Are you ready for a little bit of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’?
Okay, here goes...
(and even if you’re not ready, just try!)
Do you know what your largest organ is?
I’ll give you a couple of guesses:
3. Large intestine
If you guessed b) Skin, ding ding ding!
Here’s an internet cigar for you.
Although by the end of this article, you might ask to swap out that cigar for something a little less inflammation-inducing (and way less stinky, too!)
As the largest external organ, skin has an incredibly unique and critically important job when it comes to keeping us healthy.
It’s a crucial barrier between our more delicate internal organs and the outside world; it helps us to regulate our temperatures so we’re not too hot or too cold; it can help us store water and fat for hydration and energy, respectively.
The other thing about skin is that it’s usually a pretty reliable way to tell someone’s age and health.
Someone that’s unwell usually looks pale, sickly—and maybe even older than they actually are.
We can easily guess someone’s age by how their skin looks, but it’s also entirely possible for someone to have aged faster, appearance-wise due to chronic inflammation.
Okay, What is Chronic inflammation?
Medically speaking, chronic inflammation is a prolonged inflammatory response to stimuli.
It can be set off by an acute instance of inflammation—sudden exposure to a particular allergen or even a minor scrape can be a temporary source of inflammation.
However, it changes from an acute instance to chronic when the body's response never seems to completely go away—this low-level, constant inflammatory response can be linked to other health issues such as heart disease and asthma.
Is All Inflammation Bad?
The truth is, we just can’t avoid all types of inflammation. It seems like it would be the simple solution to all this, but it’s actually just not healthy (or possible) for us.
Temporary inflammation is a crucial part of the body’s ability to heal.
It's true—without an inflammatory response, our bodies would never recover from any kind of injury. Everything from a minor scrape to a more major sports injury (a torn ligament, for example) wouldn't be able to heal up without inflammation. It's the body's response to trauma which plays a critical role in kickstarting the healing process.
Any inflammation basically signals to the body that healing needs to be done in this area—STAT.
In response, white blood cells, enzymes, healing antibodies, and extra blood circulation get sent to the area to boost healing, and before you know it, all that’s left is a tiny scar.
So what’s the big deal if inflammation is so good at healing?
There’s a problematic type of inflammation that just hangs around and ultimately causes more harm than good, creating unnecessary stress on the body and leading to accelerated signs of aging.
What does it have to do with aging?
Research suggests a newer idea called “inflammaging” that explores a link between constant inflammation and the long-term effects it has on the skin.
Everyone knows that our bodies change as we get older, right? Joints get creakier, eyesight changes (or is it that your arms aren’t long enough?) and for some, there’s a little less hair on the top of your head.
But that’s not the only thing that changes—skin does too, and I’m not just talking about the obvious changes.
Over time, your skin naturally loses a lot of the same abilities it had when you were younger. These are things like lowered collagen production, weakened moisture barrier, and increased permeability. Because of this fairly low-level damage, research suggests that skin is far more easily compromised by external sources of inflammation, therefore leading to chronic inflammation that ultimately speeds up the signs of aging.
Inside the body, the molecules responsible for inflammaging are cytokines. Ordinarily, they're incredibly crucial cells that help to repair skin from within, helping it to remain healthy and even preventing thick scar tissue from forming. In cases of chronic inflammation, however, they take on a less skin-friendly role.
The age-triggered changes in the skin (dryness, damaged moisture barrier, and increased permeability) send signals that something needs to be repaired, putting cytokines on high alert looking for a wound to repair—the thing is, there isn't one.
So what does that mean for us?
In this case, the body keeps sending out floods of cytokines in an attempt to heal an invisible wound, which unfortunately keeps skin inflamed as well as negatively affecting other organs in the body, leading to long term issues like cardiovascular disease and recurring eczema.
In this particular study, the results suggested that mediating inflammaging could be as simple as using a lotion that nourishes and heals the skin, basically eliminating the inflammatory response. There’s no denying that taking steps after the fact helped to reduce inflammaging—but what if there were ways that you could prevent inflammaging in the first place?
Can external factors cause inflammaging?
There’s no escaping the fact that time catches up to all of us—no matter how fit you are, how well you eat, it’s just something that we can never outrun. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do—after all, aging doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Broadly speaking, aging—especially of the skin—falls into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic.
Intrinsic aging factors basically cover genetics—in other words, just how you are. Intrinsic factors are kind of boring (let’s face it) because everything about them was already decided from the moment that you were born. Whether or not your hair falls out, if you’re gonna get your mom’s crows’ feet or your dad’s smile lines—it’s all pre-determined.
What isn’t predetermined, however, is how quickly and how severely these can set in.
That’s where extrinsic factors come into play—and these are all things like sun exposure, alcohol consumption, smoking habits, and pollution exposure, just to name a few.
What do all of these have in common?
They all cause inflammation.
Yep, the same kind of inflammation that causes premature aging. In fact, they’re all specifically linked to oxidative stress, causing the damage that kickstarts underlying chronic inflammation.
