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Chronic Inflammation and Cancer: What’s the Connection?

You may have heard that chronic inflammation is tied to the development of some serious diseases, including cancer. But how exactly are the two related, and is there anything you can do to keep chronic inflammation levels low?

First, the basics

Inflammation is a normal physiological process—and, in fact, it can be helpful. When the body sustains damage, the immune system launches an inflammatory response so that cells can rebuild the injured tissue. That’s vital for helping a wound heal and preventing further damage.

You can often see the inflammatory process at work. When you get a cut or scrape, for instance, the area around the wound might become inflamed—think, red, tender, or swollen—while a scab forms. Once the injured area gets back to normal, the inflammation goes away.

But sometimes inflammation begins for other reasons and it doesn’t stop. This type of inflammation is called chronic inflammation. Over time it can cause damage to cell DNA and affect the way cells grow and divide. That could lead to the growth of tumors and cancer.

Causes of chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation has a number of culprits. Here are some that experts have identified that seem to raise the risk for certain cancers.  

  • Infections that don’t go away. Infections are tied to 20% of cancers worldwide. Some infections can trigger inflammation that causes changes to surrounding cells in the body, which could eventually lead to cancer. For instance, some stomach cancers are linked to infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria.  
  • Abnormal immune response. Autoimmune disorders like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease can cause chronic inflammation in the gut and increase the risk for colon cancer.
  • Obesity. The formation of new fat tissue spurs the development of new blood vessels. That can encourage chronic inflammation and lead to a higher cancer risk. 
  • Diet. High consumption of saturated fat, processed foods, red meat or alcohol can contribute to chronic inflammation and raise the risk for gastrointestinal cancers. Acid reflux, which is often related to diet, can damage throat tissue and lead to esophageal cancer as well.
  • Other factors. Lifestyle factors, such as sleep quality and stress management, can contribute to chronic inflammation.

Reducing chronic inflammation

There’s no guaranteed way to prevent chronic inflammation, but there are lifestyle changes you can make to reduce it—and potentially lower your risk for some cancers.

  • Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Fruits and vegetables as well as sources of omega-3 fatty acids (like fatty fish or walnuts) boast anti-inflammatory properties. Limit your consumption of foods that promote chronic inflammation—like saturated fats, added sugars, and processed snacks.  
  • Be active. Regular exercise improves circulation, and it can help you manage your weight. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes daily.
  • Manage stress. Unchecked tension is bad for your health overall, and it may drive you to overeat and gain too much weight.
  • Get enough sleep. Both duration and quality of sleep can affect inflammation.