- Inflammation is a natural process that allows our body to survive injury and infection.
- But when inflammation is long-lasting or chronic, it can affect many areas of our health (periods included).
- There are several things you can do to feel better with chronic inflammation including meditating, exercising, and eating the right foods.
- Have your doctor measure your level of C-reactive protein (a marker for inflammation) to tell whether chronic inflammation might be affecting your body.
"Anti-inflammatory" is having a moment. Everywhere you turn there’s a turmeric-black pepper-ginger juice, fish oil supplement, or dark leafy green calling for your attention. But this is more than just a trend. Inflammation is a natural process that allows our body to survive injury and infection. But as with most matters in life, too much of a good thing can transform into something problematic. When inflammation is long-lasting or chronic, it can affect many areas of our health (periods included).
What Is Inflammation?
You might find it if you’ve twisted your knee kicking a little too hard in your soccer match, cut your finger on that oh-so-dangerous edge of a piece of paper, or felt the pinch of a bug snacking on your skin. The pain, redness, swelling, and heat triggered by these events are the four cardinal signs of inflammation. This is your body’s essential survival mechanism to combat hostile microbes and repair damaged tissue. The benefits are only while the inflammation is acute (sudden onset lasting a short period of time). But there’s a darker side to this process...
It goes by chronic inflammation. Often beginning with the same cellular response of its healthy cousin acute inflammation, chronic inflammation transforms into a lingering state that continues for months or years. This can take place if the immune system response fails to get rid of the problem, but chronic inflammation can also stay active even after the initial threat has been killed. When chronic inflammation goes on for extended periods, the immune system tells white blood cells to attach to nearby healthy tissue and organs. This sets up a chronic inflammatory process that plays a key role in diseases nobody wants like rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and Alzheimer’s.
What Causes Chronic Inflammation?
A number of things. They include:
- Untreated cases of acute inflammation (think infection or injury)
- Autoimmune disorders (aka the immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissue)
- Long-term exposure to irritants (such as industrial chemicals or polluted air)
- Chronic stress
Could Chronic Inflammation Be Affecting Me?
Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with one of the above disorders, there are some more mild warning signs that can occur during chronic inflammation:
- Extra belly fat
- High blood glucose levels
- Digestive problems (gas, diarrhea, bloating, or constipation)
- Constant lethargy
- Skin problems (think eczema or psoriasis)
- Puffy face or puffy eye bags
- Gum disease
- Depression, anxiety, or “brain fog”
If you want to know for sure, have your doctor measure your level of C-reactive protein (a marker for inflammation) to tell whether chronic inflammation might be affecting your body.
How Does Chronic Inflammation Affect Your Cycle?
Surprise - inflammation and your period are connected. In fact, in a recent study of 277 young women, both emotional and physical PMS scores were positively associated with levels of several inflammatory factors. That’s because when your body is inflamed, it exacerbates all your PMS symptoms. "Inflammation can make menstrual cycle symptoms seem much more significant and more severe," says gynecologist Jessica Vaught, MD of the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. Most women experience the most inflammation during the latter portion of the luteal phase (days 21-28 in a 28-day cycle) as well as the first couple days of bleeding.
How do you know you’re experiencing inflammation during your period? You might have some of these symptoms:
Breakouts - According to gynecologist Felice Gersh, MD, acne can be a sign of gut inflammation.
Muscle & joint pain - "Oftentimes this symptom is experienced by women who are suffering underlying pain caused by arthritis or previous injuries," says gynecologist Roohi Jeelani, MD, FACOG. "Most days they can tolerate this, but during and right before their period, the inflammatory markers which help release the menstrual blood may cause a flare in these symptoms."
Diarrhea or nausea - "The most common way an excessive amount of inflammation manifests itself in our GI system is usually diarrhea and possibly nausea," Dr. Vaught says.
Pelvic pain - "Women may have pain that feels different than menstrual cramps," Dr. Vaught says. "If a woman has a condition called endometriosis, she can feel pain that is exaggerated during her cycle. Endometriosis is a very inflammatory condition where there are implants of endometrial tissue within the pelvis."
- Dizziness and headaches - "Inflammation can lead to increased cortisol levels that can give a woman a variety of symptoms, including sugar cravings, headache, dizziness, and fatigue," Dr. Vaught says.
Unfortunately, the cause of these symptoms is complex and not fully understood. What we do know is that cells lining the uterus create compounds called prostaglandins that promote inflammation. As the uterine lining begins to shed, prostaglandins are released into the bloodstream.
Additionally, reproductive conditions associated with chronic inflammation include:
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Uterine fibroids and ovarian cysts
- Adenomyosis and Asherman’s syndrome
- Early menopause (premature ovarian failure)
- Poor sperm and egg quality
Even when not accompanied by a reproductive disorder, chronic inflammation can disrupt ovulation, the proper balance of hormones in your body, and endometrial receptivity (aka implantation).
We can’t exclude chronic inflammation’s effect on fertility. That’s because approximately 35% of women with an infertility problem are afflicted with post-inflammatory changes. Inflammation can contribute to infertility in two ways:
- Inflammation can damage cells and tissues in the reproductive organs, such as eggs, ovaries, or sperm.
- Chronic inflammation can also be connected to an autoimmune response, in which the body attacks its own tissue via antibodies. People with autoimmune conditions are more susceptible to these complications, and it is even more important that they work on decreasing inflammation in every way possible.
Remedies for Chronic Inflammation
Get mindful with meditation. Researchers from the University Of California, Davis and Rutgers University found mindfulness meditation to dramatically reduce cortisol levels, with one study showing a 50% drop. These results were also seen after only a handful of sessions, so you don't need to practice meditation for years to experience the benefits.
Get your blood moving. One study showed a 20-minute session of moderate exercise can have anti-inflammatory effects. “Our study shows a workout session does not actually have to be intense to have anti-inflammatory effects. Twenty minutes to half an hour of moderate exercise, including fast walking, appears to be sufficient. Feeling like a workout needs to be at a peak exertion level for a long duration can intimidate those who suffer from chronic inflammatory diseases and could greatly benefit from physical activity,” says study lead Suzi Hong.
Take some supplements. Fish oil, lipoic acid, and curcumin are all linked to decreased inflammation associated with diseases like cancer and heart disease. Several spices may also help with chronic inflammation and inflammatory diseases, such as ginger, garlic, and cayenne.
Eat the right foods. A variety of foods have anti-inflammatory properties as well. These include foods that are high in antioxidants and polyphenols. Here’s what you should and shouldn’t eat to optimize for anti-inflammation:
Foods to eat:
- Olive oil
- Leafy greens (kale and spinach)
- Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, and mackerel
- Fruits (cherries, blueberries, and oranges)
Foods to avoid:
- Refined carbs (white bread and pastries
- Fried foods (french fries)
- Large quantities of red meat
- Processed meats (hot dogs and sausage)
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