Added to your bag

What is inflammation? An essential guide

Inflammation is a normal part of your body's immune system response to injury and infection, and is not always a bad thing. When it’s acute and not dangerous, it is the body’s natural defence against damaged cells, viruses, bacteria, etc. and aims to remove these harmful or foreign invaders and heal itself. Without inflammation, wounds would not heal and infections could be deadly. Problems arise when the inflammatory process goes on for too long and becomes chronic, as chronic inflammation is at the root of most diseases. 

First, chemicals from white blood cells are released into the bloodstream or the affected tissue to guard the body from foreign substances. This release of chemicals heightens blood flow to the area of infection or injury, helping to flush the irritant from the body, which can lead to warmth and redness. The increased number of cells and inflammatory substances can also trigger fluids to leak into the body’s tissues, which causes irritation and swelling. Inflammation can cause temporary pain because swelling pushes on sensitive nerve endings, sending pain signals to the brain. 

Types of inflammation

There are two very different types of inflammation, one is acute inflammation and the other is chronic inflammation. 

Acute inflammation 

Acute inflammation is your body’s first defence response to injury or disease and starts shortly after the injury has occurred. It usually only lasts for a couple days, but it can continue for a longer period of time if the reason for the injury or disease persists. For example, acute inflammation caused by an infection can continue as long as the microorganism causing the infection is still in your body. The response is led by the inflammatory immune cells, neutrophils and eosinophils. Acute inflammation can be associated with infections, traumatic injury, autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis), or cancer.

Although acute inflammation is an important part of your body’s defence system, prolonged acute inflammation can cause injury to the tissue involved. These kinds of changes are commonly seen in the skin, mouth, and gastrointestinal tract (oesophagus, stomach, small bowel, and colon).

Chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation is your body’s long-term or delayed defence to injury or disease. This can happen when the cause of the inflammation can't be removed from your body or when cells from your immune system start behaving abnormally. If left untreated, this inflammatory response can damage your body tissues.

Not all injuries or diseases will cause chronic inflammation. When this stage does occur, it usually starts just as the acute inflammatory stage is ending. This stage can last for days or weeks depending on the injury or disease. 

Symptoms of inflammation

Acute inflammation symptoms

Acute inflammation often occurs because of an external injury. Signs and symptoms of acute inflammation, which are typically on the skin, include:

  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Immobility
  • Heat (the affected area may feel warm)

Acute inflammation caused by an infection such as bronchitis, tonsillitis, sinusitis and appendicitis can result in symptoms including: 

  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Lethargy
  • Fatigue 
  • Irritability
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Headache

If acute inflammation is occurring deep inside your body, such as in an internal organ, only some of these signs may be noticeable. Some internal organs, like your lungs for example, don’t have sensory nerve endings nearby so there may not be pain even if your lungs are inflamed.

Chronic inflammation symptoms

Chronic inflammation often progresses quietly with few independent symptoms. Despite its subtlety, chronic inflammation is a serious threat to your health.

Some signs and symptoms of inflammation that is chronic include:

  • Fatigue
  • Mouth sores
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Joint pain

Conditions associated with chronic inflammation:

Chronic inflammation is a descriptive term and is not a diagnosis in itself. Chronic inflammation can affect any organ and there are many health conditions that fall into the category of inflammatory diseases such as Coeliac disease, asthma, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

What causes inflammation?

Inflammation happens when a physical factor triggers an immune reaction. Inflammation doesn't necessarily mean there's an infection, but an infection can cause inflammation. The following factors can trigger inflammation: 

  • Injury or infection
  • Excess weight or obesity
  • Poor diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Sleep disorders
  • Poor gut health 
  • Age
  • Minor food allergies or intolerances
  • Pollution exposure

Chronic inflammation can develop if a person has:

  • Autoimmune disorders: This is when your immune system mistakenly attacks normal healthy tissue, like in psoriasis
  • Sensitivity: Inflammation occurs when your body senses something that shouldn't be there. Hypersensitivity to an external trigger can result in an allergy
  • Exposure: Often long-term, low-level exposure to an irritant, such as an industrial chemical, can result in chronic inflammation
  • Persistent acute inflammation: If you don't fully recover from acute inflammation it can lead to chronic inflammation

How to reduce inflammation

Conventional treatment for inflammation usually includes medication, rest, exercise or surgery. The most common over-the-counter medications recommended for short-term acute inflammation are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen. 

