If you read health sites or follow celebrity doctors, you’ve probably heard the buzzword “inflammation.” You may even have heard people touting miracle cures such as the “anti-inflammatory diet.”
Are you confused?
Many people think of inflammation in terms of external signs: swelling, bruising and so on. But in truth, uncontrolled inflammation plays a role in almost every major disease, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and even depression.
Inflammation occurs naturally in your body. But when it goes wrong or goes on too long, it can trigger disease processes. That’s why researchers spend so much time trying to understand it — and developing ways to counteract it.
“Inflammation occurs naturally in your body. But when it goes wrong or goes on too long, it can trigger disease processes.”
Paul DiCorleto, PhD
Lerner Research Institute
Too much of a good thing
Inflammation is your body’s first line of defense against toxins, infections and injuries.
When your cells are in distress, they release chemicals to alert the immune system. The immune system sends its first responders — inflammatory cells — to trap the offending substance or heal the tissue. As this complex chain of events unfolds, blood vessels leak fluid into the site of the injury, causing the telltale swelling, redness and pain. These symptoms might be uncomfortable, but they are essential for the healing process.
Here’s the problem with inflammation: Over time, you can end up with too much of a good thing. With chronic inflammation, your body is on high alert all the time.
This prolonged state of emergency can cause lasting damage to your heart, brain and other organs. For example, when inflammatory cells hang around too long in blood vessels, they promote the buildup of dangerous plaque. The body sees this plaque as foreign and sends more of its first responders. As the plaque continues to build, the arteries can thicken, making a heart attack or stroke much more likely.
Similarly, inflammation in the brain may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease. For many years the brain was thought to be off-limits to inflammation because of the blood-brain barrier — a sort of built-in security system — but scientists have proved that immune cells can and do infiltrate the brain during times of distress. Their role in disease progression is not yet clear, however.
Why researchers focus on inflammation
Add these disease processes — and many others — together, and it’s easy to understand why inflammation is a hot research topic. Understanding exactly how it causes disease could lead to better interventions and treatments to stop it.
The science of obesity offers an example. We’re learning more about how obesity triggers a cascade of inflammation that leads to metabolic conditions such as insulin resistance. Understanding exactly how that cascade works could lead to treatments for such conditions.
For example, Xiaoxia Li, PhD, of the Lerner Research Institute recently discovered that a protein called MyD88 helps coordinate the inflammatory cascade in obesity. Dr. Li’s research showed that making changes to MyD88 could reduce inflammation and insulin resistance in mice fed a high-fat diet. Future research to back up these findings could lead to better understanding, and even targeted therapy.
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What you can do now
You’re going to have occasional inflammation from minor infections, allergies or injuries. This is normal. And every bump and bruise does not require an anti-inflammatory medication.
However, you can focus on lifestyle choices that reduce your risk of chronic inflammation — the kind that leads to disease. Many lifestyle factors have been shown to play a part in cellular inflammation: smoking, obesity, chronic stress and drinking alcohol excessively, for example. Fortunately, you can control these factors. And if you need help from a medical professional to do so, it’s available.
Work on a smoking cessation plan with your doctor, and know that many people need multiple attempts to find success quitting tobacco. Ask about a weight-loss plan through healthier diet and exercise, and know that medications and surgical options are available for more serious cases. Be wary of miracle claims about diets, but do seek nutrition advice from your doctor and a registered dietitian if needed. Talk to your doctor about stress-management techniques if work or home life are overwhelming you.
Researchers are learning more about the missing links between inflammation and disease every day. But until we have more answers, your best defense against inflammation is to control the factors you can choose to control.