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Inflammation: Make It More Friend Than Foe

By on February 18th, 2015 Categories: Uncategorized

There are many health risks — lack of sleep, lack of exercise, and being overweight, to name three. Still, most have one thing in common: They increase inflammation in our bodies. So what is inflammation, exactly? This column will explain the basics about inflammation: how it’s both helpful and harmful, and how to decrease it.

How inflammation can help and harm

Inflammation is not a disease or a lifestyle issue. It’s a reaction. If you bump your head on a doorframe, you’ll develop a lump on the spot. When you come down with the flu, you run a fever. When you touch poison ivy, you get a rash. And if you’re allergic to wool, you itch when it touches your skin. All these are examples of inflammation, the immune system’s response to an injury, illness, allergy, or other trigger.

Inflammation happens when chemical messengers in the body called cytokines tell white blood cells and proteins to rush to a problem, fight it, and then help heal it. Damaged cells also produce healing chemicals. The combination of white blood cells, proteins, and healing chemicals increases circulation to the area, which produces heat, swelling, and pain.

The inflammatory process is completely normal and it’s how our body fights illness and repairs damage.

There are two types of inflammation:

  • acute inflammation comes on suddenly and goes away after its job is done
  • chronic (long-term) inflammation means the immune system is causing inflammation all or most of the time at a low level

Acute inflammation helps us heal, but chronic inflammation can harm us. Chronic inflammation means the immune system is working overtime and may not know when to stop.

In chronic inflammation, the overload of certain cells and proteins can damage the body’s cells and tissues and change the way they function. Inflammation can even produce extra heat in and around our cells. These changes can make you more likely to get sick. Chronic inflammation can be limited to a certain part of the body, such as your mouth if your teeth are in poor condition. Chronic inflammation also can affect your whole body if you have a condition that affects your whole body, such as obesity.

No matter how it starts, chronic inflammation can lead to many kinds of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

How inflammation starts

Chronic inflammation can be caused by many things, including long-term health problems and lifestyle choices, such as smoking and drinking alcohol. It also can be caused by environmental toxins. Some possible causes are:

  • chronic infections, such as herpes, hepatitis B, or HPV (human papillomavirus, which can cause genital warts)
  • allergies
  • insulin resistance caused by diabetes
  • being overweight
  • long-term exposure to toxins on the job (nail-salon fumes, for example) or around your home (such as living near an oil refinery)
  • a diet low in fruits and vegetables and/or high in sugar and trans fats, which lowers antioxidant levels in the body and the body’s ability to fight free radicals; antioxidants are compounds that protect cells from free radicals, which are harmful molecules

Stress alert

More and more research suggests stress is the link between chronic inflammation and the health issues it can lead to. Just like inflammation, stress can be a good thing or a bad thing. Acute stress lasts minutes to hours. It can actually make you perform better — like getting fired up for a big sporting event. Chronic stress lasts weeks or longer — like being unemployed for many months. Chronic stress affects how the immune system functions, which can lead to ongoing inflammation.

Recent studies of people experiencing different types of chronic stress looked at their levels of certain proteins linked to chronic inflammation. The strongest evidence linking stress and inflammation was seen in people caring for a loved one with a long-term illness and people who were abused as children. Employment-related stress, poverty, and depression/PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) also were linked to chronic inflammation. Another study found signs of chronic inflammation in people who were lonely or had just been diagnosed with a serious illness.

Clearly, what’s going on in your life and your mind can change the way your body functions — and increase the risk of disease.

The cancer-inflammation link

The latest evidence suggests that chronic inflammation may encourage the development of cancer instead of discouraging it. After a while, constantly activated and tired immune cells can cause changes in genes that may turn normal cells into abnormal cells, including cancer cells. Chronic inflammation creates an unhealthy environment that might make it easier for abnormal cells to grow and spread.

The breast cancer connection

The link between inflammation and breast cancer is less clear than links between inflammation and other cancers. Several large studies of levels of specific inflammation markers in people’s blood showed no link to a higher risk of breast cancer. Still, higher levels of inflammation markers were linked to worse breast cancer outcomes.

It’s important to know that the inflammation process we’re talking about is totally separate from inflammatory breast cancer. This type of breast cancer is uncommon and tends to be aggressive. It’s called “inflammatory” breast cancer because it usually starts with the reddening and swelling of the breast.