There are a number of natural remedies that can be used instead of medication to prevent and reverse chronic inflammation and really get to the root of the problem.

Anti-inflammatory foods

Diet is one of the most powerful ways to support inflammation. Anti-inflammatory foods are high in vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, protein and antioxidants, which all help to reduce the damage caused by inflammation. The Mediterranean diet is a great example of a healthy eating plan that contains many anti-inflammatory foods. These include: 

  • Vegetables: Beets, carrots, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale), dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach), onions, peas, salad greens, sea vegetables and squashes

  • Fruits: Apples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, nectarines, oranges, pears, grapefruit, pineapple, plums, pomegranates, strawberries and tomatoes

  • Beans and legumes: Adzuki beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas and lentils

  • Healthy fats: Avocados, extra virgin olive oil, flaxseeds, almonds and walnuts

  • Fatty fish: Salmon, sardines, mackerel and tuna

  • Herbs and spices: Basil, chili peppers, cinnamon, curry powder, garlic,  ginger, rosemary, turmeric and thyme

  • Protein: Organic eggs, grass-fed meats, healthy cheeses, organic poultry and cultured/raw dairy

  • Quercetin and reservatrol rich foods: Red onion, red wine, cacao, dark chocolate, apples, kale, blueberries, green tea, pistachios, grapes, blueberries and cranberries

Anti-inflammatory supplements

  • Omega 3 fatty acids: Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease system-wide inflammation, making them helpful to a wide range of health concerns and in particular ones with inflammation at the root, like autoimmune diseases (1).

  • Turmeric: Turmeric contains a powerful component called curcumin, which is known for its ability to inhibit inflammation (2) and to speed up wound healing (3).

  • Bromelain: Naturally found in pineapple, bromelain is an enzyme that has been observed to have immune-modulating abilities, therefore helping to regulate the immune response that often creates unwanted and unnecessary inflammation (4).

  • Zinc: Zinc has been shown to have potent anti-inflammatory properties that may help to decrease inflammation and oxidative stress, as well as reduce the rate of infections (5).

Exercise for inflammation

Exercise is vital for optimal health and can actually help lower inflammation. It has been shown that just 20 minutes of moderate exercise can decrease inflammatory responses and protect against chronic conditions with low-grade inflammation. Try to include 150 minutes of exercise per week, and include a variety of exercises such as cardio, muscle strengthening or weight training, walking and yoga in your exercise routine.

Stress and inflammation 

Daily practices like yoga, meditation, tai-chi and qigong can help to reduce inflammation and psychological stress. You may not be able to change many of the stressful situations you sometimes encounter in life, but you can work on adapting your response and perception by learning to manage stress better. Getting enough sleep, quitting smoking and limiting how much alcohol you drink are also other ways to help to reduce inflammation in your body. 

Inflammatory foods

There are some inflammatory foods and ingredients that can cause inflammation in your body, including:

  • Refined carbohydrates/white flour products
  • Refined sugar and artificial sweeteners like aspartame
  • Trans fats, found in fried foods
  • MSG, a common flavour enhancer
  • Gluten: Not everyone is intolerant or sensitive to gluten, but it can cause inflammation in many people
  • Casein: A protein found in milk
  • Alcohol

Summary

It's key to remember that inflammation is a natural part of your immune response, and in the short term, is actually useful. It's when it becomes chronic that it can be problematic. 

Focus on consuming anti-inflammatory foods on a daily basis and eliminate foods from your diet that can trigger inflammation. Consider incorporating anti-inflammatory supplements, reducing your exposure to toxins and pollution and engaging in a variety of relaxation exercises and techniques like meditation. Measures to reduce inflammation pay off over time with improved health and reduced risk of chronic disease.

References

1. Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases

2. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin

3. Curcumin as a wound healing agent

4. Placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial on the immunomodulating activities of low- and high-dose bromelain after oral administration - new evidence on the antiinflammatory mode of action of bromelain

5. Zinc and immune function: the biological basis of altered resistance to infection

Search