When we think about inflammation, we often think of it as helping us heal from an obvious injury (like a wound) or fighting harmful bacteria. This is good inflammation working in our favor to keep us healthy. But on the flip side, when the immune system is too active, it can make us sick.
We know that major chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, are linked to weight gain, but did you ever wonder how those diseases and inflammation are all intertwined?
Understanding inflammation, especially “bad” inflammation, will help explain this link.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN “GOOD” AND “BAD” INFLAMMATION
Inflammation is a process you can’t actually see, so how do you know if it’s “good” or “bad”?
Think about the last time you got a bruise. The blood and fluid that rushed in to create that purplish swollen area is the definition of inflammation. As you heal, inflammation subsides and eventually goes away. This is how “good” inflammation is supposed to happen.
But sometimes inflammation can get us into trouble. An example: an allergy where our immune system overreacts to relatively harmless foods (think: peanut butter, shellfish, eggs) or substances (think: pollen, dust, latex).
Poor habits like eating an unhealthy diet, not exercising enough and consuming too much sugar can contribute to a bad type of inflammation called “chronic” inflammation. These habits turn the immune system “on” and help it stay activated for a long period of time. Along with other factors, chronic inflammation can lead to chronic illness.
INFLAMMATION AND ILLNESS
The way our immune system reacts to smoking and stress increases our risk for heart disease. How? Smoking and stress damage cells and activate your immune system, leading to a low level of chronic inflammation. Over time, chronic inflammation makes your arteries more likely to collect plaque, which stiffens and clogs them, and can lead to heart disease.
Chronic inflammation contributes to type 2 diabetes by worsening “insulin resistance,” a condition where your body produces insulin but your cells don’t respond to it very well so your blood sugar stays abnormally high. How does chronic inflammation do this? Simply put, fat cells are capable of creating chemical signals that lead to chronic inflammation. But they mainly do so when you habitually eat too many calories and sugar. These chemical signals also mess with the way that insulin works in our bodies, aggravating insulin resistance.
CHRONIC INFLAMMATION AND WEIGHT GAIN
If fat cells can contribute to chronic inflammation, then it’s reasonable to expect that weight gain, especially in the form of fat tissue, also contributes to chronic inflammation. As we gain weight, some fat cells expand beyond their capacity while trying to do their job storing our extra calories as fat. When this happens, they turn on and add to the inflammation already present in our bodies. At this point, these cells aren’t just fat storage warehouses—they’re like little inflammation factories, sending out signals to activate the immune system. Losing weight allows the fat cells to shrink back to a more normal size and turns off the signals that trigger chronic inflammation.
A study from the UK published in 2008 shows that chronic inflammation is linked to weight gain. Researchers followed people over nine years and monitored things like their weight gain and blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a chemical that shows up when the immune system is activated.
They found something interesting: Weight increases were associated with more inflammation, and the relationship was linear. This means that as a person’s weight increased, so did the level of CRP in their blood. This relationship between weight and inflammation suggests losing weight should help—and some studies prove this.
One study published in 2004 by Wake Forest University in North Carolina, involving more than 250 people, found that inflammation decreased among participants who went on a low-calorie diet to lose weight. Since losing weight helps decrease inflammation, it may also keep our chronic-illness risk at bay, although more studies are needed to prove this link.
6 TIPS FOR REDUCING CHRONIC INFLAMMATION
Changing your diet and losing weight are two of the best ways to lower inflammation. Here are some tips:
- Eat antioxidants and polyphenols: Eating antioxidant- and polyphenol-rich foods can cut down on inflammation by reducing “free-radical damage.” Free radicals are generated by the body when it’s in a state of stress. If the immune system becomes overwhelmed by free radicals, cells are harmed and inflammation gets worse. Antioxidants and polyphenols are great for fighting that process. To get them, try drinking green tea and eating a rainbow of fruits and veggies; here are some examples of what to reach for: broccoli, kale, collards, rutabaga, turnips, berries.
- Consume essential fats: Getting a good ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in your diet is important for reducing inflammation. Most of us consume too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3, so the key to balancing things is to increase omega-3 intake. Omega-6-heavy foods like seeds and nuts and their oils, and refined vegetable oils (used in many snack foods, crackers, cookies, etc.), tend to stir up inflammation, while foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, flax and chia seeds, avocado and walnuts dampen it.
- Add spices: Turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and ginger have all been shown in studies to have anti-inflammatory properties. You can’t overdo these, so sprinkle them liberally onto your food.
- Exercise: Moving around releases a burst of anti-inflammatory proteins from the cells to the rest of the body. However, moderate exercise is key. An example of moderate exercise is 45–60 minutes of cardio, such as walking or jogging, about three times a week.
- Stress: Cortisol, the so-called “stress” hormone, wears many other hats, including regulating the immune response. Reducing stress helps to keep hormones like cortisol under control and that, in turn, helps lower inflammation.
- Sleep: Lack of sleep makes the body ripe for infection, while more sleep has the opposite effect. A review of several studies published in 2008 found that sleeping less than eight hours a night was linked to weight gain. There is a complex yet harmonious dance occurring in your body during restful sleep; this strengthens your immune system in a good way