Preventing and easing inflammation

Scientists are still studying exactly how the inflammation process works and how to keep the balance of good and bad effects in check. You can have chronic inflammation and have no noticeable symptoms. Your body produces a protein called C-reactive protein during the inflammatory process. A blood test to measure C-reactive protein levels can tell you if you have higher than normal levels of inflammation. The test costs between $60 and $150 and may or may not be covered by insurance. If you know you have higher than normal levels of C-reactive protein, you may want to take steps to decrease inflammation.

Eat healthy: The best way to reduce inflammation is through healthy eating. Research shows that the right nutrients can help reduce inflammation and protect the body from genetic damage. A healthy diet also helps lowers the risk that you’ll gain extra weight, which also increases inflammation.

  • My column, “For Your Health: Add Spice” explains how using turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, and rosemary can be an anti-inflammatory (and tasty) addition to your meals.
  • Foods with polyphenols (a type of antioxidant that helps the body fight disease) are also anti-inflammatory and are linked to a lower risk of cancer. Polyphenols are found in coffee, tea, and cocoa as well as berries, apples, and certain nuts.
  • Some scientists suggest the best anti-cancer program is a plant-based (vegan) diet, which has also been shown to reduce risk for heart disease and diabetes. This type of diet is centered on whole foods, particularly plenty of vegetables, fruits, grains, and non-animal protein. A plant-based menu also contains many phytochemicals — compounds produced by plants that help protect cells from damage that could lead to cancer.

Support your gut: New evidence shows it’s not just what you put in your mouth, but the condition of your belly and intestines that affects inflammation. The gut microbiome — the trillions of bacteria and other organisms that live in our gastrointestinal tract — has a big influence on health. (“Micro” means very small and “biome” means a community of living things.) Both friendly and disease-causing organisms live in our gut, with the good guys keeping the bad guys in check. The microbiome plays a big role in regulating our immune system. What we eat, the medicines we take, and our environment all affect the gut microbiome.

  • Some health experts recommend probiotic supplements to support gut health. Probiotics are live bacteria such as Acidophilus (found in yogurt) that are the same or similar to the microorganisms in the gut. Probiotics may help keep the gut microbiome in balance and healthy, especially if you’ve taken a course of antibiotics. Antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria in the gut.

Ease long-term stress: If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, are dealing with side effects (especially pain), are unemployed, are caring for an ill loved one, or are having financial troubles, it’s understandable that you’re worried and tense most of the time. Still, if you can find ways to ease these emotional and physical stresses in your life, your body will feel and be much healthier.

  • Find outlets to bust stress, such as exercise, meditation, yoga, funny movies, talking to friends, or writing in a journal.
  • Check out the advice in my column “Don’t Stress About Stress and Risks.”
  • Connect with others through the Breastcancer.org Discussion Boards.
  • Join a support group in your area. Ask your doctor or someone on your medical team about what’s available at your hospital or in your community.

Get to and maintain a healthy weight: Research has shown that excess weight can cause chronic inflammation, so it makes sense to keep the excess pounds off.

  • If you’re overweight, I offer many suggestions in my Think Pink, Live Green column “Diet vs. Rethinking How Your Eat.”
  • Limit sugar, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol.
  • Cover your plate with fresh, nutrient-dense foods. Fill two-thirds of your plate with fresh vegetables and fruits, and one-third with meat and dairy products. Make sure you eat enough healthy fat (found in salmon and other fatty fish, avocados, seeds, nuts, and olive oil, among others). You’ll feel full longer and may be less tempted by unhealthy, processed food.
  • Go for variety. Buy a new fruit or vegetable each time you shop for groceries to keep from getting bored with your diet.
  • Drink water or drinks with no sugar added if you’re hungry between meals. Avoid soda, lemonade, sweetened iced tea, and juices.

Consider a daily dose of aspirin: Some research shows that taking over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can reduce the risk of developing certain cancers, including colorectal cancer. NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium (Advil, Aleve, etc.).

The benefits of NSAIDs for breast cancer are still being studied. The most promising results suggest NSAIDs can help reduce breast cancer recurrence, as well as the risk of dying from breast cancer after being diagnosed.

Still, it’s important to ask your doctor if a daily aspirin makes sense for you. There are some risks to daily aspirin, including stomach irritation and bleeding. Also, some people are allergic to aspirin.

Consider brushing and flossing more: There’s no direct evidence that brushing your teeth and flossing more often can ease chronic inflammation in your body. But research does suggest that if you have chronic inflammation, you’re more likely to have gum disease and other dental problems. So it makes sense to brush your teeth after every meal and floss at least once a day. It’s also a good idea to avoid candy, sugary drinks, and gum sweetened with sugar.

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.


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