The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

You have probably heard of inflammation — and may even have a sense that it’s not a condition you want to have. What you may not realize is that there’s a lot you can do to prevent it, and that it’s not always a bad thing.

Inflammation, Defined
Inflammation, in its most general sense, is what happens when your body’s immune system tries to fight off something it believes to be harmful. When you get a splinter in your finger, for example, your immune system will fight back by triggering white blood cells to release chemicals into your bloodstream.

This causes your blood vessels to expand to allow more blood to flow to the affected area, which can become red, hot and swollen. Likewise, when you get a bacterial infection, your body mounts an inflammatory response to neutralize the pathogen, causing a fever.

This may not feel so great, but it’s how you know your body is trying to protect you from harm, and it stops once your body heals itself.

When It’s Bad
The danger occurs when your immune system fights its own cells by mistake and continues to do so for a prolonged period of time.

Why this happens is not always clear, but it can be very harmful — even fatal — because it can lead to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and cancer.

“There’s still some question as to whether inflammation starts before or as a consequence of other underlying disease processes in the body,” says Donna Arnett, PhD, MSPH, Dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky and Past President of the American Heart Association.

For example, she says, “we know there is an inflammatory process that is initiated at the outset of atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), but whether it’s the lipids in the artery walls that create inflammation, or if inflammation is what’s causing the atherosclerosis — we don’t know.”

Prevention With Healthy Habits
There is much that researchers do know, however. And this knowledge can help people understand how to prevent inflammation and its associated conditions, says Dr. Arnett.

“Chronic poor nutrition and obesity can stimulate inflammation,” she explains. “Weight gain can create a chronic level of inflammation and that may further accelerate some other biological processes of aging, such as atherosclerosis.”

Therefore, Dr. Arnett recommends losing weight if you are overweight and having a healthy diet composed of whole foods such as whole grains, vegetables and healthier fats from olive oil, nuts and seeds, along with limiting that amount of fried foods and those high in saturated fats.

Eating yogurt and fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, also have been shown to reduce inflammation, says Dr. Arnett. “Our gut micro biomes determine how we process food,” she explains. “When you take probiotics, that shifts the micro biome to better process the food you eat. Diets that do not promote a healthy micro biome distribution can lead to inflammation in your intestines. There is some evidence that you can develop a leaky gut, leading to chronic inflammation.”

In addition to having a healthy diet, Dr. Arnett and other health experts recommend exercising about 150 minutes per week to prevent chronic illness.

“Smoking is also an insult that can lead to inflammation of the lung,” she says. “So stopping smoking should reduce that inflammatory process.”

Dr. Arnett says that these steps will not only reduce the risk of developing inflammation and its associated illnesses, it will go far in promoting good health overall.

“Eighty percent of chronic disease can be prevented by these activities,” she says.

Gum Disease & Inflammation
Though it may seem unrelated, another way to prevent inflammation is through good oral health, she says. Inflammation from oral health problems such as gum disease has been associated with other illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Having diabetes lowers the body’s ability to fight infection, putting the gums at risk. But research also shows that good periodontal care can improve blood glucose control.

And endocarditis — an infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers and heart valves — can occur when bacteria in your mouth spread through your bloodstream and attach to the lining of the heart.

“Maintaining good oral hygiene and preventing gum disease are important in preventing chronic inflammation,” Dr. Arnett says.