The Good Life Report: Inflammation

New research points to one root cause behind a myriad of health problems. Understand it. Tame it. Feel better, fast.

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The human body is a brilliant, slightly mad scientist when it comes to keeping you healthy. Overheat at the gym? Sweat pours out of your skin to cool you down. Eat something toxic? Anyone who's ever had a bout of food poisoning knows the digestive tract will do everything possible to get rid of it. Cut your finger? Your immune system swells the area with an army of soldier cells that fight off bacteria. Then, like magic, everything is normal again.

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Yet researchers have recently discovered that our healthy mechanisms can backfire big-time. When we repeatedly "injure" our bodies on the inside—say, by carrying extra weight or eating junky foods that cause plaque buildup in our arteries—our immune system kicks into constant overdrive. The result is chronic inflammation, which research links to everything from brain fog and bloating to diseases including diabetes and arthritis, and possibly even some forms of cancer. So if you're feeling sluggish or lethargic most of the time, inflammation could be to blame. Gut problems like rumbly intestines or uncomfortable gas? There's a good chance it's inflammation here, too.

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In fact, doctors say many of us are dealing with this double-edged sword, whether we know it or not. "Inflammation is a huge issue of our time," says cardiologist Holly Andersen, M.D., of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Hospital in New York. "We're finding that it's fundamental to most disease and intricately tied to our overall health."

While scientists are still uncovering all of the ways that inflammation can wreak havoc inside our bodies (and it's a long list already), they do know that some fairly simple lifestyle shifts can prevent and fix the trouble, so you feel much better every day. "You know all the things that the wise old people in our lives have told us to do for decades—things like not smoking, not being sedentary, staying at a healthy weight, and even giving back to your community? Science is now proving that these things help a lot when it comes to inflammation," Andersen says.

Read on to find out how a natural process with such good intentions gets out of whack, and discover the simple lifestyle shifts you can make to keep your body humming along the way it was designed to.

Ok, Back Up: What Exactly Is Inflammation?

It starts with the immune system—the body's SWAT team that fends off invaders and keeps us going strong. Say you step on a piece of glass and cut your foot. Your immune system sends its soldiers—white blood cells and other immune-boosting substances—to the injured area to fight off bacteria and heal the cut. Your foot might swell, turn red, and feel painful and hot, but those are signs that your immune system is fighting a good fight. When it wins the battle, those soldiers go back to their bunkers to rest—until the next everyday boo-boo or bigger issue arises.

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All good, right? Not necessarily. The immune system doesn't just wage these helpful little wars when you cut yourself, sprain your ankle, or have some other obvious injury; it quietly does the same thing inside your body whenever it perceives that something is "off." Perhaps there's plaque on the walls of the arteries around your heart. If your immune soldiers are constantly assaulting the area, it makes that plaque more vulnerable to rupturing and causing a blockage or clot—which you probably won't know is happening until it turns into a heart attack or stroke. That's just one of the ways we can "injure" ourselves inside our bodies (you'll read about more later), and inflammation is the result.

So the process is brilliant—up to a point. If your immune system rages on and on because the insults don't let up, inflammation shifts into turbodrive, and your immune soldiers start releasing chemicals that actually damage the tissue instead of healing it, says Barbara Nicklas, Ph.D., an inflammation researcher and professor of geriatrics at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. Yes, your stressed-out immune system ends up attacking healthy tissue.

Since these inflammatory soldiers zip around your body via your circulatory system, they can cause problems there. They may also make their way to specific organs, such as your heart, brain, or gut, and do real damage—particularly over time—contributing to dementia, inflammatory bowel diseases, and more. No, this is not an emergency. But read on to figure out where inflammation might travel in your body, as well as the basic diet and lifestyle changes you can make to tamp it down.

Where Inflammation Goes—and Why

Inflammation would probably be easier for physicians to diagnose and treat if it had a single cause and made a beeline for just one spot in the body. "We actually don't know why inflammation goes to the heart in one person, the GI tract in another, and the brain in another," says Amir Soumekh, M.D., a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, "but we do think that genetics plays a role."

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Andersen explains it this way: "If, for example, you have a genetic predisposition for heart disease, the cells in your heart are handicapped in that they have more receptors there to 'catch' the inflammatory white blood cells," she says. And once there's inflammation in one spot, more tends to follow.

When it comes to heart health, for instance, inflamed arteries actually allow cholesterol to nestle into their walls, says Andersen, opening the doors for that fat to accumulate and build into heart attack-inducing plaque. Similar processes fight, inflame, and disrupt tissues in the brain, the gut, the joints, and any other area where you may be genetically predisposed to having issues. And because many of our not-so-healthy lifestyle habits continuously trigger inflammation in our bodies (see more on those below), we're taxing our system to the point where it's not able to do what it was designed to.

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The Triggers + The Fixes

Sorry, you can't change where your inflammation magnets are. But you can take simple steps to lower inflammation that's already amped up, prevent more, and get your immune system working efficiently again. The usual trifecta—lose weight, eat well, exercise more—can work wonders, says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State University. In fact, when scientists at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reviewed the research, they found that losing weight is directly related to decreased markers of inflammation in your body. Exercise has also been shown to reduce these. The bottom line: You have the power to fix much of this trouble, once you know how it started.