It's not exactly a secret that ultraviolet exposure is associated with premature skin aging, but not a lot of the general population are aware of how deeply it can affect your skin and how long it continues to change it—long after sunburns and tan lines fade away.
After all, it is deliberate exposure to a source of ultraviolet rays that causes external stress on the skin and has links to long-term skin damage—in fact, the same type that’s often associated with chronic inflammation.
Everyone's partial to a drink or two, but as with all good things, it's best in moderate consumption. A longitudinal study of women found that heavy alcohol consumption (as in, greater than 8 drinks per week) was associated with gaunter faces, puffier under eyes, and deeper forehead wrinkles.
Why were these issues so common?
There’s a strong correlation between alcohol consumption and chronic inflammation, and alcohol has been directly associated with inducing an inflammatory response—as in, the release of cytokines that then roam through the body looking for a wound to heal, but there is none.
All of us know the feeling (and look) of how dry, red, irritated and otherwise awful skin can look after a long night out. That's because these cytokines have been let loose as a reaction to drinking alcohol—and over time, this could become chronic.
However, alcohol isn't as a whole, bad—red wine, for example, does contain resveratrol, a known antioxidant. Enjoying a glass or two on the weekend to wind down is generally safe, and sometimes totally necessary. TGIF!
We’ve all seen the studies comparing smoking and non-smoking twins, right? In case you haven’t, this Business Insider article sums them up pretty well. The differences are pretty stark, right? Significant loss of elasticity and overall, just looking older.
Most of us have grown up with the idea that smoking is going to age you, but not a lot of people could explain exactly why. Part of it has to do with nicotine—the addictive substance that tobacco leaves contain. A study on mice found that nicotine sparked an inflammatory response, which serves as the foundation for tobacco-related diseases and negative effects on the body.
And that’s not even the worst part! Nicotine is just one of the thousands of chemicals that can cause damage throughout the entire body—not just the damage that you see on the outside.
This is one that’s hard to avoid in certain cities because it is literally all around you, but the link between pollution and inflammation is being further explored to completely understand how it affects the body.
Most air pollution is a blend of particulate matter, ground-level ozone, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NO2), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Ground-level ozone is actually a product of VOCs and NO2, heated up by ultraviolet rays—so just in case there wasn’t enough pollution, it can transform into something else—great.
That’s a heavy dose of sarcasm, FYI.
The bad news is, pollution doesn’t just cause inflammation by being on the skin—it can cause inflammation and oxidative stress from within too. Knowing this, it's going to take two strategies to reduce and prevent inflammaging.
How to Prevent Inflammation?
Luckily, this is the kind of thing that you can tackle from inside and out. Yes, while the researchers in this study suggested a moisturizer—more on topicals later—there’s a lot to be said for eating an anti-inflammatory diet.
1. Using Rich Body Moisturizers
In the pilot study, it was found that treating the skin with a moisturizer that had the ideal blend of ingredients (cholesterol, free fatty acids, and ceramides) dramatically decreased the level of cytokines in the bloodstream, and therefore could hypothetically reduce the risk of other conditions associated with chronic inflammation. That’s a serious win—but it’s not the only topical treatment that you can turn to for fighting inflammation.
2. Incorporating Antioxidant Skincare
Antioxidants are crucial to defending skin against the molecules that are commonly associated with causing acute and chronic inflammation. At the end of the day, the long term effects associated with inflammaging are likely in part caused by previous exposure to oxidative stress causing free radicals, in a way starting the cycle of inflammation and premature aging.
Antioxidants work by disarming free radical molecules, preventing them from damaging skin—at least topically. Antioxidant skincare does more than just protect skin, though—they’re amazing all-rounders that help to fortify skin and ultimately, prevent inflammation.
3. Prioritizing Anti-Inflammatory Food
Now that protecting skin from the outside is covered, let’s shift focus to working from the inside out. When it comes to minimizing inflammation, don’t forget to look at what you eat—you might be surprised by how much your diet contributes to inflammation.
In case you’re worried that eating an anti-inflammatory diet is going to be boring, you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s rich in leafy greens, good fats (hello, avocado toast!), a whole lot of fruit and a generous sprinkle of spices like cinnamon and turmeric. Now that I’ve got your attention, here’s some absolutely amazing anti-inflammatory recipes.
4. Adding in Antioxidant Supplements
Let’s get this one thing straight—supplements are not a cop-out. While ensuring that you’re eating a rounded, anti-inflammatory diet is highly recommended, obviously, supplements are designed with maximum efficacy and absorbancy in mind to really get in there and target specific concerns. There are a lot out there—concentrated Vitamin C, Resveratrol, Vitamin E, and Molecular Hydrogen, to name a few.
That’s not to say that this is a comprehensive list of all supplements—just a few common ones that you’re likely to see when shopping around.
Fortifying the body from within and guarding against inflammation with antioxidants is a major key to preventing long-term, chronic inflammation—so why wouldn’t you give it a shot?