If you think back to your high school physics class, you may remember learning Isaac Newton's third law of motion. It states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The same can be said of the relationship between our lifestyle choices and our bodies. Every decision made has a ripple effect on the body’s inflammation levels that, in turn, directly influences the aging process.
The concept, known as ‘inflammaging’ (read: inflammation + aging), refers to “low-grade chronic inflammation that forms in the body as the result of exposure to environmental factors and contributes to physical aging and the onset of age-related diseases,” says Ebru Karpuzoglu, PhD, an immunologist and founder of AveSeena. In 2000, the concept of inflammaging was coined by Italian researcher Claudio Franceschi, yet only recently did it catch on as part of the aesthetic community’s vernacular. “Inflammaging is not a story, nor is it a trend,” Dr. Karpuzoglu explains. “It’s a scientific term that’s getting a lot of attention these days due to the amount of stress we are all constantly under.”
You probably don’t need to be reminded that, as a society, we are overly stressed and fatigued, but you may not be aware of just how much of a toll it is taking. “The side effect of the continuous stress we succumb to, which is on the rise partially due to COVID-19, is leading to more inflammaging than ever before,” she adds. It should come as no surprise then that beauty brands are devoting full product lines to the concept, and doctors are heavily educating patients on the pros (yes, there is some good associated with it) and cons of the inflammatory process. Here’s everything you need to know about inflammaging.
To fully understand just how damaging inflammation can be to the skin, it’s important to recognize that the body does not exist in a vacuum, untouched by outside forces. “It is an open system that is in constant communication with the environment,” Dr. Karpuzoglu says. “It responds to what it is exposed to by adjusting and protecting.” So, when you are stressed, your body reacts. “When the body is overrun by stress, microinflammation starts to set in,” she adds.
Everybody exhibits signs of inflammation differently. As she explains, those with sensitive skin often see inflammation manifest as “redness, sensitivity, and irritation,” while “thicker skin types” may see more wrinkles. Others will experience “extreme” dryness. “The common signs of aging are all part of inflammaging because inflammaging is modern-day aging,” Dr. Karpuzoglu explains.
Our skin is smart. It even has a memory, and research shows it’s able to recall incidents of inflammation. While the skin’s primary job is to protect the body against bacteria, viruses, stress, UV damage, toxins, and pollutants, it can only defend itself so much against certain aggressors. The skin’s protective network consists of more than just its flesh-toned epidermis; it’s a complex system of immune cells that include langerhans, macrophages, and dendritic cells that all work together to launch a quick response against assailants while repairing damaged tissues. “Our bodies are bombarded daily with a plethora of elements that make the immune system unhappy,” says Dr. Karpuzoglu. “The immune system works hard to protect the body from these aggressors and their damage, which aren’t always seen or felt.” The outermost layers of the skin act as a physical barrier between the outside world and all that comes into contact with it. For the skin barrier to function optimally, “it requires a significant amount of cell renewal and decreased inflammation,” says Jason Emer, MD, a board certified dermatologist in West Hollywood, CA.
According to Sejal Shah, MD, a board certified dermatologist in New York City, inflammation has an array of troublesome effects on the skin, including:
- Damaging skin cells
- Disrupting the skin barrier
- Degrading collagen and elastin
- Depleting naturally occurring hyaluronic acid levels
- Causing a loss of facial fat
“All of these changes lead to skin laxity, loss of volume, fine lines and wrinkles, brown spots, and uneven skin tone,” she shares. Inflammation also plays a significant role in certain skin conditions. “We know that internal inflammation, as well as skin inflammation, worsens outbreaks, pigmentation (we see this from lasers that cause too much heat and inflammation), and skin sensitivity like redness and rosacea,” Dr. Emer adds.
Once the immune system is flooded with inflammatory aggressors, it works overtime as a means of mitigating the inflammation while attempting to protect its now weakened skin barrier. “The immune system is comprised of both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory mediations, so inflammation is an immune response,” Dr. Shah notes. The process starts when it senses a ‘danger’ (think: infection, trauma, or toxin). “The immune system is guided by feedback loops, so, as these inflammatory mediators contain the ‘danger’ and the body recovers, the feedback loop signals the immune system to release anti-inflammatory mediators to restore balance,” she explains. Living in a constant state of inflammation forces mitochondria to work harder to generate cellular energy, which can lead to burnout, sickness, free radical damage, and poorly functioning cells.
But Not All Inflammation Is Bad…
It’s important to note, however, that not all forms of inflammation are bad. In fact, in situations where it is short-lived, the innate inflammatory process serves as an aid in healthy healing to keep the body safe from germs, bacteria, toxins, and disease. “Inflammation is natural and is a process that causes minor damage for more substantial rebuilding and collagen formation of skin and joints,” Dr. Emer says.
