Doc’s Corner

Inflammation: Does it Harm Your Health?

The Fire Inside

The word “inflammation” traces back to the Latin for “set afire.” In some conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, you feel heat, pain, redness, and swelling. But in other cases — like heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes — it’s not so obvious. If you didn’t go looking for it with tests, you may not even know it’s there.

It’s Not Always Bad

Inflammation actually is often good in the short run. It’s part of your immune system’s natural response to heal an injury or fight an infection. White blood cells and other chemicals are mobilized to an area to combat the injury. The problem comes when the immune response continues after the damage is cleared up, or if there is no damage in the first place. If inflammation goes too far, or goes on for too long, it can contribute to serious health problems, from cancer to heart disease to depression. Long-term, or “chronic,” inflammation is a component ofessentially all chronic diseases and conditions.

Could It Lead to a Heart Attack?

Inflamed arteries are common among people with heart disease. Some researchers think that when fats build up in the walls of the heart’s coronary arteries, the body fires back with inflammatory chemicals, since it sees this as an “injury” to the heart. That could then trigger a blood clot that could cause a heart attack or stroke.

Diabetes Connection

Inflammation and type 2 diabetes are linked. Some experts say obesity (especially excessive visceral fat or belly fat} triggers the inflammation, which makes it harder for the body to use insulin or promotes “insulin resistance”. That may be one reason why losing extra pounds and improving fitness is a key step to lower your chance of getting type 2 diabetes. Ingestion of refined sugar is fuel for inflammation.

Chronic Stress is Bad for Inflammation

Ongoing levels of high stress cause release of the hormone cortisol that promotes the presence of inflammation. This is the likely mechanism that chronic stress contributes to impaired physical and mental health, leading to conditions like heart disease and depression. Stress is provoked by our response to situations, NOT by the situation. The approach to reduce our stress response has been discussed in previous articles. See archive.

Tied to Alzheimer’s

Chronic brain inflammation is often seen in people with this type of dementia. Scientists don’t yet understand the exact physiology involved, but inflammation plays an active role in the disease. Experts are studying whether anti-inflammatory medicine will help to curb Alzheimer’s. So far, the results are mixed.

It Can Hurt Your Gut

Chronic inflammation is tied to ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, which are types of inflammatory bowel disease. It happens when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the healthy bacteria in your gut, and causes inflammation that sticks around. You could have symptoms such as belly pain, cramping, and diarrhea. 

In RA, It Does Damage

What many people think of as “arthritis” is often osteoarthritis, in which the tissue that cushions joints, cartilage, breaks down, often becoming progressively impairing of function and painful as people age. It is often caused by chronic or repeated injury to the joint resulting in a chronic inflammatory condition that can result in destruction of the joint requiring joint replacement. Rheumatoid arthritis is different. In RA, the immune system attacks your body’s joints directly, causing inflammation that further harms the joints — and even other organs, sometimes including the heart. Symptoms include pain, stiffness, and red, warm, swollen joints.

Is It Part of Fibromyalgia?

This condition can cause pain, tenderness, and fatigue. Unlike in RA, inflammation in fibromyalgia doesn’t attack the joints per se. The inflammation involves the soft tissues.

When It Happens Fast

Sometimes inflammation strikes suddenly when your body is fighting an infection. Maybe it’s cellulitis, a skin infection, or appendicitis, which affects your appendix. This can even present as an emergency requiring you to see your doctor to get treatment quickly.

Your Diet Matters

The types of food you eat affect how much inflammation you have. Free radicals are nasty little molecules that harm cells on a subatomic level. If there are too many around and they do enough damage, free radicals can even kill cells, leading to chronic inflammation. But free radicals have natural predators known as antioxidants, which can stop the cell damage and help prevent inflammation. Eat a diet rich in fresh plant- based products. Get plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, berries, nuts, tea, coffee and high-cocoa chocolate, also fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon, tuna, and sardines), and healthier oils, like olive oil. Limit saturated fats, found in meats, whole-fat dairy products, and processed foods. Added sugar and refined grains may trigger the release of chemicals that cause inflammation, and also limit anti-inflammation molecules.

Stay Active

Even if you have a condition like RA, in which inflammation is a problem, exercise is still good for you. If you make it a regular habitand don’t over stress the involved joints, it pays off in many ways. Regular exercise and stretching can help calm inflammation and limit further joint injury. It also helps you maintain a healthy weight, which is another good way to keep inflammation in check. Ask your doctor what types of activities are best for you. Elite Fitness Plus now offers an Elite Rx program specifically designed for those with joint and soft tissue inflammatory issues.

Get Some Sleep!

Mom was right: You need to get your rest. Research shows that when healthy people are sleep-deprived, they have more inflammation. Exactly how that works isn’t clear, but it is likely related to metabolism. It’s one more reason to make sleep a priority!

Smoking Makes It Worse

Lighting up is a sure-fire way to raise inflammation. Like most people who try to kick the habit, it may take you several tries before you quit for good — but keep trying! Setting a specific stop date can help you stop successfully. Tell your doctor it’s a goal and ask for advice.

Spices Hold Promise

Ginger root has anti-inflammation perks. So do cinnamon, clove, black pepper, and turmeric (which gives curry powder its orange-yellow color). Scientists are studying how much it takes to make a difference. These spices are safe to enjoy in foods. If you want to try them in supplements, ask your doctor first. They potentially might affect some medications or conditions you have.

What to Know About NSAIDs/ASA

Many people take NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) to tame inflammation and ease pain. Some of these meds need a prescription. Others, like ibuprofen and naproxen, are sold over the counter. They work well, but if you take them regularly, tell your doctor, because they can cause stomach problems, like ulcers or bleeding and can lead to kidney function impairment. Some types of NSAIDS may increase the risk for heart attack or stroke, so talk to your doctor about the safest options. Aspirin also reduces inflammation by blocking release of prostaglandins. The dose is usually kept low when used chronically to minimize potential side effects. Consider the use of a cold pack or preferably ice as an effective anti-inflammatory and analgesic agent without the risks of medication.

Do Supplements Help?

The omega-3s in fish such as salmon and tuna can dial down inflammation. Fish oil can help, too. People who are low on vitamin D also tend to have more inflammation than others. It’s not yet clear if taking more vitamin D fixes that. Remember, “What you do is often more important than what you take”.

Questions and comments are welcome.

Paul R. Block, MD, FACP, FCCP



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