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Jacquelyne Froeber

HealthyWomen's Senior Editor

Jacquelyne Froeber is an award-winning journalist and editor. She’ holds a b.a. in journalism from Michigan State University. She is the former editor-in-chief of Celebrated Living magazine and has editing and writing experience for print and online publications, including Health magazine, Coastal Living magazine and AARP.org.

As a breast cancer survivor, Jacquelyne encourages everyone to perform self-exams and get their yearly mammograms.

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Inflammation 101

Does alcohol cause inflammation? Does sugar? Learn which foods can cause and prevent inflammation — and how to reduce inflammation in the body.

Your Care

Inflammation. It gets a bad rap, but it may surprise you that it’s not all bad — but you can have too much. It’s like the ice cream of natural responses (sugar can cause inflammation, but more on that later). The obsession with anti-inflammation diets has grown in recent years. You may remember when the conversation got extra inflammatory after actress Gwyneth Paltrow said she has bone broth — and not much else — as part of her diet to lower inflammation.

Yes, inflammation can be linked to serious health conditions that can seriously harm or even kill you, but it also helps you out when you get a paper cut.

This may not sound like a win/win, but let us explain. Here’s more on what you need to know about inflammation.

What is inflammation in the body and how does it affect you?

Inflammation is your body’s natural response to an infection, injury, allergy or virus — really anything that can cause harm. Your immune system creates inflammation to help protect and heal from injury or illness.

In some cases, inflammation is exactly what you picture in your mind: swelling around a splinter in your finger or redness when you have a sore throat. But you can’t always see inflammation.

There are two main types of inflammation:

  • Acute inflammation: inflammation that happens after a sudden illness or injury. It lasts for a short amount of time, and your body returns back to the way it was before the inflammation.This is the inflammation you probably pictured above.

The five signs of acute inflammation are:

      • Pain
      • Redness
      • Swelling
      • Heat
      • Reduced or limited function (e.g., finding it hard to breathe when you have a chest cold)
  • Chronic inflammation: inflammation that is slow, long-term and lasts for many months or years. It can travel throughout the body and contribute to various health problems.

Signs of chronic inflammation can include:

      • Body pain
      • Constipation
      • Diarrhea
      • Depression and/or anxiety
      • Fatigue
      • Fever
      • Frequent infections
      • Mood disorders
      • Weight gain or loss

When is inflammation bad for you?

Like we said, inflammation can help you heal. But, like too much of any good thing, it can also hurt you. Chronic inflammation over time can cause damage to organs, tissues and joints among other problems. For example, research shows inflammation causes plaque to grow and loosen in arteries, which can cause blood clots and lead to heart attack or stroke.

This can be especially harmful to women and people assigned female at birth because cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for women living in the U.S.

Read: Why Don’t Women Get the Same Treatment for Heart Disease as Men? >>

Research shows chronic inflammation is linked to many serious health conditions including:

In some cases, chronic inflammation happens when your immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake. These are called autoimmune diseases. For example, people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have painful swelling in the joints caused by tissue damage from inflammation. The damage causes chronic pain and a range of symptoms including stiffness and red, swollen joints.

Why is it important to lower inflammation in the body?

Inflammation can make existing symptoms and health conditions worse.

Research shows that people with chronic conditions are less likely to have symptoms, and severe symptoms, when inflammation levels are in check. Healthy inflammation levels mean better health overall and a better chance to fight infection as you age.

You can reduce inflammation through lifestyle changes. These can include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Exercising at least 20 minutes a day
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet

Read: What Is a Heart-Healthy Diet? >>

What foods lower inflammation?

What you eat can have a big effect on your levels of inflammation, for better or for worse. Lots of delicious foods have great anti-inflammatory properties, including some spices like turmeric and garlic. Other anti-inflammatory options include:

Studies show that people who follow the Mediterranean diet have decreased levels of inflammation. The DASH diet, plant-based diets or some combination of these are also good for helping keep inflammation in check.

What foods cause inflammation?

You may have already guessed it by now, but it’s not looking good for burger lovers. Red meat is on the inflammatory list. So are most (salty and crunchy and delicious) processed foods like potato chips. We’re not saying you can never eat these yummy snacks, but moderation is the key.

As a rule, check the label for the following ingredients in foods that are bad for inflammation:

  • Added sugar
  • Saturated fats
  • Trans fats
  • Omega-6 fatty acids
  • Refined carbs
  • Processed meats

Does alcohol cause inflammation?

Another whomp, whomp. Studies show drinking alcohol, even red wine which was once thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, can increase inflammation in the body. In fact, last year, the World Heart Federation released a report that said any amount of alcohol can be bad for your health. Now, we know it’s not realistic for most people to cut out alcohol entirely, but no matter how much you drink, reducing the amount can always help.

Read: How Much Alcohol Is Too Much for Your Heart Health? >>

It takes work, but you can reduce harmful inflammation through lifestyle and food choices. If you think you may have chronic inflammation, talk to your healthcare provider. Most people aren’t screened for inflammation, but you can get a blood test to check your levels.

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