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7 Inflammation Triggers

It’s helpful when you get a cut, but if left unchecked, inflammation can be bad for your health


spinner image mirror image of a woman experiencing bodily inflammation on one side and then cooling sensation on the other side
Simone Noronha

Chances are you’ve scraped your knee, bumped a body part or received a vaccine and felt some pain, swelling and maybe even a little heat in the area where it occurred. These symptoms are a result of inflammation, which is the body’s reaction to an injury or a foreign invader. 

Despite the unpleasant side effects, this short-term response is healthy; it’s part of the body’s healing process. But when inflammation lingers and simmers in the absence of invaders or injuries, it can hold the body hostage and fuel a host of health issues.

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What’s known as chronic inflammation has been linked to several diseases, including cancer, heart disease, lung disease, gastrointestinal disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Unlike with acute inflammation, you may be totally unaware of chronic inflammation; its symptoms can be subtler or easy to blame on other ailments. Fatigue, weight gain, gastrointestinal problems, mouth sores, joint pain, anxiety and depression can all be warning signs of chronic inflammation. So can skin rashes, acid reflux and frequent infections.

The good news: There are some things you can do and a few triggers you can avoid to help lower your risk for chronic inflammation. Here are seven inflammation triggers. 

1. Smoking

"Smoking is the biggest risk factor for inflammation," says Saraswathi Lakkasani, M.D., a gastroenterologist in Richmond, Virginia, who sees a lot of patients with inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel disease and colon cancer, all of which have ties to chronic inflammation.

Studies have shown smoking activates certain white blood cells that can increase inflammation, and it boosts the amount of pro-inflammatory bacteria in the gut. In the lungs, smoking damages the cells that line and protect the airway, leaving an individual more vulnerable to infections. “So it’s very hard for the body to continue its healing process if the patient is smoking,” Lakkasani says.

If you smoke and want to quit, talk to your doctor. There are prescription and over-the-counter medications that may be able to help, as well as free resources and programs.

2. Pollution

Research has linked pollutants that circulate in our outdoor air — like fine particulate matter — with increased inflammation. These irritants can cause both short-term inflammation and, if exposure is continuous over time, chronic inflammation.

Take, for example, silica dust — found in materials like sand, stone and concrete. More than 2 million people are exposed to this irritant at work, and when inhaled over a long period of time, it has been linked to chronic inflammation. 

It’s not just outdoor air that poses a threat. Inside, fireplaces, wood-burning stoves and gas ranges can worsen air quality, says Courtney Blair, M.D., an allergist and immunologist in McLean, Virginia.

The American Lung Association recommends checking air quality reports for your area daily, and if pollution levels are high, limiting your time outside. If you have to go out, an N95 mask can help filter out some harmful particles. 

3. Chronic stress

“Stress has its own effect on inflammation. It never lets the body heal,” Lakkasani says. Its impact on the body happens by way of hormones when there’s too much cortisol in your blood for too long. While a little bit of cortisol, a steroid hormone, can actually help your immune system in the short term, too much cortisol over time can be damaging, boosting inflammation and weakening the immune system.

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So what can you do? “If people have trouble managing stress, I’d suggest seeking help to learn to manage the body’s response to difficult situations,” Blair says. “Do things that bring joy, try new things, keep learning, stay engaged with other people, stay on top of routine preventative care with a primary care provider.”

Studies have shown that exercise can help bring down levels of cortisol — especially in older adults. Spending time outside and in nature can also have a positive effect on cortisol levels, according to research.

Symptoms of Inflammation

Acute inflammation:

  • Flushed skin at the site of an injury
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Heat

Chronic inflammation:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Fever
  • Mouth sores
  • Joint pain or stiffness
  • Skin rash
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Acid reflux
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Frequent infections 

Source: Cleveland Clinic 

4. Poor sleep

Research has linked sleep deprivation to inflammation, which, according to Harvard Health Publishing, may help to explain why poor sleep is a risk factor for several chronic diseases, including heart disease and diabetes.

“Sleep is where the immune system and the whole body reconstitutes and heals,”  Blair says.

A study from researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found that skimping on sleep can alter the programming and production of immune cells, increasing inflammation.

“This is important because it is yet another key observation that sleep reduces inflammation and, conversely, that sleep interruption increases inflammation,” lead author Filip Swirski, director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Icahn Mount Sinai, said in a news release. “This work emphasizes the importance of adults consistently sleeping seven to eight hours a day to help prevent inflammation and disease, especially for those with underlying medical conditions.”

Research suggests that sleep also helps to clear pro-inflammatory toxins from the brain, including beta-amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

There’s a lot you can do to get a better night’s sleep, like exercising during the day, avoiding electronic devices before you turn in and keeping a regular bedtime. If you’re still having trouble catching z’s, you may want to talk to your doctor about cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, which is the first-line treatment for insomnia. 

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5. Excessive alcohol

Though alcohol’s impact on the immune system is complex, over time, consistently drinking too much alcohol does appear to cause systemic inflammation, as well as organ damage. This happens when alcohol leaves various harmful byproducts in the body, including cytokines, chemokines and reactive oxygen species, which the immune system attempts to clean up, resulting in a cascade of inflammation. 

Overdoing it with alcohol can have a “high impact on the liver,” Lakkasani says. This matters for inflammation because the liver detoxifies what we eat, she explains. If you damage your liver by drinking alcohol in excess, the work it’s able to do will be limited, which will allow inflammation to spread. 

Another effect is what alcohol does to the gut: it disrupts the community of microbes that live there, and an imbalance of “good” and “bad” gut bacteria has been linked to inflammation.

There are several things you can do to lower your alcohol intake. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends tracking your drinks and identifying and managing your triggers — those things that make you want to drink — if you are looking to cut back. 

6. Obesity

Obesity is a known driver of chronic inflammation. When more calories than the body needs are consumed, they are stored in the form of adipose tissue, or body fat, and this tissue creates and releases chemicals that can promote inflammation.

"What is especially problematic is central obesity," Blair says, referring to abdominal, or belly fat. “We know that folks who have a larger-than-healthy middle have higher rates of poor health outcomes. ”

Fat that lurks below the surface in the abdomen and surrounds the organs, called visceral fat, can produce hormones and toxins that cause chronic inflammation.

Obesity is also associated with less robust immune system responses to infections and vaccinations, Blair says, and excess weight can increase a person’s risk for complications from infections. “For my asthma and allergy patients, [obesity] can lead to more frequent and more severe exacerbations, and [it’s] more difficult to control disease,” Blair says.

7. Ultra-processed foods 

At least 60 percent of calories in the American diet comes from ultra-processed foods — and that’s bad news if you’re trying to manage inflammation.

“The more [refined] carbohydrates you eat, the more your body will favor the inflammation,” Lakkasani says. That’s because refined carbohydrates — your sugary cereals, white rice, French fries and store-bought bread — hit the bloodstream quickly and cause blood sugar to spike. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a surge in blood sugar triggers an inflammatory response as the body tries to remove the sugar from the blood.

Other inflammatory foods include those that contain trans fats and hydrogenated oils (store-bought cookies and pastries), as well as processed meats (hot dogs and bacon), red meat, mayonnaise, sugary drinks and fast foods. Lakkasani recommends her patients eat an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet, full of fruits, vegetables and healthy fats, like nuts. 

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