When I think of inflammation, images of swelled skin and rosy cystic acne-dotted cheeks come to mind. But our bodies are capable of producing signs of inflammation that many of us overlook. And given that inflammation is a protective response against cell injury, infection, trauma, stress and allergen exposure, according Cynthia Li, MD, board-certified internist and author of Brave New Medicine: A Doctor’s Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness, keeping inflammation levels to a minimum is a great way to optimize your chances of living a long and healthy life.
A new study from JAMA Pediatrics proves how important it is to think about inflammation in broader terms than, say, that recent infected paper cut. In the study, researchers from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center tracked 106,000 healthy adolescents free of any preexisting conditions, and noted that participants who had the highest levels of inflammation early in life were at a greater risk of contracting heart disease and cancer three decades later, and dying prematurely.
Researchers measured their levels of inflammation by determining their erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)—the speed at which red blood cells settle at the bottom of the test tube. (The idea is that the quicker the cells fall, the more likely they are to be filled with dense proteins that indicate some form of inflammation). But there are far easier ways to identify inflammation that don’t necessarily require you put yourself on your family physician’s three-month waiting list. According to Dr. Li, the four principal signs of inflammation were first introduced in ancient Rome as rubor (redness), tumor (swelling), calor (heat), and dolor (pain).
“With chronic inflammation, often the inflammation occurs on a much smaller level, such that these classical signs aren’t observable on the macroscopic level,” explains Dr. Li. “This level of inflammation is more experienced by way of generalized symptoms like fatigue, stiffness, aches, or if the inflammation is more localized, it might appear as a headache, brain fog, digestive changes, or itching.” And then there are those signs of indirect inflammation that you won’t find by checking your temperature or holding up a mirror real close (like, real close). Dr. Li explains that if your cholesterol levels suddenly spike, for example, it could indicate low-grade inflammation within your blood vessels that have generated extra cholesterol molecules to repair any damage. (Since high cholesterol is asymptomatic, only a blood test will determine if you have it, and if you do have it, it isn’t necessarily a result of inflammation.)
While the study drew a link between inflammation and premature death, note that chronic inflammation begins surreptitiously, often years or decades before a chronic disease is diagnosed, according to Dr. Li. “It’s during this window of time that root causes of inflammation can be most readily addressed, and a bona fide disease potentially averted,” she says.
If you can’t detect any of the aforementioned warning signs, Dr. Li says certain lifestyle habits may also paint a portrait of levels of inflammation in your body. She says consuming processed foods like industrial seed oils damage cells through oxidative stress, which increase inflammation by reacting with other cells. Refined carbohydrates might spike insulin levels, which over time can raise your risk of contracting diabetes. Similarly, if you’re constantly emotionally and mentally stressed, Dr. Li says you might experience digestive issues, that lead to leaky gut syndrome or increased intestinal permeability, which eventually contribute to inflammation throughout the entire body.
Your first step in managing inflammation levels? Talk to you doctor. And don’t stress about it. After all, stress does contribute to even more inflammation.
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