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Manage inflammation to look, feel and perform at your best

Rampant inflammation is hugely damaging to your health, but master the delicate balancing act of your body’s natural protective response and you’ll lose fat, build muscle, and look, feel and perform better than ever, says New Body Plan’s Joe Warner

Our bodies operate like a finely-tuned orchestra, with every organ and cell playing its part. In this symphony of life, inflammation can be perceived as the overzealous conductor, guiding our body’s responses to injury and illness. However, if you’re passionate about your health, fitness and wellbeing, better understanding inflammation and dismissing some of its common misconceptions, is the key to a more harmonious performance, from improved workout recovery to upgrading everyday performance.

TL;DR Inflammation, while traditionally seen as a villain, is also our body’s first line of defence. When controlled, it can facilitate healing and recovery. However, unchecked it can lead to chronic diseases. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet, exercising regularly, managing stress, and ensuring quality sleep are key strategies to manage inflammation.

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What is inflammation?

Inflammation is the immune system’s response to harmful stimuli, like foreign invaders (bacteria, viruses), injury, or toxins. It involves a complex biological process that sends immune cells, hormones, and nutrients to the affected areas to repair the damage and fend off harm.

There are two types: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the body’s immediate and short-term response, seen in conditions like infections, wounds, or after a hard workout. Symptoms may include redness, swelling, heat, and pain.

Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is long-lasting, persisting for months or even years. It often occurs when the body cannot eliminate the cause or mistakenly perceives its own cells as harmful. Chronic inflammation is subtle and may go unnoticed, but it’s linked with numerous diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis.

A quote from a Nature article provides a poignant view: “Inflammation is a double-edged sword; it’s absolutely critical for survival, but too much or too little can cause serious harm.” This illustrates the significance of balance in the body’s inflammatory responses.

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What triggers an inflammatory response?

It can be triggered by a variety of factors. Physical injury, infections, exposure to toxins, or autoimmune disorders can all instigate an inflammatory response. In these cases, it acts as a protective measure, helping the body heal and recover.

However, inflammation can also be prompted by lifestyle factors like poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption, and chronic stress. These factors can lead to low-grade, systemic inflammation which contributes to the progression of many chronic diseases.

In a study published in Cell, researchers acknowledged this duality: “Inflammatory responses play decisive roles at different stages of disease progression, and clinical data suggests a continuous cross-talk between chronic inflammation and progressive disease.”

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Can physical exercise affect inflammation?

Exercise impacts inflammation in complex ways. Moderate and regular physical activity can decrease chronic inflammation. It reduces fat mass, a known contributor to inflammation, and releases anti-inflammatory compounds, such as IL-6, which can have systemic effects on the body.

However, intense bouts of exercise, particularly without adequate training or recovery, can induce acute inflammation. This typically manifests as muscle soreness or stiffness after a hard workout and is part of the body’s process of repairing and strengthening the tissues.

In an interesting paradigm shift, an American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine study suggests, “Physical activity may be one of the most effective strategies for preventing chronic inflammation-related disease progression.”

What is the link between diet and inflammation?

Your food choices can significantly impact inflammation levels. Foods high in sugar, saturated fats, trans fats, and refined carbohydrates can incite it. This includes items like fast food, processed meats, fried foods, sugary drinks, and white bread.

On the other hand, an anti-inflammatory diet can help keep it at bay. Such a diet typically involves plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseeds). These foods, and some drinks such as coffee, provide antioxidants that can neutralise free radicals and reduce the inflammatory response.

A study in the Journal of Nutrition affirms, “Dietary patterns high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains but lower in red and processed meats are associated with lower levels of inflammation.”

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Can stress cause an inflammatory response?

Yes, chronic stress can instigate and exacerbate inflammation. When stressed, the body releases hormones such as cortisol. Normally, cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect. However, with chronic stress, cells may become less sensitive to cortisol, and inflammation can get out of hand.

Research has shown that stress-reducing activities, such as breathwork, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, can decrease inflammation markers. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences observed: “Stress can be a significant contributor to chronic inflammation, which in turn could drive chronic diseases.”

How can I tell if I have chronic inflammation?

Chronic inflammation can be elusive, often with no obvious symptoms until it results in a disease. However, certain signs may hint at chronic inflammation: prolonged fatigue, body pain, skin issues, digestive problems, or weight fluctuations.

If you suspect chronic inflammation, it’s best to consult a healthcare provider. They can conduct blood tests to measure inflammation markers like C-reactive protein (CRP) or Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR). A high-sensitivity CRP (hs-CRP) test is often used to assess heart disease risk.

Understanding and addressing chronic inflammation can be a key component of maintaining long-term health and preventing various diseases.

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5 ways to reduce inflammation

  1. Follow an anti-inflammatory diet: Include colourful fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and omega-3-rich foods in your diet.
  2. Stay active: Moderate physical activity can help to manage inflammation.
  3. Prioritise sleep: Adequate, quality sleep is crucial for keeping inflammation at bay.
  4. Mind your mental health: Stress management techniques like mindfulness, yoga, or meditation can help to mitigate inflammation.
  5. Stay hydrated: Adequate hydration helps in detoxification, reducing inflammation.

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