Inflammation. It’s the buzziest health buzzword around today. It’s a pretty important word in my life. (More on that later.) But what exactly is it? Why should we care? And what, if anything, do we need to do about it? Today I’m going to give you the lowdown on inflammation and tell you why it’s a term you need to become very familiar with as you age.
What is Inflammation?
At a fundamental level, inflammation is the body’s way of protecting itself against harm. There are two main types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
We’re all familiar with acute inflammation. When we cut our finger, sprain an ankle, or even catch a cold, the white blood cells in our bodies act as a tiny army, dispatching defenders to surround and protect the area in distress. If we’re injured, things like redness, swelling, and pain will occur. If we’re ill, we might experience fever, chills, a stuffy or a runny nose, etc. Inflammation is essential in healing wounds and injuries, and in preventing bacteria and viruses from turning into deadly infections.
Chronic inflammation occurs in response to toxic, unwanted substances in the body like cigarette smoke, or an excess of fat cells. In the arteries, for example, inflammation can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis. This buildup of fatty, cholesterol-rich plaque is perceived as abnormal and foreign, so the tiny anti-inflammation army will attempt to wall off the plaque from the flowing blood. Unfortunately, if the wall breaks down, the plaque may rupture and mingle with blood, forming a clot and blocking blood flow. These clots cause heart attacks and most strokes.
Sometimes, inflammation can go rogue, mistakenly triggering an inflammatory response when there aren’t actually any foreign invaders to fight off and responding as if normal tissues are infected or somehow abnormal. This causes autoimmune disease, where the body’s normally protective immune system causes damage to its own tissues. You may have an autoimmune disease or know someone who has one. (Click any of the ones below for additional information.)
Common Autoimmune Diseases
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Type 1 Diabetes
Inflammation can affect organs or joints as part of an autoimmune disorder. Most autoimmune diseases cannot be cured, but treated with the goal of controlling or slowing down the disease progression. Treatment options include things like medication, rest, exercise, and sometimes even surgery—depending on the type of autoimmune disease. (
Fun Fact: There are more than 80 autoimmune diseases.)
Why Do We Need to Know About Inflammation?
“Aging is a complex process that results from a combination of environmental, genetic, and epigenetic factors. A chronic pro-inflammatory status is a pervasive feature of aging.”
In other words, aging is a normal, natural process, and chronic inflammation is a part of the process.
“At present, chronic inflammation is thought to be a risk factor for a broad range of age-related diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and cancer. Although age-related diseases may be partially preventable with lifestyle modifications, including diet, the burdens of unhealthy aging associated with lifestyle are increasing, both in developed and developing regions. Therefore, the elucidation of the sources and cellular pathways/processes of chronic inflammation is an urgent task.”
It’s clear that anything we can do to reduce chronic inflammation may help us avoid (or postpone) age-related chronic disease, prevent or reduce the adverse effects of an autoimmune disease, and even increase life span.
Most of the time, the chronic inflammation involved in aging is painless and virtually undetectable to the average person. Claudio Franceschi, Professor Emeritus of Immunology at the University of Bologna in Italy combined the terms inflammation and aging to come up with the name inflammaging to describe this process. (You’ll be seeing that term in the media more often in the months and years to come.)
What Can we do to Reduce the Effects of Inflammation?
Whether you’re trying to reduce the symptoms of an autoimmune disease or you just want to live longer and decrease your risk factors for developing age-related diseases, there are things you can do to reduce the effects of inflammation.
1. Follow an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Avoid or limit these foods which have been shown to cause inflammation:
- Refined flour (like white bread & pastries)
- Fried foods
- Sugar and artificial sweeteners (especially aspartame)
- Red meat and processed meat
- Margarine, shortening, and lard
Include these foods in your diet:
- Olive Oil
- Green, leafy vegetables
- Fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, and tuna)
- Fruits (like strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges)
Overall, the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils, is a good one to follow.
Also, increased tea consumption has been linked to lower inflammation levels, weight loss, and reduced cancer risk in many studies. Green tea has been shown to be even more beneficial than black.
According to researchers at the University of California in San Diego, even one 20-minute session of moderate exercise can stimulate the immune system, producing an anti-inflammatory response. HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) can help even more. You can do HIIT no matter what type of cardio exercise you do. Simply vary short bursts of intense exercise with longer bouts of slower (recovery) intervals. I use the FREE HIIT workouts at FitnessBlender.com or do my own HIIT workout on either a treadmill, bike, or elliptical. I wrote an entire post on the importance of HIIT.
