Steps to help reduce inflammation and boost immunity
When the tissue around a new cut or abrasion quickly becomes inflamed, it’s a sign that your immune system is working to heal the wound. When inflammation is long-lasting, it can create serious health issues.
Long-term, low-level inflammation is not always obvious in the same way that an ankle swells from a sprain. It can show up as aches, pain, chronic fatigue, insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, weight changes and frequent infections, and even as depression, anxiety or mood disorders.
Over time, inflammation can contribute to rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, neurological conditions, some types of cancer, and diseases of the heart and vascular, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Inflammation in the brain is also linked to Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s.
Cytokines are natural proteins and biological chemicals that help regulate immune and inflammatory responses. Anti-inflammatory cytokines ward off illness and disease. When cytokines that cause inflammation are overly abundant, the immune system has to work extra hard to prevent disease.
"Long-term inflammation is toxic to the cells, which impairs function," said Gregory Zimmerman, MD, a family medicine physician at the ProHealth Medical Group clinic in Hartland. "It’s important to do what you can to optimize cellular function to prevent disease and slow aging."
Obesity, smoking, stress, sleep disorders and foods high in saturated fats and refined sugar promote inflammation. Healthy foods, exercise and lowering stress help to reduce it.
"Healthier food, in combination with exercise, can provide the building blocks to minimize inflammation," Dr. Zimmerman said. "This can be good for overall health, mental health and clarity, blood pressure and blood sugar."
Fruits and vegetables have phytochemicals that fight inflammation. A plant-based diet is best, and should include a wide variety of colorful, healthy foods. Variety is needed because each type of fruit and vegetable has unique anti-inflammatory properties. If a complete plant-based diet is challenging, the Mediterranean diet also has been shown to reduce inflammation.
Processed or packaged foods are not recommended.
"Processed food is often stripped of its nutritional value as fiber is extracted and sugars are added for taste," Dr. Zimmerman said. "Too many processed foods may lead to increased inflammation and weight gain."
Exercise helps keep the muscles, tissue, bones, heart and lungs healthy. Research has shown that exercise also helps muscles produce and release an immunity-boosting cytokine into the circulation system, and also helps keep blood sugar levels in balance.
In addition to eating well and exercising, it’s important to reduce stress by maintaining a mindful balance of work, play and down time.
"Staying healthy by reducing inflammation, improving immunity and lowering stress can be achieved with everyday changes incorporated over time," Dr. Zimmerman said. "Small, consistent improvements can lead to tremendous results in how we feel every day of our lives."