This logic extends to some of the most popular aesthetic procedures. “This process is true of lasers that mildly damage the skin,” he explains. “The inflammation created from lasers and even microneedling results in redness for a short time.” That short-term inflammation is for long-term gain. “When the skin is healed and repaired, it’s better than it was before,” he continues. “So, inflammation, like exercise for the muscles, improves your body over time — even though you ‘damage’ it through strenuous work.”
What Inflammaging Looks Like
For the most part, inflammaging is less visible on the skin’s surface, yet it’s doing major damage underneath the superficial layers. “Micro-inflammaging isn’t as visual as regular chronic inflammation, but it’s happening,” Dr. Karpuzoglu says, adding that, eventually, “the damage shows.” When the effects are present and noticeable (this occurs over time) inflammation-induced aging appears as skin that is:
It’s also common for it to be accompanied by itching, sensitivity, fatigue, low energy levels, joint pain, and digestive and sleep issues. For those that suffer from inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea, inflammaging can exacerbate them. “If inflammation is persistent and the by-product of cystic acne, joint disease, an autoimmune disease, or a thyroid issue, then the skin and body are more apt to damage because it doesn’t have the time or ability to heal strongly,” Dr. Emer says.
So, how do you know if your body is a victim of inflammaging? If your skin is easily damaged (read: it burns quickly in the sun or it takes weeks to heal from a minor cut or scrape), chances are there are high levels of internal inflammation. Photodamage and a lack of skin plumpness and thickness are also indicators of inflammaging. Other common symptoms include wrinkles, pigmentation, enlarged pores, and skin laxity. “With aging and inflammation, it’s common to see dilated blood vessels, redness, dark circles, and hollows under the eyes,” says Dr. Emer. The skin’s microbiome may also be compromised leading to dryness and infection.
The Ultimate Anti-Inflammaging Toolkit
The key to controlling inflammaging is to be diligent about protecting the skin’s immune function — that means cutting out anything and everything that is bad for you. Here, everything to do to keep inflammation levels under control to thwart off the common signs of aging:
1. Follow a Healthy Diet
What you eat directly affects your skin. Pro-inflammatory foods like refined sugar, processed foods, white starchy bread, and empty carbohydrates may taste good, but they exacerbate inflammation and aging. Instead, eat clean and green and drink plenty of water. This provides your body with the fuel it needs to tackle inflammation. It’s best to eat moderately sized portions rather than large plates of food, since overeating contributes to persistent inflammation in the gut. “Also, stay away from fast food — it doesn’t help,” Dr. Karpuzoglu says. “We need to return to our roots and follow the principle of eating foods you can grow, gather, and hunt.”
2. Get Enough Sleep
In case you need another reason to prioritize your beauty sleep, a good night’s rest is essential for keeping inflammation at bay. Research shows that mediators of inflammation are affected by sleep loss. If falling asleep is an issue, consider a nighttime cannabidiol (CBD) supplement, like ZIPPZ SleepZ, which offers six different formulas to give the body the rest it deserves.
3. Learn to Control Stress
Elevated stress levels signal the body to ramp up the production of the stress hormone cortisol. An increase in cortisol is directly related to acne, rosacea, and eczema flare-ups, which is why it’s important to relax and calm down.
4. Use Anti-Inflammatory Skincare
The skin’s immunity is dependent on a healthy microbiome and skin barrier. So, it’s all about supporting and rebuilding the barrier to sustain immunity and limit inflammation, which is just what anti-inflammaging-centric skincare products aim to do. AveSeena Ageless Perfection Cream is a multitasking lotion that works wonders on dry skin and simultaneously supports the skin barrier and microbiome. Heraux Molecular Anti-Inflammaging Serum, which is suitable for use both day and night, is formulated with a proprietary anti-inflammaging molecule known as HX-1 that protects stem cells from damaging stressors that trigger aging and modulates the protein that regulates cell regeneration. The True Botanicals CBD 500 Anti-Inflammaging Treatment Oil, meanwhile, features 500 milligrams of soothing full spectrum CBD and skin barrier-supporting jojoba seed, hemp seed, rosehip seed, and sea buckthorn oils.
5. Load Up on Antioxidants
Powerful antioxidants, like vitamin C, vitamin E, and turmeric, scavenge the free radicals that are known to have a pro-inflammatory effect on the skin. Incorporate antioxidants into your diet and skincare routine to reap the internal and external benefits.
6. Protect Your Skin from the Sun
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: daily sun protection is non-negotiable — especially as it relates to fighting inflammaging. “Sunscreen is crucial, as UV radiation drives the production of pro-inflammatory mediators,” Dr. Shah notes. A water-resistant mineral sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 is your best bet. Dr. Emer’s Emerage Skin Fusion Shield SPF fits the bill, and it also contains vitamin C and marine extracts to repair skin while protecting against sun damage.
All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.
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