Here’s a little of what we know about inflammation, and a few things that are still a mystery.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a broad term, but essentially it’s the immune system’s response to an irritant. As a process, inflammation exists to protect the body from invasion, infection, damage, and death. A foreign body enters (via a cut, an orifice, or another entry point) or an unwanted situation arises (like a twisted knee), and our own bodies initiate the inflammation protocol to get it out, quarantine its damage, clean up the mess it’s made, take care of the injured area, and speed up healing. Without our bodies’ inflammatory response, we would all probably have died of injuries and infections by now.
So what are the symptoms? How do I know if I’m experiencing inflammation?
The traditional symptoms are redness, swelling, heat, pain, sensitivity, and impaired function (imagine a sprained ankle, a splinter, a sore throat, or a bee sting).
On a cellular level, what’s happening when something is inflamed?
When something unwelcome is introduced to the body, the immune system initiates an inflammatory response: The body releases hormones, which cause tiny blood vessels to expand around the source of the affected area, shuttling more blood, fluid, and proteins toward it, to contain and heal the damage. This is when the site of inflammation becomes hot, red, and swollen, as in a sore throat or twisted ankle. After this comes the “termination and repair” phase, in which the offending irritant has been eliminated or destroyed and the affected tissue begins to repair itself. The cells may then regenerate, or if this is impossible, scar tissue may form instead.
So inflammation is good?
Yes, often. When the body swells up in response to a splinter, a twisted ankle, or a cold, for example, inflammation is essential for dealing with the offending irritant or situation, protecting the surrounding tissue, and then healing and regenerating the damaged tissue.
When is inflammation bad?
Well, it’s rarely comfortable, but inflammation is often worse when it doesn’t clear up or heal — or when it becomes “chronic.” Inflammation has generally been sorted into two categories: acute and chronic.
Acute inflammation is short-lived (hours or days). Common acute irritants are germs, such as bacteria and viruses (like a cold), but also objects and injuries, such as scrapes, sprains, insect stings, and splinters. Anything that your body doesn’t want in it, or that it wants to fix, can result in acute inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is longer lasting (months or years). It’s often associated with failure to get rid of what was initially an acute irritant (like a lingering infection), long-term exposure to irritants (like polluted air), and autoimmune disorders (like lupus, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis).
Conditions that end in “-itis” are also inflammatory disorders.
How bad is chronic inflammation?
Chronic inflammation has now been associated with most chronic disorders and diseases — among them diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s. Inflammation may also play a role in depression. In 2006, Harvard Medical School floated inflammation as a “unifying theory of disease.”
What are the symptoms of chronic inflammation?
They’re less clear, although some potential symptoms of chronic inflammation include obesity (specifically belly fat and waist circumference) and perpetual fatigue, depression, gum disease, digestive problems (like constipation, diarrhea, and acid reflux), rashes, and body pain.
What about inflammation that doesn’t come from an external irritant? Like with autoimmune diseases?
Sometimes the body determines that parts of itself are foreign irritants, which can leave these or other parts of the body in a state of long-term or permanent inflammation. These conditions are called autoimmune (immunity against the self) disorders. In these conditions, the body produces inflammation even when there is no known foreign irritant. Some common autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, in which joints throughout the body become permanently inflamed; psoriasis, in which the skin is chronically inflamed; and inflammatory bowel diseases, like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Why does it seem like everyone is talking about inflammation these days?
Primarily because scientists and researchers have been discovering a lot more about inflammation in the past several years. For instance, inflammation in the mouth and gums is associated with heart attack and stroke, inflammation in midlife can be associated with Alzheimer’s disease and memory problems later in life, and inflammation may be linked to depression (and there’s an inflammation-related link between depression and heart disease, too — and another one between depression, inflammation, and acne). Also, chronic inflammation may be associated with perpetual stress and regulation of the stress hormone cortisol.
Is there a way to know for sure if I’m experiencing inflammation? Are there not tests??
For people who are concerned about inflammation, and/or who are at elevated risk of heart attack, there’s something called a C-reactive protein test (or a CRP test), which is a blood test that measures levels of a blood-plasma protein that can rise with (and signal) inflammation. A CRP test can indicate the general presence of infection or a chronic inflammatory disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus. High levels of CRP are associated with a higher risk of heart attack.
How can I prevent chronic inflammation?
No one is sure exactly what causes chronic inflammation (on a person-to-person basis), although obesity, smoking, excessive alcohol intake, and sedentary lifestyles are all associated with inflammation. So are certain genes and environmental causes (like air pollution).
Eating well can help prevent inflammation. Exercise can help prevent it, too, in an almost inoculative kind of way. Michael Anft said, “Exercising, which causes an acute inflammatory response in the short term, but an anti-inflammatory one when we regularly get moving, is another strong step to take.” This is essentially the concept of hormesis, which is the idea that a small dose of something stressful in the present can result in increased resistance to the same thing later on.
Other inflammation-lowering activities: sleeping and otherwise relaxing/lowering stress. On a smaller scale, taking care of your teeth and gums is important (brush, avoid sugar). Many doctors recommend avoiding mercury-heavy fish (like swordfish) since mercury exposure is also correlated with inflammation.
What other foods cause inflammation?
Different foods do different things to different people, but generally agreed-upon foods that can cause or contribute to inflammation include refined carbohydrates, fried foods, and sugar-sweetened beverages. Sugar causes the body to release inflammatory molecular messengers (called proinflammatory cytokines), while excessive amounts of saturated fat may also be linked to inflammation.
What foods prevent inflammation?
Similarly, foods that are commonly believed to be “anti-inflammatory” include vegetables (especially dark, leafy greens), fruits (especially berries), nuts, oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), fiber-dense foods (whole grains, beans), olive oil, and green tea.
What about coffee?
Coffee might help prevent inflammation, although it appears to affect different people in different ways.
Taken from an article written by Edith Zimmerman. Make sure to read the article to see the links and reference material.