Here's What Inflammation Actually Is—And When It's a Problem

chronic inflammation


The word "inflammation" gets thrown around a lot these days. We eat, exercise, and practice self-care in the name of lowering inflammation in our bodies and avoiding the many diseases associated with it, from cancer to depression.

While we can't knock you for staying on top of your anti-inflammatory game, there's a twist in the inflammation conversation we should all be talking about more: Inflammation isn't always a bad thing. Here's when inflammation is and isn't a problem.

Here's What Inflammation Is, and When It's a Problem

Believe it or not, inflammation on its own is actually a good thing. It's your body kicking into high gear and protecting itself. "Inflammation is simply the activation of the body’s defense system secondary to real or perceived threats and the sensing of foreign proteins, bacteria or bacteria cell walls, and viruses," explains Dr. Steven Gundry, MD. "For instance, the redness surrounding a cut represents white blood cells (soldiers in our immune system) cleaning up and attacking any bacteria, while growing new blood vessels to repair the injury. In this case, inflammation is good because it lasts only a short time."

Meet the Expert

Dr. Steven Gundry MD is a top heart surgeon and a pioneer in nutrition, as well as medical director at The International Heart and Lung Institute Center for Restorative Medicine. He has spent the last 16 years studying the microbiome and now helps patients use diet and nutrition as a key form of treatment. He is author of many New York times best selling books including The Plant Paradox.

Inflammation becomes an issue when it becomes chronic. Say you're eating fast food for lunch every single day, and then coming home and eating a bag of cookies. Over time, these unhealthy foods send the body into inflammation overload and it becomes chronic. "Chronic inflammation tends to recruit more and more soldiers to the battle, and collateral damage begins to occur," explains Gundry. "Most of us now feel coronary artery disease is one such process where plaques in the arteries occur, not from cholesterol per se, but are the result of chronic inflammation."

How to Know If You Have Chronic Inflammation

It would be nice if there were some obvious signs the body is dealing with chronic inflammation, but oftentimes these signs are silent. That's why keeping up with a healthy diet, getting exercise, and sleeping enough are important whether you want to lower inflammation in the body or just prevent chronic inflammation from happening in the first place.

There are a few obvious signs, though, and most of them have to do with gut health. "Fat in the gut actually occurs from 'leaky gut' and is associated chronic inflammation in the abdomen," says Gundry. "Rosacea or adult acne is the facial manifestation of a leaky gut. Arthritis is the result of chronic inflammation, all arising from a leaky gut. In fact, 2500 years ago, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, stated that all disease begins in the gut," Gundry adds.

What to Do About It

We know that a little inflammation isn't a bad thing. But if you suspect you're dealing with a larger issue, it's important to evaluate your lifestyle—and this doesn't have to mean overhauling it completely. Just make sure you're eating a vegetable-rich diet, sleeping enough, keeping stress at bay whenever you can, and getting at least 30 minutes of exercise every day.

If you don't feel this is working and you want specifics, Gundry has them. "As I’ve shown in multiple papers presented at the American Heart Association, when the gut is healed by a combination of appropriate probiotics, prebiotics, and avoiding plant proteins that contain Lectins (like gluten for instance), dramatic reduction of inflammation and remission from autoimmune diseases occur."

The Bottom Line

Long story short, inflammation isn't always negative, and you shouldn't leave in fear of it. Just make sure to look out for signs that it's becoming chronic, and do your best to live a lifestyle that will stop your inflammation levels from getting out of hand in the first place.

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