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Inflammation in the Body

The Hidden Time Bomb Within You

By , Caring.com contributing editor
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Get ready for the health buzzword of the decade: inflammation. A key biochemical process inside every one of us, inflammation is the cornerstone of health and healing -- and yet -- unless you learn the secrets to managing it -- it will also probably eventually kill you.

The good news: As scientists slowly but surely uncover how the inflammatory response works, they're learning how we can influence it to our benefit.

Here are five surprising -- and life-changing -- facts.

Inflammation surprise #1: Inflammation is both your body's best friend -- and its worst enemy.

Inflammation is what happens when a bee stings, a paper cut slices your skin, or pollen or a virus land up your nose. Your body reacts. More specifically, your white blood cells issue a short-term response to defend your body against the assault and help it heal. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, sometimes this process goes haywire. In a classic "too much of a good thing," certain triggers create chronic inflammation -- the body's defense team doesn't quit. Immune cells never wind down, causing damage to various body systems and, ironically, leaving them more vulnerable to attack.

Why it's important

"Inflammation is the basic mechanism that maintains the well-being of our cells," says Janko Nikolich-Zugich, chair of the department of immunobiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and codirector of its Arizona Center on Aging. "But pretty much every disease is also connected to it."

Luck (good or bad) is a factor; some people are genetically prone to inflammation overload, Nikolich-Zugich says. But within the span of your genes, you have a lot of individual control, he adds. "The key is to have well-controlled inflammation, to keep it regulated so that it switches on when you need it and switches off when you don't need it anymore."

Action step: Consume healthier fats.

Fats we eat are the building blocks of both proinflammatory hormones (needed to fight the invader) and anti-inflammatory hormones (needed to calm down the healing process after the wound or other threat is gone), says Beth Reardon, director of integrative nutrition at Duke University. We need both kinds.

The trouble: We live in such an inflammatory environment (from pollution, germs, diet, and other sources) that it's tough to keep the inflammation process in balance. The best way to do this is with diet: Decrease the inflammatory fats you eat (called omega 6s, found mostly animal fats from meat and dairy) while increasing anti-inflammatory fats (called omega 3s, found mostly in cold-water fish such as salmon and herring or in fish-oil supplements).

A tricky point: You need two kinds of omega 3s. There are long-chain omega 3s (from fish) and short-chain omega 3s (from flax, seeds, and fortified products, like omega-3 eggs or juice). The two types work in different ways in the body. "People think if they eat foods fortified with omega 3s, they're doing enough. But most people don't get enough long-chain omega 3 fats," Reardon says. Eating cold-water fish twice a week does the trick.