The Ties Between Inflammation and Cancer, Explained Simply

The interconnectedness of inflammation and cancer has been a subject of increasing interest in recent years. However, the majority of information available online might be too highfalutin and perplexing for those seeking straightforward answers to the connection between inflammation and cancer. This article simplifies their link and highlights lifestyle strategies for fighting inflammation.


Understanding Inflammation and Cancer

A common misconception is that inflammation is the exact same as swelling. Although partially true, it goes beyond physical symptoms. Inflammation is a biological response that occurs when the immune system reacts to harmful stimuli, including pathogens, toxic compounds, or tissue damage. It involves a series of cellular and molecular processes aimed at eliminating the cause of cell damage and initiating healing.

There two main types of inflammation are:

  • Acute inflammation is a short-term, localized response. It takes place immediately after tissue injury or infection. Signs and symptoms include redness, swelling, pain, and loss of function. Immune cells called neutrophils, which quickly gather at the site of injury or infection, mediate acute inflammation. The goal is to neutralize the harmful agents and stimulate the healing process.
  • Chronic inflammation is a response that persists for weeks, months, or years. It involves a different set of immune cells, including macrophages, lymphocytes, and fibroblasts. It often arises in conjunction with autoimmune diseases, long-term infections, and prolonged exposure to irritants, including carcinogens. Unlike acute inflammation, it can lead to tissue damage and the development of various disorders, cancer included.

Cancer, on the other hand, is a multifaceted disease characterized by uncontrolled cell growth. It also has the ability to invade surrounding tissues or organs. Claiming over ten million lives each year, it is a leading cause of death worldwide.

Now, the question is, what is the connection between chronic inflammation and cancer?


How Does Inflammation Lead to Cancer Development?

Chronic inflammation establishes a continuous state of immune system activation, causing the release of inflammatory mediators for an extended period. You may be wondering, “how is that a bad thing?

A persistent inflammatory environment can damage human DNA, disrupt cellular processes, and promote mutated cell growth. Over time, these damaged cells can accumulate, increasing the risk of cancer development.

Furthermore, inflammatory mediators like cytokines and chemokines play a crucial role in the communication between immune cells and the surrounding tissue microenvironment. In the context of chronic inflammation, these mediators can stimulate cell proliferation, angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels), and tumor-suppressor deactivation, all of which contribute to cancer growth and progression.


Are There Ways to Reduce Inflammation?

You can neither see nor feel it, but inflammation may slowly damage your body, especially if you have an autoimmune disease. Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis are leading examples of life-long disorders that occur when the immune system confuses the body’s own tissues for foreign invaders attacking in response. Cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and bowel disorders are also associated with inflammation.

Avoiding chronic inflammation altogether may not be possible, but you can reduce your risk and minimize its impact on your health. To fight back, adopt the following anti-inflammatory habits:


1. Go for a Walk

Aerobic exercise – the kind that gets your heart pumping and lungs working, like brisk walking and hiking — is an excellent way to fight chronic inflammation. It helps cut down body fat, which contains inflammation-inducing substances. If you have been sedentary for some time, perhaps due to the nature of your profession, begin with a ten-minute daily walk and work your way up to 30 minutes a day. If you have a heart condition, consult your doctor about the best exercise programs.


2. Eat for Your Health

If you love red meat, canned goods, and all the other good-tasting but bad-for-you delicacies, it is best to cut back. Instead, fuel your body with nutrient-dense whole foods. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats like olive oil and fatty fish (salmon, sardines, black cod, etc.) are some of the best anti-inflammatory foods on the market. Limit or avoid processed foods, sugary snacks, alcohol, refined carbohydrates, trans fat, and saturated fat.


3. Maintain a Healthy Weight

Obesity is consistently associated with chronic low-grade inflammation. Maintaining a healthy weight through regular workout sessions and a well-balanced diet can help reduce inflammation in the body.


4. Unwind and Unplug

As mentioned earlier, inflammation is the body’s response to a threat. May it be a foreign invader like cancer, a viral or bacterial infection, or a mental or emotional stressor – your body will fight back. Your immune system will deploy an army of molecules and chemicals, including pro-inflammatory cytokines, to attack the invaders.

Implementing stress-reducing techniques, including meditation and yoga, can reduce stress and prevent the secretion of pro-inflammatory proteins in the body. If meditative processes do not work for you (it’s not for everyone), engaging in hobbies and activities you love can provide the same stress-relieving effects.


5. Spend More Time in Dreamland

Lack of sleep is associated with inflammation, raising levels of inflammatory molecules like cytokines, C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, and others in the body. Although it’s easier said than done, the Sleep Foundation recommends aiming for 7 hours, at minimum, of uninterrupted sleep each night. Read 7 Ways to Sleep Soundly During Stressful Times for more information.


6. Protect Yourself From Environmental Triggers

From secondhand smoke to vehicular exhaust fumes, environmental pollution impacts human health and well-being on multiple levels. In the immune system alone, it elevates pulmonary, intestinal, and systemic inflammation. Exposure to air, land, and water pollutants also increases the risk of cancer development through oxidative stress and epigenetic modifications.

Related: Breathing Danger: How Air Pollution Causes Lung Cancer


7. Consider Anti-Inflammatory Supplements

Natural supplements may help against acute and chronic inflammation. Curcumin (derived from turmeric), omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, S-adenosylmethionine, frankincense, capsaicin, and green tea have demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties in clinical studies. Talk to your healthcare provider before incorporating any of them into your routine.


Recap: Inflammation, Cancer, and Prevention

Chronic inflammation builds an environment that fosters genetic mutations, allowing cancerous cells to grow, multiply, and thrive. Inflammatory mediators also directly damage DNA and disrupt repair mechanisms, leading to genetic instability.

Adopting the listed lifestyle modifications and avoiding pro-inflammatory triggers may reduce inflammation, cultivate a healthy immune system, and minimize the risk of inflammation-related diseases. However, keep in mind that chronic inflammation is, as discussed, a complex biological response. These anti-inflammatory strategies may not work for everyone, particularly for individuals with underlying health issues. As always, the best way to manage any health condition is to seek personalized guidance and treatment options from a healthcare professional.


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