What do we really know about inflammation and how it affects our bodies?

On a daily basis, inflammation can lead to suboptimal performance and dampen our sense of vitality. It’s also connected with numerous diseases and disorders, including Alzheimer’s, heart disease, arthritis, autoimmune disease and even depression. And yet, it’s often misunderstood. In order to really feel like we’re thriving every day, it’s important to address inflammation; to do that, we must understand what causes it and why.

Why does inflammation occur?

Inflammation is like the blinking red warning light in your car that tells you something is wrong; it’s a sign there’s something you need to address within your body. Your immune system’s main job is to protect you from harmful substances while promoting healing. When you scrape your knee, twist your ankle or inhale germs from a sick coworker, your body’s defense mechanism takes over. It fights against what it views as an external attack by increasing the flow of blood, fluids and proteins to the location of the tissue damage—this starts the healing process. During this process, swelling occurs as the body seeks to protect the affected area, in turn producing heat and uncomfortable natural side effects like pain, redness and reduced mobility. This is inflammation.

Beyond obvious injury, there are many things that cause inflammation, including pollutants in the air we breathe— ozone, carbon monoxide from cars, dust, formaldehyde, cigarette smoke, mold—and chemicals found in products we use every day. Cleaning supplies, cosmetics, lotions, artificial sweeteners, perfumes—we inevitably inhale or absorb small amounts of toxins when we use products with chemical additives. Overtime, these pollutants and chemicals accumulate in our bodies and our immune system is forced to get rid of them. If you’re at all sensitive to these chemicals, your body has to work even harder—as it attacks these foreign bodies, it triggers an inflammatory response.

Other causes of inflammation include excessive use of alcohol, which can weaken the function of the liver and other organs. Trans fat—found in fast food, cookies, donuts and many other processed snacks—may also trigger systemic inflammation.

Acute Inflammation

There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation occurs when the body releases chemicals that cause swelling and that attract white blood cells to an injured area in order to prevent infection. For example, acute inflammation occurs when you twist your ankle and it swells, reddens and heats up; you may even have to stay off your foot for 2 to 3 weeks while the healing process runs its course. Your body is telling you to slow down so it can repair the damage.

Acute inflammation takes place in the body daily—it’s not always something we feel. After all, the body has to detoxify itself on an ongoing basis, clearing out potentially harmful substances and stressors to keep us healthy. Inflammation works hard to protect us and this is a very good thing.

Chronic Inflammation

The other type of inflammation is chronic inflammation—this is long-term inflammation that may last months or even years. Left unaddressed, persistent, acute inflammation may evolve into chronic inflammation.

Chronic inflammation develops slowly. Viruses, bacteria and other pathogens, can cause the body’s immune system to function on overdrive. Some autoimmune diseases cause the immune system to attack normal, healthy cells, mistaking them for pathogens and leading to chronic inflammation. With Celiac disease, for example, gluten sets off an autoimmune response that damages the small intestines and potentially causes joint pain.

Malignant tumors may actually gain strength from the presence of inflammation; as the body attempts to heal the tumor, it draws oxygen and other nutrients to the area to assist with healing. The tumor may then “hijack” these nutrients, helping it grow and spread while leading to even more inflammation—a vicious cycle.

How to Support Your Body in Fighting Chronic Inflammation

Eating right is one way to make sure you’re providing your body with the right kind of support to address inflammation and fight off unwanted pathogens. According to Harvard Medical School, “one of the most powerful tools to combat inflammation comes not from the pharmacy” but from foods like tomatoes, olive oil, kale, spinach, walnuts, almonds, fish and berries.

Exercise is also key. Studies by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine suggest that as little as 20 minutes of exercise “can stimulate the immune system, producing an anti-inflammatory cellular response.” It’s also been suggested that as we age, moderate physical activity performed on a regular basis can lessen the impact of inflammatory biomarkers.

Supplements geared toward reducing inflammation, especially taken in conjunction with an active and healthy lifestyle, can also help ward off inflammation. The VitaYears™ line of anti-aging vitamins and energy-boosting supplements feature powerful anti-inflammatories that promote your body’s natural anti-aging functions at a molecular level.

Inflammation can be both friend and enemy. Our bodies would break apart quickly without acute inflammation since it’s a major part of the tissue-repair process. On the other hand, chronic inflammation can contribute to the development of diseases like cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis and others. Taking steps to address inflammation on an ongoing basis can help ensure we live our longest, best lives!