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Chronic inflammation takes a toll on your health: something as innocuous as painful joints can signal chronic inflammation.

Most of us have suffered the swelling, redness, and warmth that develop after a minor injury, and this acute inflammation is an appropriate response to repairing injured tissue, as well as repelling harmful viruses and bacteria. However, inflammation also may be involved in a slew of debilitating health conditions. "There is evidence that even low-level chronic inflammation damages the arteries, which can lead to heart attack and stroke," says Mount Sinai cardiologist Bruce Darrow, MD, PhD. "It also can destroy brain cells, promote the development of cancerous tumors, and contribute to arthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease."

So how is it that something as simple and protective as inflammation can also underpin life-changing diseases? Dr. Darrow says the answer can be found in the differences between inflammation that is acute, and that which is chronic and can become self-perpetuating and systemic.

Double-edged sword Inflammation is one of the immune system's first-line weapons in response to bacteria, viruses, and other microbial invaders: a physiological response that is designed to jumpstart the process of healing. It's a complex mechanism. If the body's tissues suffer a trauma, damaged cells release pro-inflammatory chemicals. Blood flow increases to the affected area, resulting in heat and redness of the skin; and the pro-inflammatory chemicals at the site make blood vessels more permeable, so that they leak fluid into the tissues, swelling them. The chemicals also attract white blood cells that "eat" bacteria and dead or damaged cells.

Ordinarily, this healing process is over within a few days or weeks--but it can lay the groundwork for chronic disease if it doesn't switch off. "The end result is chronic systemic inflammation," says Dr. Darrow, "a continuous flood of pro-inflammatory chemicals and immune cells that damage the lining of blood vessels, organs, and joints."

Firefighting Statins and other medications--such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil[R], Motrin[R]), and corticosteroids (used to treat rheumatoid arthritis)--can reduce inflammatory chemicals. But these drugs come with side effects that can be harmful. Dr. Darrow points to anti-inflammatory lifestyle modifications as a way to improve your health without risking additional problems. Consider these changes:


C-reactive protein (CRP) is produced by the liver, and levels rise when inflammation is present in the body. Saturated fat (which is present in meat and full-fat dairy) and trans fats (which is found in many refined baked goods--check product labels for partially-hydrogenated oils) can raise your CRP levels. Dr. Darrow suggests that you eat a Mediterranean-style diet, focusing on plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein, such as fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, trout), poultry, and beans. "The Mediterranean diet limits your consumption of saturated and trans fats," Dr. Darrow notes. "It also boosts your intake of the omega-3 fatty acids that may combat inflammation, as well as antioxidants the body uses to manufacture anti-inflammatory chemicals."


"Getting more exercise will help you control obesity, which is strongly associated with inflammation," Dr. Darrow says. "Even modest weight loss--say, five to 10 pounds--can measurably reduce your levels of CRP."


"Red wine contains antioxidants that are thought to dampen down inflammation in blood vessels," says Dr. Darrow. "However, excessive alcohol consumption is associated with a higher risk for certain cancers, liver disease, depression, and falls. Alcohol also interacts with many medications." If you consume alcohol, limit your intake to no more than one drink a day.


"CRP and other markers of inflammation may be consistently elevated in people who experience chronic stress and/or depression," Dr. Darrow says. Meditation and exercise can help you combat stress and depression--yoga may be particularly helpful, with studies indicating that it lowers CRP and another key inflammatory marker, interleukin-6.


Try to clock in a good seven hours of sleep each night, since research suggests that people who get less have significantly increased levels of CRP, interleukin-6, and fibrinogen (also an inflammatory marker).


Smoking is known to promote inflammation, so quit the habit if you haven't done so already. Your doctor can recommend smoking cessation aids that may help, while the American Cancer Society (1-800-227-2345) can provide details of local support groups for quitters.


Several studies have linked gum disease and heart disease--it's possible the bacteria that cause inflammation and swelling of the gums also may contribute to systemic inflammation and narrowing of the arteries. Floss and brush twice every I day--if your manual dexterity is limited by arthritis, consider using a water pik to thoroughly clean between your teeth.
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Publication:Focus on Healthy Aging
Date:Aug 1, 2015
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