Everything You Need to Know About Aging and Inflammation
Plus, why inflammation intensifies as the years pass.
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When you think of inflammation, you probably think of skin redness or achy muscles and joints. You might also think back to a time before either ailment had a presence in your life, but that's simply the nature of aging. The more years that pass, the more inflammation you experience. Depending on your genetic makeup, it can reveal itself in everything from your skin to the inner workings of your body. "We know that cells age intrinsically over time and also in response to environmental stressors (like smoking, UV damage, and other lifestyle choices)," explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Jennifer MacGregor, who also notes that when cells accumulate DNA damage due to these stressors, they lose their functions and die—thus leading to inflammation.
It's a vicious cycle, but once you understand it, you can take action. To help, we chatted with a number of dermatologists and doctors to determine the correlation between inflammation and aging—plus, the symptoms to look out for and how to address inflammation on the whole.
Why does inflammation occur as we age?
First things first: It's important to understand that inflammation isn't all bad. As alternative medicine expert Tsao-Lin Moy, the founder of Integrative Healing Arts, points out, our bodies are in a constant state of transformation and renewal. Every day, we are exposed to new stressors that affect both our physical and biological selves, not to mention our emotional well-being. When this exposure happens, our innate inflammatory process kicks into gear to heal and restore any tissue that is damaged in the process. But as we age, our body tissues don't revert back to that perfect, renewed state—and instead, we experience ongoing inflammation.
"Think of your body as a piece of fabric. Over time, the fibers lose strength, weaken, and lose shape," Moy says. "Your body's ability to repair is harder to keep in balance. Viruses, infections, hormonal fluctuations, emotional trauma, physical injury, and environmental factors (such as pollution and radiation from the sun) slowly damage our ability to regenerate and cause metabolic waste accumulation that can become chronic inflammation." It's at that point—when inflammation turns chronic—that it becomes a concern, notes Moy.
Why factors intensify inflammation over time?
According to Dr. Michele Green, chronic stress is a major factor in the aging-inflammation equation. "Prolonged stress leads to increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone," she explains. "This alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate both the inflammatory and immune response because it decreases tissue sensitivity. Therefore, this leaves us susceptible to increased amounts of inflammation throughout our bodies."
It goes deeper—naturopathic doctor Dr. Jordin Wiggins says that it is the accumulation of lifestyle factors that become compounded over 20 to 30 years that is the real concern. "The top three inflammation offenders are poor sleep habits, inactivity, and poor diet," she says, noting that all can affect everything from your internal organs to your complexion. While you can absolutely tailor your sleep, exercise, and diet habits, Dr. Jeannette Graf says that sometimes, inflammation is innately part of life. "The aging process itself contributes to increased inflammation," she says. "Chronic low-grade inflammation occurs as our cellular processes result in DNA changes, which then influence the formation of new cells." What's more, she says that with increasing age, we also accumulate byproducts of collective inflammation, which then intensifies the signs of aging. Like we said—a vicious cycle.
What parts of our body does inflammation impact over time?
In short, every part. But Moy says that the body parts most commonly affected by inflammation are connective tissue (collagen fibers), joints, ligaments, bones, and skin, plus our digestive and circulatory systems. Speaking of digestion—registered dietitian Kylene Bogden says that our gut is the control center. "This is where the majority of the immune system lies. Therefore, when the gut lining is damaged from stress, junk food, and environmental toxins, this can lead to intestinal permeability," she explains. "When the toxins and other particles begin to leak through the lining into the bloodstream, our body recognizes these as foreign invaders and begins to attack. This worsens as we age and, as a result, the inflammation burden increases."
The tricky part about inflammation is that it shows up differently for everyone. "When we're talking about generalized inflammation, the effects can be seen throughout all body systems," Dr. Wiggins says. "This can be one of the sneaky culprits of difficult weight loss, joint pain, anxiety and depression, and hormone imbalance."
What signs point toward inflammation?
To determine whether or not you are suffering from this, you need to know its most common symptoms. Chronic inflammation—the most insidious type that results from general toxicity, poor diet, and a stressful lifestyle, notes Dr. Gabrielle Francis, a naturopathic doctor and Love Wellness Advisor—leads to insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, which is systemic. When this happens, a slew of unfavorable symptoms, like fatigue, insomnia, anxiety and depression, body aches and pains, weight gain and loss, gut disturbance, inflamed skin, and headaches set in; over time, inflammation can also serve as the driving force behind deeper issues, like diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, polycystic ovarian syndrome, infertility, and cancer.
At the end of the day, if your issue is chronic and unresolvable by over-the-counter medications, Bogden says that it is likely the result of inflammation. "Chronic inflammation is a gradual process that progresses slowly," Dr. Graf adds. "This makes it serious, since problems develop without being obvious until later."
Why should we be more vigilant about inflammation as we age?
If you are someone who regularly experiences bloating, headaches, or aches and pains, you may think it's simply part of life once you reach a certain stage. But all are reasons to consult your doctor. As Bogden points out, cancer and autoimmune conditions—not to mention cardiac issues and overall poor health—are the result of chronic inflammation that has not been properly addressed. "The pain, reflux, and headaches of today could potentially be the Hashimoto's or multiple sclerosis of tomorrow," she warns, noting that you need to work with your doctors to reach the root of the inflammatory problems you're facing, as opposed to simply treating the symptoms.