increased abdominal fat.
- Exposure to chemicals, including food additives, pesticides, and environmental pollution. Skincare products and cosmetics often contain phthalates, which are linked to oxidative stress and inflammation.
- Nutritional deficiencies. Any nutrient deficiency can lead to cellular damage either directly or indirectly, but some are especially known to cause inflammation, including low levels of vitamin D, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12.
- Excess weight can also increase inflammation, as it can place stress on the body that leads to additional cellular damage.
What are inflammation markers?
Chronic inflammation isn’t always obvious because it is internal. Symptoms such as excess abdominal weight, fatigue, mouth sores, skin issues, brain fog, and joint pain may be an indication of systemic inflammation.
Certain inflammatory markers can also be measured with a blood test. One such marker is c-reactive protein, a substance produced by the liver in response to inflammation. Research from Harvard doctors found that men with high levels of CRP had double the risk of stroke and three times the risk of heart attack as men with little or no inflammation.
What are inflammation causing foods?
Certain foods naturally trigger inflammation in the body. These include sugar, vegetable oils, fried foods, refined carbohydrates, artificial sweeteners, and other artificial food additives.
Many of these foods contribute to the formation of acid in the body, which increases inflammation. Other acid-forming foods include coffee, dairy products, soda, most sports drinks, bottled fruit juice, potato chips, alcohol, processed meats, and red meat.
Sugar in particular is known to drive inflammation. A study of 29 healthy adults found that those who consumed just one sugar-sweetened beverage per day experienced increases in c-reactive protein and insulin resistance, as well as LDL cholesterol.
Does dairy cause inflammation?
Evidence on the relationship between dairy products and inflammation is mixed. Some studies indicate that the consumption of dairy products does not increase inflammatory markers. However, because dairy is acid-forming, dairy products could further contribute to an acidic internal environment, which contributes to inflammation. Conventional dairy products are also typically loaded with hormones and antibiotics. If your goal is to reduce inflammation, it may be wise to avoid dairy products and use alternatives such as almond milk.
Foods that reduce chronic inflammation
To combat inflammation, make a point of including healthy, whole fruits and vegetables in every meal. Also, drink plenty of water throughout the day to help flush toxins and waste from your body.
Some foods offer especially powerful anti-inflammatory benefits in the form of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that help fight inflammation while also boosting your metabolism.
Best foods for inflammation
- Leafy greens (kale, spinach)
- Green vegetables such as broccoli
- Olives and olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel)
- Berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
- Bell peppers and chili peppers
- Dark chocolate
- Green tea
Reducing inflammation in the body
Given the wide range of factors that contribute to inflammation, it’s clear that reducing inflammation in the body should be a multi-faceted approach.
Eating a healthy diet full of anti-inflammatory foods is an important step in combating chronic inflammation. Reduce your intake of inflammatory and acidic foods such as processed foods, fried foods, and refined carbohydrates, including sugar.
It’s important to note, however, that changing your diet alone may not be enough to rid your body of inflammation. Conditions such as leaky gut syndrome can prevent your body from absorbing the nutrients it needs from your food. Hormonal imbalances, as indicated above, can also interfere with your body’s response to food. An anti-inflammatory diet must also include measures to help heal the gut and correct any hormonal imbalances.
Practices such as intermittent fasting have been found to be effective in reducing inflammation and helping to reset the metabolism, so that they body can function at an optimal level and better respond to a healthy diet. In clinical trials, the ProLon fasting mimicking diet has been shown to reduce levels of c-reactive protein in the body.
Exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep are also important components of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle.
To reduce your exposure to chemicals, use skin care products and cosmetics that are free of phthalates, and choose food containers and water bottles that at BPA free. Don’t smoke, and limit your exposure to secondhand smoke.
Using nutritional supplements to combat inflammation
Some nutritional supplements can further help you fight inflammation. B vitamins can help reduce chronic inflammation, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D.
Take fish oil supplements to shut down inflammatory pathways, and use a vitamin B12 supplement to help control levels of cytokines.
At Garcia Weight Loss and Wellness Centers, we provide all of our patients with a personalized low-glycemic diet plan that can help reduce chronic inflammation. We also offer additional therapeutic interventions that can help balance hormones, reduce stress, and lower levels of inflammatory markers such as c-reactive protein.
Need help reducing inflammation and losing weight? Contact us today for a no-cost consultation!
Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on July 10, 2018
This post was originally published in August, 2017, and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.