7 Things Doctors Want You To Understand About Inflammation

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The dangers of inflammation gets talked about a lot. For instance, chronic inflammation can lead to autoimmune diseases and maybe even the development of cancer. While the effects of inflammation and the many ways to reduce it get a lot of attention, what do we really know about it? According to doctors, there a few key things you should know about inflammation. There's a lot more to inflammation than it being "bad" for you.

First off, inflammation in the body happens to everyone whether you realize it or not. "When the immune system recognizes that a part of the body is damaged, it sends a troop of cells, called inflammatory cells, to stimulate healing," Dr. Tania Elliott, associate attending physician at NYU Langone Health, tells Bustle.

Think about the last time you had a cut on your skin. According to Dr. Elliot, there's a very clear process of scabbing that occurs. First, new tissue regenerates at the site of the injury. Once a scab is formed, there shouldn't be any "foreign bodies" or infection hanging around. "This is all made possible by inflammatory cells," she says. So not all inflammation is bad. In fact, inflammation plays an important role in helping your body heal from an injury.

Sometimes, the body gives off signals that it's only slightly damaged, which results in chronic, low-level inflammation. But other times, the inflammatory cells just don’t know how to turn off. "This is chronic inflammation," Dr. Elliot says. "It would be the equivalent of a wound never healing because the new tissue just keeps being produced and the skin never scabs up." Too much of anything isn't ever really a good thing.

There's a lot more to know about inflammation. Here are some things doctors want you to understand.

1. There Are Different Types And Causes Of Inflammation

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"Inflammation is the body‘s reaction to changes in the body whether it’s internal or extrinsic," family and emergency medical doctor, Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, tells Bustle. "It can happen whenever there is an environmental or an internal stress to the body." For instance, one type of inflammation is caused by injuries. Inflammation caused by injuries can be painful and you may notice symptoms such as redness, a loss of your range of motion or completely immobility, and swelling due to fluid build-up.

If your inflammation isn't caused by an injury, it may be caused by the food you're eating. Foods such as sugars, processed food, fried food, dairy products, and alcohol can trigger inflammation in the body.

2. Chronic Inflammation Often Begins In The Gut

What you eat really matters. "When the tight junctions in between our intestinal cells are compromised (by glyphosate contaminated wheat, alcohol abuse, NSAIDS, constipation [...] or chronic stress), food macromolecules, toxin and infection can get into the bloodstream," Dr. Lisa Fortin, M.D., integrative medicine specialist and head of ReYouvenate Clinic, tells Bustle. This can lead to systemic inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease. So as Dr. Fortin suggests, try to eat as many nutrient-rich foods as you can and limit alcohol use. "Alcohol predisposes to leaky gut, fueling increased levels of inflammation throughout the body," she says.

3. Chronic Inflammation Can Lead To (And Has Been Associated With) Many Diseases

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"Inflammation is at the core of most common health woes and exists on a continuum," Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DC, functional medicine practioner and author of the The Inflammation Spectrum, tells Bustle. On one end, it can cause mild symptoms such as fatigue, and on the other, it can lead to a hormone imbalance and autoimmune conditions.

One type of inflammation that doesn't get talked about a lot is Type 2 inflammation. As Dr. Joseph Han, medical director for the Division of Allergy at Eastern Virginia Medical School, tells Bustle, "It drives the inflammation in patients with seemingly unrelated diseases, such as nasal polyposis and asthma. It's different than the type of inflammation seen in viral infections such as the common cold or rheumatologic disease such as rheumatoid arthritis." An overactive immune system response can cause nasal polyps. These are soft growths that form in the lining of your sinuses. If those nasal polyps grow large enough, it can lead to symptoms such as facial pain, reduced sense of smell and taste, and nasal congestion.

4. Even Some Healthy Foods Can Cause Flare Ups

"How you feel is constantly being influenced by every meal," Dr. Cole says, "Every food you eat is either feeding inflammation or fighting it. Because no one else is you, the foods that works well for someone else may not be right for your body." While limiting the amount of nutrient-deficient food you eat is a good rule for everyone, some nutrient-rich food options can trigger a flare-up in some people. For instance, some people are sensitive to gluten, others are sensitive to eggs, nightshades like tomatoes and eggplants, or beans. "Uncovering food intolerances and sensitivities is an important part of winning the inflammation battle," Dr. Cole says. "There’s no one right diet for all people — we are all genetically and biochemically unique."

5. Physical And Emotional Stress Can Lead To Inflammation

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Being stressed out all the time can lead to some serious health issues. According to Dr. Elliort, stress is one of the most common causes of chronic inflammation. "Our stress hormones evolutionarily were only meant to be activated in a time of serious threat, often referred to as a flight or fight response," she says. "But, today we create constant, lower levels of this stress hormone, which just circulates in our blood and stimulates chronic inflammation on a host of organs." Stress is a "low level" inflammatory trigger that can make almost any inflammtory condition worse. For instance, emotional stress is known to be a common environmental trigger of the autoimmune disease, lupus. "Be sure to take steps to mitigate stress, such as increasing physical activity, or mind exercises and meditation," Dr. Elliot says.

6. Getting Enough Sleep Is Also Really Important

In addition to eating healthy and managing stress, it's also important to get enough sleep. "Sleep affords the body regeneration and repair," Dr. Fortin says. "Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, irregular heartbeat, a compromised immune system [...] premature aging, and heart disease." A 2008 study by the UCLA Cousins Center research team found that losing sleep for even just one night can increase inflammation in the body. Because of the findings, researchers believe getting enough quality sleep can decrease a person's risk of getting heart disease and autoimmune disorders.

7. Paying Attention To Your Body Is Key In Finding The Right Treatment For You

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"Because our organs and cells are highly specialized, it's usually a single organ system that's triggering the inflammatory cells," Dr. Elliot says. "So that means people can have chronic inflammation of a certain organ." For instance, people with eczema or psoriasis have chronic inflammation issues of the skin. Those with inflammatory bowel disease have issues with inflammation in the digestive tract, and people with arthritis have chronic inflammation in the joints.

So it's important to identify what's triggering your inflammation. Is it an allergy? An infection? An activity that causes you to overuse a certain body part? Maybe it's stress. Once you have an idea, try to modify or remove those triggers. "If that doesn’t work and the symptoms are severe, anti-inflammatory medications would be in order," Dr. Elliot says. In that case, seeing a doctor and getting lab work done may be necessary.

As you can see, inflammation is pretty complex and affects everyone differently. There's a lot more to learn about it. But these are just a few basic things doctors believe you should know.

Editor's Note: This piece was updated from its original version on July 3, 2019 to meet Bustle's editorial standards.