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What Drives Inflammation in the Body?

February 23, 2024

A man holds his painful knee.

Inflammation is part of the body’s natural healing process. It’s often temporary — a swollen ankle, an infected cut, a sore throat. But chronic inflammation that lasts for months, or years, becomes far more insidious and cunning. In fact, it’s at the root of most major health concerns in adults: rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, obesity, and infectious disease — the list goes on.

“Inflammation is the body’s natural defense to fight foreign cells that harm the body,” says Carol Nasr, MD, a rheumatologist at Atlantic Health System. “When your immune system is trying to fight bacteria, viruses, infection, or damaged tissue, it unleashes white blood cells to the affected area. If it can’t return the body to its natural state, the immune system can turn on itself and attack healthy cells. This overactive immune response causes chronic inflammation and is often where problems begin.”

The Causes of Chronic Inflammation

Some people are genetically predisposed to inflammatory conditions. Others are persistently inflamed because of their day-to-day lifestyle choices. For example, smoking, obesity, poor dental hygiene, and even excess sugar consumption all cause the body to produce inflammatory chemicals.

“Signs of an ongoing inflammation can include joint stiffness, rash, fatigue, or back pain. These can be signs of an infection, an autoimmune disorder such as rheumatoid arthritis, or a malignancy,” says Dr. Nasr. “For example, research has shown that smoking is a strong risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis. Smoking cessation can prevent or delay evolution of the disease.”

How the Body Fights to Heal Itself

Dr. Nazr explains that our immune system fights off foreign cells and rids the body of debris through pro-inflammatory chemicals, known as cytokines. Damaged cells attract these cytokines to repair and regenerate new, healthy tissue.

But if pain, swelling, and tenderness persist, talk with your primary care doctor. They may refer you to a rheumatologist, who specializes in inflammatory conditions of the joints, tendons, ligaments, bones and muscles. A rheumatologist will evaluate you to find the root cause of the inflammation and offer treatment options that may include medication, therapies and lifestyle changes.

10 Lifestyle Changes That Help Reduce Inflammation

  • Limit sugar intake
  • Reduce stressors in your life
  • If you smoke, quit
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Avoid processed foods
  • Keep alcohol consumption low
  • Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat plant-based meals high in fiber and antioxidants
  • Drink water and stay hydrated
  • Take care of your teeth and gums

“With proper care, we can prevent autoimmune diseases from attacking the joints and other organs such as the heart or lungs,” says Dr. Nasr. “Although there is no known cure for autoimmune disease, we can help keep it from progressing. The key is to be your own advocate and to seek professional care.”

Be Proactive About Your Health

To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.

  • Healthy Living