In addition, it’s important to stay strong. A 2018 study in Aging and Disease found that maintaining muscle as we age lowers disease risk and combats chronic inflammation. Use body-weight exercise, resistance bands, and lift weights to avoid age-related muscle loss (called sarcopenia). Here’s what I do.
3. Lose Weight
Obesity is linked to inflammation. Losing weight will decrease inflammation.
4. Improve Oral Health
According to a Journal of Aging Research study, seeing a dentist two or more times a year may lower mortality risk (from all causes) by 30-50 percent. According to that same study, non-flossers had a 30 percent higher death risk than daily flossers. Poor oral hygiene has been linked to elevated levels of inflammation.
A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study found that the effects of sleep deprivation on the body mimicked the aging process on a cellular level and many studies connect sleep loss with cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and other disorders. Also, a Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience study found an association between regular sleep patterns in older adults and longevity. Did you catch my recent post on the “discipline” of sleep that I’ve been working to incorporate into my life?
6. Manage Stress
Chronic stress contributes to inflammation. Exercise can help with this, as can counseling, prayer, meditation, yoga, biofeedback, etc.
7. Strong Social Ties
A review published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that strong social relationships lower inflammation, while isolation increases it. Also, a study cited in Psychology Today linked laughter to an anti-inflammatory effect that protects blood vessels and heart muscles from the damaging impacts of cardiovascular disease. It’s thought that laughter lessens the body’s stress response, which is directly linked to increased inflammation.
Speaking of laughter, when I was doing this photo shoot at the beginning of January, my daughter Becca was still home for the holidays. She was headed to yoga, and sweetly took the time to photobomb her mother! My photographer, Megan, conspiratorially snapped the picture, and I had no idea until I saw the proofs! Hahahaha! 🙂
It may surprise you, but inflammation is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. It’s something that everyone over fifty needs to be aware of and understand. Research has shown that uncontrolled inflammation plays a role in almost every major disease, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and even depression. We’re all aging, and inflammation will occur. But we can fight it all the way! The choices you make every day add up, and they can and will influence everything from your day-to-day health, mood, and stamina to your very life span!
It’s time to pay attention and make changes if you need to.
I’ve never talked about it here before, but inflammation is a real factor in my life because I have lupus and also celiac disease. I guess the reason I’ve never talked about them before is that they aren’t who I am; they’re something I have. Nobody wants a disease with a name (hahaha!), and mine are definitely a factor in my daily life. But they don’t define me, and they don’t hold me back from doing what I want to do. (Actually, Bob will tell you that when I’m ordering at restaurants, I am a total nightmare, and they hold the entire table back!) 🙂 I told you I would be sharing more of myself this year, and sharing this information with you all is a biggie for me. I don’t want to bore you, but I would be willing to write more about it if you’re curious or want to hear more it. Let me know in the comments, okay?
We took these photos in our family room. Is it clear to you that I love pairing blue and white together? LOL! I fell for this darling navy sweatshirt because (1) it was a sweatshirt(!); and, (2) it had a tiny gingham ruffle at the neckline and the sleeve. (Do you love the way I’m awkwardly holding my arm up to show you?!) It’s on sale right now and runs TTS (true to size). I paired it with white jeans, which I wear all year long. Mine are by NYDJ, which is my favorite jeans brand for women our age. They’re high-waisted and feature “lift & tuck technology” to lift you and tuck you in all the right places. (Plus they’re so stretchy, they feel like leggings!) They’re guaranteed to take a full size off, so order a size down from your normal jeans if you order. I have these navy ruffle-back ankle booties in black, white, and now navy, and I’m having trouble not buying them in more colors! The leather is butter soft, and the ruffle at the back is such a special and unique little detail. They run TTS. I’m wearing gemstone heart hoop earrings from Soul Stonz with a white moonstone. Soul Stonz will be a vendor at my FREE Makeup Class for Women Over 50 next Thursday in Dallas! If you live in the Dallas area (or even if you don’t), I hope you’ll come and bring your friends! One of my readers is flying in from Alabama, and I couldn’t be more excited! (More details in this post and you can RSVP at this link.)
Photos by Megan Weaver.
P.S. Have you checked out the Empty Nest Blessed Valentine’s Day Gift Guide yet? I’ve got gifts at all price points for all the people you love! Click below to check it out!