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How chronic inflammation harms your body

Inflammation is the body’s self-protecting response to injury or infection. Your immune system releases chemicals to fight germs and repair damaged tissue. But when inflammation is prolonged, these chemicals attack healthy tissues, too—a development linked to chronic health conditions affecting your joints, arteries and organs.

Read on to learn about inflammation and how it can be detected and treated before it causes harm.

What happens when inflammation occurs?

To protect you from foreign substances caused by infection, white blood cells release chemicals and cell proteins, including C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleuken-6 (IL-6). Chronic exposure to these substances can trigger unwanted cell growth, cholesterol accumulation and plaque formation.

What diseases are related to inflammation?

High CRP levels are linked to an increased risk for heart attack, stroke and peripheral vascular disease and can cause restenosis (the renarrowing of arteries) in people who’ve had angioplasty performed to open blocked blood vessels. Researchers are also investigating how inflammation contributes to arthritis, gum disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune disorders, cancer and a range of other conditions.

How is inflammation detected?

Your medical condition will determine the test your doctor uses to look for inflammation. For example, CRP levels can be measured with the high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (HS-CRP) test, an inexpensive blood test that measures the inflammation in your body and your heart disease risk. Doctors use the CRP test, a less sensitive version of the HS-CRP test, to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders.

How can I reduce inflammation?

Live a healthy lifestyle—don’t smoke, limit alcohol, eat a healthful diet and control your blood sugar, lipid levels and blood pressure. If you have a chronic health condition that can be linked to inflammation, talk to your doctor about appropriate medication. Additionally, take these steps:

  1. Lose excess pounds. Fat cells—especially those around the middle—increase CRP levels and the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
  2. Exercise. Perform strength-training and aerobic exercises.
  3. Mind your mouth. Keep your teeth and gums healthy by brushing, flossing and getting regular dental checkups.
  4. Consume omega-3 fats. Aim for at least three servings a week of fatty fish like salmon, tuna, trout and sardines.
  5. Shrink your stress. Prolonged stress causes chronically elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which suppress your immune system and make you susceptible to colds and other infections that cause inflammation. Try yoga, meditative walking or deep breathing.