It seems like everyone is talking about (or writing about) inflammation. Facts are spreading, but so are misconceptions.
I don’t know about you, but lately every health chat I have seems to lead back to one thing: inflammation. People nod sagely when it gets brought up, and everyone—starting with the research community—agrees that inflammation is the shadowy culprit behind a host of bodily misfortunes. But it can be hard to separate the fact from the fiction about this new arch-enemy of holistic wellness. Here are the top seven myths about inflammation.
Myth 1: It’s always bad.
Inflammation—a network of actions taken by the body that promotes the permeability of blood vessels and the migration of proteins, white blood cells, and other fluids, often causing swelling—is a normal immune response that’s integral to healing. But there are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic, and only one kind is beneficial. Acute inflammation is usually localized and is a necessary part of bodily repair. When you sprain an ankle or bang a knee, the resulting acute inflammation at the area helps you heal. Chronic or systemic inflammation, in which white blood cells can attack healthy tissue anywhere in the body, setting up a prolonged, unnecessary immune response, is much harder to identify.
Myth 2: Chronic inflammation is not a big deal.
It’s possible to live with inflammation for years or decades and never identify or even notice it. But systemic low-grade inflammation is something to take seriously. It’s considered a contributing factor to a host of serious ailments. Chronic inflammation is thought to damage DNA, leading to mutations in cells; researchers at MIT have linked inflammation to as many as one in five cancer cases. Long-term inflammation has also been strongly associated with chronic conditions such as arthritis and obesity, which impact quality of life, as well as potentially deadly conditions, like heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Each of those is well worth heading off at the pass.
Myth 3: There’s not much I can do about it.
Although some factors that make systemic inflammation more likely—like inherited gene mutations and age—can’t be changed, the incidence of “lifestyle-dependent inflammation” has been on the rise with the changes to diet, exercise, and social life that have taken place in the last several decades. That means that controllable factors like lifestyle, habits, and environment can strongly influence the amount of systemic inflammation in your body. Change can happen fast, too: levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation, can lower dramatically within days of healthy tweaks to diet and exercise.
Myth 4: My doctor will let me know if it’s a problem.
Although it’s possible that your doctor will spot your chronic inflammation first, it’s very difficult to detect just by looking. It’s more likely that the way you feel, and what’s happening with your body, will be the first indicators that something’s not right. Common tells of chronic inflammation include joint pain or stiffness, skin conditions like eczema or acne, allergies, a puffy face or fluid retention, digestive difficulties, and gum disease. Even fatigue, brain fog, and depression—especially in combination with other physical manifestations—can point to chronic inflammation. In the office, your doctor can test for CRP and other markers for inflammation for confirmation.
Myth 5: I’ll just take some turmeric.
The good news: there are a host of things you can do to reduce your inflammatory load. The bad news is that there’s no one magic bullet. Taking a single daily probiotic pill, or just cooking with more turmeric and ginger, or going to yoga a couple of times a week, by themselves will not cure chronic inflammation. However, taken all together, changes to lifestyle, diet, and habits can affect an inflammation transformation. Low-grade systemic inflammation touches so many areas of health and wellness that the potential for improvement in many areas is enormous: from clarity of mind to weight loss to an exponential energy boost.
Myth 6: I should avoid all carbohydrates.
Since so many types of wheat and corn products have been implicated in chronic inflammation, it’s tempting to paint all grains and carbs with the same brush. But the truth is that unlike highly processed grains, whole grains are a rich source of prebiotic fiber that actually helps fight inflammation by providing the fuel for the good bacteria that are necessary for proper modulation and regulation of the immune response. As long as you don’t have an innate intolerance to the grain you’re using, reaching for whole grains and other sources of prebiotic fiber can be one of the best things you can do to reduce inflammation.
Myth 7: All sugars are bad for inflammation.
While it’s true that processed white sugar, no matter the source, can be a major dietary contributor to systemic inflammation, not all sugars are created equal. Less-processed sugars like maple syrup and honey often have lower GI indexes, and can also contain compounds that can fight inflammation. Honey, in particular, has been found to contain phenolic compounds that reduce inflammatory response across a range of studies. Maple syrup has also been found to contain anti-inflammatory polyphenols. You don’t have to avoid fruits, either, however sweet. Pineapple contains bromelain, long known for its anti-inflammatory properties, while blackberries and blueberries contain anti-inflammatory anthocyanins. Sugars should always be consumed in moderation, but you don’t have to give them up get on the path to anti-inflammatory wellness.
Read the rest of Cynthia’s series on inflammation: