Of all the wellness buzzwords out there, inflammation might be the buzz-iest, with everyone from traditional docs to natural facialists all fixating on it. And with good reason.
“Everything is related to inflammation!” says integrative nutritionist Barbara Mendez, R.Ph., M.S., only half-joking. “It can cause skin conditions, allergies, headaches, very painful menstrual periods, chronic diseases…everything.” With that in mind, we’re breaking the buzz into the basics you need to know:
So really, what is inflammation? When medical pros talk inflammation, they’re referring to a combo of heat, pain, redness, and swelling that can happen externally or inside the body, explains functional medicine physician Susan Blum, MD.
That (not-so-fab) four crops up when the immune system gets “poked” by some kind of irritant, like a food you’re sensitive to, an environmental toxin, or damaged tissue, Dr. Blum says. In response, the body calls immune cells and fluid to the irritated area to help kill whatever’s there, which is ultimately a good thing. But if it’s happening for too long, it can be very, very bad.
“The inflammatory response should be self-limited,” Dr. Blum says. “All of those inflammatory molecules, immune cells, and fluid can really disrupt the functioning of wherever [the inflammation] is located.” That’s why chronic inflammation’s at the root of so many diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer.
Why what you eat matters so much
The number-one way to reduce an “inflammatory lifestyle” is through diet, says Dr. Blum.
Wheat, dairy, and sugar tend to be the biggest offenders, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon. “If you have Celiac disease, you absolutely do,” Mendez says. “But some people might find they’re okay with gluten if they just cut out wheat, but keep barley, rye, or spelt, for example,” she explains.
Same goes for dairy and sugar. “The problem is when you’re relying on those foods—when you eat way too much of them,” Mendez says. (Digestive funkiness is often a good indicator that you’ve got an internal inflammation thing going on.)
More reading: 6 inflammation foods no one talks about
But limiting certain foods isn’t enough. “Foods that support the liver—which is in charge of clearing toxins out—are so important,” Dr. Blum says. She encourages patients to load up on greens, lean protein, healthy fats, herbs, and to sip organic, low-sugar juices—all of which are nature’s contribution to the anti-inflammation crusade.
The beauty connection
While food plays a role beauty-wise (dermatologist-author Nicholas Perricone, MD, has famously extolled the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet for youthful, glowy skin), some experts believe there’s a key component Perricone evangelists tend to undersell: stress.
“In my opinion, the biggest culprit when it comes to inflammation is not diet, but stress,” says New York dermatologist Amy Wechsler, MD. Stress signals to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, she says, which then “commandeers” blood from the skin, leaving behind that wan, washed-out look.
More reading: Confirmed—dairy and sugar cause acne
Stress also releases other hormones, like cortisol, that contribute to inflammatory skin disorders, like acne, Dr. Wechsler explains. And tense people are prone to pimple-picking, she adds, which just exacerbates the inflammatory response.
To keep inflammation from hurting your skin, do what you can to cut stress—spend time with friends, sleep, cuddle or have sex with your partner, get outdoors, and exercise, Wechsler urges. “All of these things will help you feel less stressed and show visible and long-lasting results on your skin—and psyche,” she says.