It's one of the most popular terms in wellness, but according to doctors, it's one of the most misunderstood, too. Inflammation is often used as a catch-all term for all bad health conditions, but medical experts say it's a bit more nuanced than that. Here, notable physicians dispel common myths about inflammation to set the record straight.
Myth 1: Inflammation is inherently a bad thing
Can inflammation cause health probs? Absolutely. But Mark Hyman, MD says that doesn't mean inflammation as a whole is the evil many assume it is. "Inflammation is part of the body's natural defense system," he says. Basically, when your body detects foreign invaders (like bacteria or a virus), Dr. Hyman says your white blood cells and immune system chemicals called cytokines "mobilize to protect you," causing inflammation.
He explains that the cytokines are critical to our health—they help wounds heal and repair arteries. "However, if inflammatory cytokines are being overproduced for a long period of time, then we start to see issues and chronic disease," Dr. Hyman says. "This is when the inflammation can run rampant, causing a chronic smoldering fire inside your body that contributes to disease and so much more."
Holistic women's health psychiatrist Kelly Brogan, MD, echoes Dr. Hyman's stance that inflammation isn't always bad. "In fact, it is an essential language of the body," she says. "It is more like a regulatory communication and response system than an unfortunate mistake that needs to be corrected." In other words, without inflammation, the body wouldn't know anything is wrong.
Myth 2: Inflammation is always easy to spot
While some signs of inflammation are obvious—redness, swelling, and parts of the body that feel hot to the touch—integrative family medicine physician Bindiya Gandhi, MD, says she's often encountered patients experiencing inflammation without even realizing it. "[Many] people are not aware they have any inflammation until we check labs, and sometimes people have vague symptoms like fatigue, joint pain, or malaise," she says. And because some of these signs of chronic inflammation can seem like other conditions (or are subtle), people don't often recognize them for what they are. Regular face time with your MD can help pinpoint the exact reasons why it's happening.
Myth 3: All it takes is one lifestyle or dietary change to keep inflammation away
Dr. Gandhi says another common misconception she sees about inflammation is that many people think it can be fixed with a single action, like consuming more turmeric or avoiding a common food allergen. "In fact, there are numerous [changes] together you have to work on to improve overall inflammation after you find out what the root cause including dietary changes, taking supplements, stress management, and more," she says.
Fortunately, she says, inflammation can be reversed. "A lot of people also think they can't improve or reduce their inflammatory makers but with work and effort, it is possible to reverse them."
Inflammation expert and The Plant Paradox author Steven Gundry, MD, completely agrees with Dr. Gandhi. "If irritants, foreign proteins, and bacteria are flooding into our bodies, taking a few anti-inflammatory substances is like trying to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun," he says. "Instead, it’s much easier to eliminate the foods and substances that cause the inflammation to start in the first place." He suggests starting with an elimination diet, which can help pinpoint what exact foods or substances are causing inflammation in your body—although this should be done with the help of a doctor or dietitian to make sure that you're still getting the proper nutrition your body needs.
Myth 4: Inflammation is complicated and knowing where to start fighting it is confusing
While it's true that fighting inflammation typically involves many steps and not just one "quick fix," Dr. Gandhi says there's one common place to start: diet. "In Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, most disease process and inflammation starts in the gut and many people don't pay enough attention to nutrition," she says. "This is the first pillar of improving overall health and inflammation. Dietary changes can be hard and challenging but when you eat right for your body type and your medical ailments you will see great vast improvement." Basically, if you don't know how to start healing your body, start with the gut.
Myth 5: Inflammation is inevitable
If you've ever looked into ways to avoid inflammation, it can be overwhelming. Everything seems to cause it, from stress to sugar. But Dr. Hyman emphasizes that taking measures to lower it—like making dietary changes, exercising, managing stress, and getting enough sleep—pay off big time. "Addressing the causes of inflammation, and learning how to live an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, can protect your body and your brain," he says.
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