Let’s walk through what this all means, starting from the beginning…
You know how, in almost every movie ever made, there’s a hero and a villain? The hero, obviously, is the character you root for, the one you become invested in watching succeed. And the villain, well, the villain is the one who does his or her best to thwart the hero’s plans. You love the hero because in most cases, the hero is good and right and deserves to be happy and healthy and successful. And you hate the villain because despite how cool his/her outfits are, he/she is still evil. The villian’s only purpose in the movie is to mess with the hero, thereby messing up any chance at that happiness and health and success.
In the movie of your body—at least for the sake of this analogy—your skin is our hero. And the dastardly villain up to no good? Inflammation. That’s right: When your skin acts up and stops behaving, you can bet that inflammation is the root of the cause.
But wait, there’s a twist! That evil inflammation? It actually has a heart of gold and is only trying to protect your body and let you know there’s a problem that needs addressing. So before we all carry flaming pitchforks up to the spooky castle where inflammation lives, let’s walk through what this all means, starting from the beginning.
What is “inflammation”?
A buzzword in the health world, it seems you can’t turn around without seeing “anti-inflammatory” this or “inflammation-reducing” that. But medically, inflammation is simply your body’s response to anything that’s gone wrong. It’s a built-in defense system meant to combat foreign bacteria, viruses and injuries.
When your body senses something is wrong or that it’s under attack, it responds by triggering an inflammatory process that sends chemicals from white blood cells to the areas at risk. Those white blood cells (leukocytes) recognize and destroy the invader before it can cause real harm. This increase in blood flow to the area of injury or infection can lead to swelling aka inflammation.
Sound all good, right? For the most part, yes. After the infection or injury is treated, the white blood cells are supposed to retreat and the inflammation is supposed to go away. But sometimes that increase in cells and other inflammatory substances can send the system out of whack, leading to chronic, low-level inflammation in blood vessels, joints, organs, or even your skin.
Where does inflammation come from?
As noted earlier, inflammation can be an internal response to something foreign in the body, but it can also be the result of external factors, like stress, lack of sleep, your environment (secondhand smoke, too much sun, polluted air) and diet. Yup, your body can go into inflammation mode because you eat something it doesn’t like.
Internally, it’s hard to control an inflammatory response because it’s hard to control how often you get a cold or give yourself a papercut. But externally? That stuff is much more within the realm of things you have a direct say in.
How does it impact my body? My skin?
Like I said above, chronic, low-level inflammation can affect pretty much any part of your body and any system within it. It can put you at risk for heart disease, arthritis, lung and kidney issues, Alzheimer’s, and even some cancers. But don’t freak just yet: These are all long-term effects of chronic inflammation. In the shorter term, your skin is most likely to take a hit that shows up immediately.
Here’s the deal. Your skin is an organ that serves to keep bad things out of our body and good things in your body. It’s also the often the first sign that something weird is going on internally, as that weirdness makes itself known on your skin as a kind of warning sign.
When you’re stressed, your cortisol (aka the stress hormone) levels rise which causes inflammation. When you eat something your body doesn’t like (refined sugars, fried foods, saturated fats, gluten for some, dairy for others), your body reacts as if it’s an invader, and inflammation occurs. When you’re not sleeping well and your body is fatigued to the point where your organs are having a hard time performing their jobs due to lack of energy…you guessed it: inflammation.
All of this shows up on your skin. Stressed and pumped full of cortisol? Collagen breaks down, which can accelerate the aging process, and make skin look dull and rough. Spending time in the sun or in a highly-polluted environment? Your pores get clogged with excess sebum and dead skin cells, creating a breeding ground for acne-causing bacteria that trigger those white knight blood cells to rush in and lead to inflamed skin. Eating crappy food your body isn’t down with? The toxins your body is trying to get rid of will force their way up and out of your skin tissue, promoting inflammation.
How can I deal with inflammation?
So glad you asked! First, exercise. Moving and getting your heart pumping will release endorphins, which are also conveniently anti-inflammatory. Second, go to sleep! When you’re sleeping, endorphin levels are at their highest and cortisol levels are at their lowest, which means the timeless battle of inflammation seriously favors the anti- camp when your head hits the pillow. Your body is also in repair mode while you snooze, hence that whole “beauty sleep” thing.
Third, pay attention to what you eat. Foods that contain healthy doses of omega-3 fatty acids (like fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds and egg yolks) are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, and produce like berries, leafy greens, citrus and kidney beans are antioxidant-rich, meaning they fight inflammation-promoting free radicals. If you’re sensitive to anything—like dairy or gluten—avoid it. Dairy, gluten, refined sugars…try cutting them out of your diet for a few weeks to see if anything clears up. Then add them back in one at a time to find the offender. (This is also called an elimination diet if you want to do more research on how to go about it.)
You can also add anti-inflammatory ingredients and supplements into your diet (though this is definitely not a cure-all). Functional foods like turmeric, reishi mushrooms and lucuma (a Peruvian fruit that contains beta carotene, iron, zinc, vitamin B3, calcium, and protein) can help to naturally calm internal inflammation. And probiotic foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, miso, pickles and bio-fermented supplements can aid in helping to create a healthy environment in your gut to promote the growth of the good bacteria you need to better digest food and keep things running smoothly as far as digestion is concerned. (Another plus? A healthy gut full of friendly microbes can boost your body’s immune system, which as we learned earlier, is one of the key culprits of inflammation.)
And fourth, fight inflammation from the outside in. We’ve really only talked about what’s going on inside your body because as we’ve also discussed, most inflammation takes place internally and then shows up on the skin. And while anti-inflammatory topicals won’t help with internal inflammation issues, they can certainly go a long way when it comes to the surface-level stuff. The key here is to remember to be gentle (nothing harsh that might irritate inflamed skin further), and also that anything you’d eat or drink to help with internal inflammation—like green tea, olive oil and vitamin E—will also help topically. Look for ingredients that soothe, like aloe and chamomile, and ones that play well with angry skin, like milk thistle, camellia seed oil, cranberry seed oil, black cumin and meadowfoam.
There’s nothing wrong with a little inflammation. Remember, it’s your body’s way of fighting off things that don’t belong. But when it starts to affect you long-term or makes its way to your face, it’s time to take action. So pay attention to how you feel and what your body is telling you, and let your skin be the hero that lives happily ever after. (Roll credits)
+How do you fight inflammation? Share with us in the comments below!
This information is not intended to treat, diagnose or prevent any disease or issue. Please seek your doctor’s advice for any questions regarding a specific condition and before beginning any exercise, diet or health-related regimen.
I’m still working on an anti-inflammatory diet. It’s good to know that there are some other things I can do if I can’t quite give up my spicy food just yet!
Thank you for clearing the facts up about inflammation. I do think it’s our bodies’ natural way of defence and telling us that something’s wrong, but it’s good to know what can be done to prevent excess amounts of it.
Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
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I use tea tree oil. Works really well to calm the body.