Inflammation is something you’re undoubtedly familiar with—the skin redness that comes from a bee sting or the swelling that results from twisting your ankle. In these and other acute cases, you should feel thankful it is around—it’s your immune system’s natural fix-it response, after all. Inflammation comes, it protects, it heals and then—poof—it disappears. At least that’s when things happen as they should.
You see, inflammation has a darker side, too. When chronic and low-grade, it can be much more silent and insidious than this. “Your immune system can become chronically ‘locked and loaded,’ trying to fight problems that don’t exist,” says Mark Liponis, M.D., corporate medical director at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “It’s as if our white blood cells are being sent to attack, but there is no specific infection. This kind of inflammation can cause damage to your heart, brain, blood vessels, kidneys…everything.” Even very low levels of inflammation have been linked with significantly increased risk for heart attack and stroke, and it doesn’t really matter what the source of the inflammation is.
The reason why this chronic kind of inflammation strikes may not be as obvious to you as a pesky bug or a hasty misstep. “Our immune system responds in a general way to any number of stressors. The result is inflammation. That could stem from an infection, allergies, injuries, lack of sleep or breathing problems.” Dr. Liponis says. “Sometimes there’s no other reason for inflammation than the fact that you’re carrying extra pounds, particularly around the middle.” No matter the trigger (or triggers), your immune system gets stuck in a dangerous ‘battle mode.’
A clear example of this is when there’s a buildup of bad cholesterol in your arteries: Your immune system perceives it as something that doesn’t belong and responds, attacking the plaque in your arteries, which can trigger a heart attack.
“Chronic, systemic inflammation’s one of the first dominos to fall on the path to so many serious conditions [Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, cancer and more],” says Dr. Liponis. “And the worst part about it is that most people who have it don’t know it.”
Determining and Curbing Your Level of Inflammation
Skin issues, digestive symptoms, sore joints, fatigue, weight gain, pain and other symptoms may help you suspect chronic inflammation. But again, it can—and most often does—exist without any obvious calling cards. That’s where blood tests can help: White blood cells increase in the presence inflammation, as does C-reactive protein (CRP). Levels of these markers can accurately measure the exact amount of inflammation in your body. “And once you know inflammation is present, you and your doctor can be on the lookout for its cause,” says Dr. Liponis. (Some doctors may not order a CRP test as part of routine lab work, so be sure to specifically request it and a review of the results.)
There are many ways to keep your immune system quiet and, thus, inflammation in check, and they are worth investing in whether you know that you have high levels or not:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Get regular aerobic exercise
- Eat an inflammation-fighting diet
- Avoid foods that can spur inflammation, like red meat, egg yolks and those with hydrogenated fats, trans fats or added sugars
- Bank a restorative amount of sleep
- Find ways to de-stress
- Quit smoking
- Drink alcohol in moderation, or not at all
“You don’t want your immune system constantly fighting. You want it to be peaceful,” reminds Dr. Liponis. “Think of your white blood cells as doing the backstroke gently down your bloodstream, sipping a piña colada.” The more they ‘rest’ and save their activity for fighting true threats, the better able you are to stave off chronic inflammation.