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Understanding Inflammation

You’ve probably heard of inflammation – but what is it, exactly?

Put simply, inflammation is part of the body’s immune response. When our immune system detects an injury – like a cut on your arm – or an intruder, such as bacteria or a virus, it dispatches inflammatory cells to deal with the threat. These cells help heal damaged tissue or attack and repel an unwanted invader.

So, that means inflammation is a good thing, right? Sometimes, but not always.

In some cases, the body continues dispatching inflammatory cells after a threat has subsided. In other cases, the body experiences inflammation when there is no threat at all. This is known as chronic inflammation. 

Chronic inflammation is believed to be a key risk contributor to many serious illnesses, including heart disease. While chronic inflammation is sometimes unavoidable, there are several steps we can all take to reduce our risk of developing chronic inflammation in the first place.

Acute Inflammation

Acute inflammation is a result of our body’s immune system functioning normally. If we sustain an injury, such as a cut or insect bite, we experience inflammation as the immune system reacts to the injury. This inflammation may result in swelling, redness and warmth at the location of the injury.

Similarly, if we become ill with a bacterial or viral infection, our body’s immune system produces an inflammatory response, producing more white blood cells to fight the infection. This may present in the form of a fever, fatigue or other symptoms associated with a common illness, such as an upper respiratory infection or flu.

Acute inflammation occurs when then there is a threat to our body – and then it goes away once the threat has been dealt with or the injured area has healed. This type of inflammation is normal and beneficial, a sign of a properly functioning immune system.

Chronic Inflammation

Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation does not go away; it persists. Common causes of chronic inflammation include:

  • Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks health cells, causing pain, swelling and other discomfort
  • An unresolved acute inflammation resulting from a past injury or infection
  • Prolonged exposure to certain toxins, such as industrial emissions

In addition to autoimmune diseases, chronic inflammation is associated with several other serious health conditions. Researchers believe that chronic inflammation can trigger the disease processes for many different conditions over time.

Chronic inflammation is linked to:

  • High blood pressure
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Psoriasis
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes

Chronic inflammation does not always cause noticeable symptoms. When it does, possible symptoms of chronic inflammation may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Aches and pains
  • Fever
  • Joint pain and stiffness
  • Skin rash

Risk Factors for Inflammation

In addition to the commonly identified causes of chronic inflammation – autoimmune diseases, exposure to pollutants and unresolved acute infections – there are numerous lifestyle factors that heighten the risk of chronic inflammation.

These risk factors include:

  • Elevated LDL Cholesterol: LDL cholesterol is the ‘bad’ cholesterol in our bodies. If we have too much of it, it contributes to plaque buildup in our blood vessels. Over time, if the vessels become blocked, a heart attack may result. In other cases, blood clots may form – if they break off and travel to the brain, a stroke will result.

High LDL cholesterol levels may also produce an inflammatory response within our bodies. Such a response can contribute to even more plaque and the loosening of blood clots, increasing risk of heart attack and stroke.

  • Smoking: You can add inflammation to the long list of ways smoking wreaks havoc on the body. Smoking damages blood vessels and the lungs – this damage can cause an inflammatory response.
  • Being overweight: People who are obese or overweight are at heightened risk of chronic inflammation. Excess belly fat – also known as visceral fat – produces a molecule that causes inflammation.
  • Excessive drinking: Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to chronic inflammation. Men should have no more than two alcoholic drinks per day and women no more than one.

Regular Exercise and a Healthy Diet: Keys to Fighting Inflammation

Getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy diet are two of the best things we can do to reduce our risk of chronic inflammation – and a host of other health concerns. Not only will exercise and a good diet directly reduce your likelihood of developing chronic inflammation, but they will also help lower other inflammation risk factors, such as body weight and LDL cholesterol levels.

Getting regular, moderate exercise is one of the best things you can do for your overall health. People who are inactive have a greater risk of inflammation. Getting 30 minutes of exercise five days a week, will help reduce inflammation. Remember, regular exercise doesn’t have to mean buying a gym membership or expensive equipment – going for a brisk walk around your neighborhood is enough to give you valuable health benefits.

When it comes to a healthy diet, there are certain foods to avoid. Additionally, try to eat foods that are known to be helpful in fighting inflammation. However, be wary of diets that are marketed as “anti-inflammatory” – they may or may not be.

Different people have different inflammatory food triggers. Foods that may cause inflammation include:

  • Processed and cured meats, such as hot dogs and lunchmeat
  • Fried foods
  • Foods containing trans fats
  • Packaged snack foods, such as chips
  • Processed cheese
  • White flour items, including bread, pasta and pastries
  • Sugar, including sugary drinks

The following foods, however, are beneficial in many ways and have been shown to have anti-inflammatory characteristics:

  • Certain oily fish, including salmon, sardines and tuna
  • Leafy greens
  • Tomatoes
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Garlic
  • Beans
  • Walnuts and almonds
  • Avocados

If you work on cutting out foods that contribute to inflammation and increase your intake of foods that have been shown to combat inflammation, you may start noticing some health benefits. An anti-inflammatory diet may lead to:

  • Better sleep
  • Weight loss
  • Reduced anxiety or stress
  • Lower blood pressure 
  • Lower blood sugar
  • Improvement in muscle and joint pain
  • Reduction of digestive issues
  • Feeling more energetic

Fight Inflammation to Feel Better

As you can see, there are real, tangible benefits to doing what you can to fight inflammation. You’ll be healthier, reduce your risk for developing other chronic diseases and you might just feel better and have more energy, as well.

This article has been reviewed and approved by a panel of Privia Medical Group North Texas physicians.

This article contains information sourced from:

John Hopkins Medicine

Harvard Health

Cleveland Clinic 

National Institutes of Health

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