Inflammation TriggerBeing overweight

How could those extra 15 or 20 pounds incite inflammation? Fat cells don't just sit there doing nothing; they're metabolically active, and actually spit out compounds that ramp up inflammation, says Ishwarlal Jialal, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Laboratory for Atherosclerosis and Metabolic Research at University of California Davis Medical Center. As those fat cells plump up, they prompt your immune soldiers to migrate to them and "fight" them off. That brings on—you guessed it—more inflammation.

Tame It: If you need to drop pounds, a sensible weight loss plan is the number one way to reduce inflammation. The less engorged your fat cells are, the fewer inflammatory molecules will float around in your body. It's that simple, says Jialal.

Inflammation Trigger: Skimping on good fats

To keep your immune army in fighting form, it needs the right fats, namely omega-6 and omega-3 fats. Working together, they regulate inflammation, so not only do cells know when to attack, they also know when to retreat after the job is done. Both are crucial for good health, says Kris-Etherton. We get plenty of omega-6 fats from vegetable oils and nut butters, and from some less great foods like packaged snacks and fried stuff. "The problem is that the average person isn't getting enough omega-3s," she says.

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Tame It: Fill up on foods rich in omega-3s, including oily fish like salmon and trout, veggies (kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts are good sources), and flaxseed and walnut oils. And crowd out processed snacks and fast foods for smarter sources of omega-6s.

Inflammation Trigger: Belly problems

Keep your gut happy and the rest of you may follow. "The gut contains the largest reserve of immune cells in the body—they line the entire GI tract," says Soumekh. There, they help our bodies figure out which nutrients, vitamins, and minerals we need and digest them. The things we don't need, like chemicals and germs, it attacks. Everyone's digestive system is different, and some people's immune cells pounce on innocent foods. In those with celiac disease, for instance, the immune system thinks gluten is an invader. In other people, cells battle other seemingly random foods, like soy or nuts, causing allergic reactions rather than digesting them. Constant immune attacks may weaken the gut lining, allowing food to leak through it and float around where it shouldn't be. The result? More sieges on food particles now free-floating around the body. This is known as leaky gut, and a growing number of experts point to it as a cause of inflammation.

Tame It: If you have periodic tummy trouble and aren't sure which foods your body objects to, try eliminating common bad guys—like dairy, gluten, soy, eggs, and alcohol—for a week. Do you have more energy and fewer digestive woes, and just generally feel better? If so, reintroduce each food group slowly and notice if the symptoms come back (take notes on what you're eating and how you feel, if you think it will help you nail the exact culprits). "Feeling less bloated, gassy, and lethargic and having more energy overall are good signs that the foods you've cut from your diet were causing some gut issues," says Kris-Etherton.

Inflammation Trigger: Constant stress

There's stress that's good for you (the kind that prompts you to grab a child's hand as she reaches for your hot coffee). And then there's tension that keeps us in heightened-alert mode for much of the day (just say "morning commute" or "mean boss"). It's the continuous, low-grade stress that messes with our inflammation response. New research from the Ohio State University found that chronic stress changes immune cells before they enter the bloodstream, priming them to fight infections even when there's no actual invader there. Stress also pushes up our cortisol levels, which prompts the body to store extra calories as fat in our belly—creating a double-whammy inflammation response.

Tame It: Breathe deeper, get enough sleep, create new boards on Pinterest, do something nice for a neighbor, carve out more "me" time—whatever calms you down and makes you feel good. "I tell my busy friends to take a five-minute bathroom break, even if they don't need one," says Dr. Oz. "Shut the lid, sit down, and just close your eyes for a few minutes. The silence is a powerful stress reducer."

Inflammation Trigger: Sitting too much

Muscles do a lot more than help you look great, lift things, and get you up that hill at the end of your walking route; they actually release anti-inflammatory substances when they're at work, says Nicklas.

Tame It: Moderate exercise, done consistently, has been shown to lower certain markers of inflammation. Hate tough workouts? Rejoice: Pushing yourself too hard can actually cause inflammation, says Nicklas. So start slow and steadily build the length and intensity of your activity sessions. Aim for exercise you can do regularly, not just once a week. If getting moving also helps you lose weight, that's another big dent in inflammation. Dr. Oz's rule of thumb: Activity should make you breathy when speaking, but not out of breath. That means your heart rate is up, but not stressing your body.

That's it—your anti-inflammatory to-do list. Rest assured, these moves will make you noticeably healthier whether inflammation is causing a ruckus within or not. Let's get started, all of us.

Where it Hits and Hurts

Sneaky inflammation may be at the root of many troubles.

  • The Heart: Plaque buildup, hardening of the artery walls, heart attack, stroke
  • The Brain:  Alzheimer's, brain fog
  • The Gut:  Ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome (and the pain, gas, and bloating that can come with it)
  • The Skin:  Acne, rosacea, psoriasis, eczema
  • The Lungs:  Allergic asthma
  • The Joints:  General pain and arthritis
  • All Over: Diabetes, cancer, fatigue, feeling "meh," and low-grade depression

The Test That Reveals Trouble Inside

While doctors can't yet measure inflammation directly, they have a blood test to check for one of its markers, called C-reactive protein (CRP). A high level of CRP indicates chronic inflammation, which raises your risk of cardiovascular disease, for one. In fact, the Harvard Women's Health Study found CRP levels may be more accurate than cholesterol in predicting heart disease. This test can't tell you where inflammation lurks, but "it's one tool that may help tell us if you're dealing with this problem or not," says cardiologist Andersen. Talk with your doctor about adding a CRP screen to your next round of bloodwork.

This story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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