updated 6/2/2006 9:12:24 PM ET 2006-06-03T01:12:24

Is inflammation good or bad?  Inflammation can be a good sign. When your thumb swells after you accidentally bang it with a hammer, your immune system sends white blood cells and other hormone-like substances to help start the healing process.  This swelling reaction is one kind of inflammation that’s easy to see. 

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But scientists say that another invisible kind can occur throughout the body, over and over again, and it may increase our risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even cancer.

The intensity of this general inflammation can be measured by blood tests for markers like C-reactive protein (CRP), which is produced by the liver during periods of inflammation. 

People with increased levels of CRP seem to have a greater risk of heart disease from damage to their blood vessels. New research suggests that people with elevated blood sugar and CRP levels may be at especially high risk.

Chronic inflammation may also be connected to cancers of the esophagus, stomach, colon and liver.  In one 11-year study, people with high levels of CRP were more likely to develop colon cancer.  Scientists say that inflammation could promote cancer development by damaging our genes, increasing cell turnover and increasing the development of blood vessels that allow cancer cells to grow and spread.

For now, federal recommendations call for the blood test known as “high-specificity C-reactive protein” (hs-CRP) only for people with a moderate heart disease risk not as a standard screening procedure for the general public. Some researchers argue, however, that this test provides important information because it seems to measure the danger from a variety of risk factors. Other experts disagree, saying that any treatment choice would still be directed at specific risk factors.

While medical treatment of chronic inflammation may focus on controlling cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure levels, lifestyle choices may directly affect it, according to early research.

Omega-3s fight inflammation
Weight control seems to be one important way to prevent or reduce inflammation.  As individuals become overweight, fat cells enlarge and increase production of certain proteins that promote inflammation throughout the body.

A mostly plant-based diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans also seems to decrease inflammation. Studies link a Mediterranean-style diet with lower levels of CRP. Antioxidant vitamins like vitamin C in these foods could interact with a whole range of protective plant compounds to provide protection.

A Mediterranean-style diet also tends to be higher than the typical American diet in omega-3 fat, which is found especially in fish. A healthy balance of omega-3 fat with other fats reduces production of hormone-like substances that stimulate inflammation.

Studies also show lower levels of markers of inflammation in those who exercise regularly or don’t smoke. Good dental care that prevents the gum inflammation known as gingivitis may even help to reduce overall body inflammation.

Although the evidence linking diet and lifestyle to the kind of chronic inflammation associated with cancer and heart risk is still preliminary, this evidence is not the only reason to eat and live more healthfully.

It is estimated that eating a mostly plant-based diet, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly can lower your cancer risk by up to 30 to 40 percent.  We know that these healthy habits work. The growing research adds to our understanding of how they work.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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