Inflammation: What It Is, What to Do About It, & When to Do Nothing

We have all experienced inflammation in our lives — but when is it a good thing, and when is it a bad thing? To understand how inflammation affects our bodies, it’s critical to better understand the actual process behind it. Inflammation is your body’s white blood cells fighting to prevent infection caused by foreign substances such as bacteria, toxins, or viruses. Simply put inflammation is a response to injury or some sort of invader. Inflammation can occur as a response to infection or environmental toxins.

Inflammation Can Be a Good Thing

Inflammation is an essential part of our body’s functions. Let’s say you get hurt and have a cut — your body will need to create an inflammatory response to heal itself, which it does by recruiting white blood cells and platelets to regenerate tissues in that area. If your body didn’t respond this way to acute inflammation, you would bleed out from even the smallest cuts! When you exercise, it’s common to experience a small tear and damage to the muscle. Contrary to popular belief, immediately after your workout is not the time to take fish oil or antioxidants. Additionally, you should avoid icing your sore muscles immediately following a workout. You actually need that inflammation to rebuild the tissue!

Although inflammation can undoubtedly be a good thing, it is not without consequences if we are exposed to it over and over. When our bodies are functioning optimally, we experience acute inflammation as a response to infection or environmental toxins, but we should begin to worry if we are experiencing chronic inflammation.

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is a prolonged inflammatory response that is not being resolved. Environmental toxins will constantly stimulate and attack the body — so you could be experiencing chronic inflammation if you are regularly exposed to environmental toxins, such as mercury or lead. Mercury is a common environmental toxin that gives people chronic inflammation, as it can be found in drinking water and is especially prevalent in large fish. Constant exposure will repeatedly trigger your body’s an inflammatory response.

Dr. Dwight Lundell, M.D., is a cardiovascular surgeon who believes the number one cause of cardiovascular disease is chronic inflammation. To put it in perspective, he gives an interesting example of how chronic inflammation affects the body:

“Take a moment to visualize rubbing a stiff brush over soft skin until it becomes quite red and nearly bleeding. You keep this up several times a day, every day for five years. If you could tolerate this painful brushing, you would have a bleeding, swollen infected area that became worse with each repeated injury. This is a good way to visualize the inflammatory process that could be going on inside your body right now.”

While acute inflammation is beneficial to our body — chronic inflammation often causes issues like cardiovascular disease, fibrosis, and autoimmune diseases.

The Average American Diet is Very Inflammatory

The standard American diet is pro-inflammatory as it’s typically higher in omega-6s than omega-3s. Omega-6s are pro-inflammatory and create a constant inflamed state that results in problems in various systems of the body. On the other hand, omega-3s help bring down the inflammatory responses after some time.

You can find omega-3s in cod, salmon, mackerel, sardines, and grass-fed beef. Omega-6s are found in chicken, turkey, conventional beef, and pork. The ratio of dietary omega-3s to omega-6s in the average American diet is one to 15. While most Americans eat a very inflammatory diet, Dr. Alice recommends taking three to four times more omega-3s than omega-6s for optimal body function that decreases chronic inflammation. 

Ways to Avoid Inflammation

One of the best (and most relaxing ways) to avoid chronic inflammation is to get regular massages. Massages stimulate blood flow — which is where all of the nutrients are located. It’s also imperative to remember that emotional inflammation is something that many people experience, and it’s the most challenging type of inflammation to deal with. If you’re going through a situation that makes you feel especially stressed and therefore emotionally inflamed, we recommend trying meditation or seeing a therapist to help alleviate the symptoms. Here are Dr. Alice’s top three ways to avoid inflammation:

  • Make sure you intake more omega-3s than omega-6s
  • Exercise regularly and keep your body fat within normal limits
  • Sleep between 7-9 hours whenever possible

While acute inflammation is an essential part of building muscle and living a healthy life, you should be mindful of areas in your life that cause chronic inflammation so you can reduce it. As always, balance is the key to living a healthy and happy lifestyle!