In recent years, you’ve probably been hearing about “inflammation” as a major health concern. Sure, you’ve heard that word before and occasionally have experienced the type of inflammation that you see externally on your body, but many of us are unclear as to just what type of inflammation is so concerning to overall health.
Generally speaking, inflammation is the natural response of the body to defend itself against irritants, infection, wounds, or other damage to body tissue. This natural response includes the release of antibodies and proteins, as well as increased blood flow, to the affected area. Without this inflammatory response, healing would not take place.
This is the type of inflammation to which we are most accustomed because we feel it, see it, or both. Acute inflammation, which generally lasts for hours or days, is caused by harmful bacteria or injury to tissue and has recognizable stages1:
- Pain that results from sensitive nerve endings
- Redness from blood-filled capillaries
- Immobility due to the inflammation
- Swelling due to fluid build-up
- Heat from the presence of blood that flows to the affected area
Examples of acute inflammation are physical trauma, intense exercise, a cut or scratch on the skin, sore throat, various infections (e.g., bacterial infections of the eye, ingrown toenail), bronchitis, appendicitis, dermatitis, tonsillitis, sinusitis, etc. Some types of acute inflammation include the discharge of pus, the build-up of dead white cells that have formed to combat the infection. Acute inflammation usually has a positive outcome but, if the cause of the inflammation is not eradicated, it can turn into chronic inflammation.
This type of inflammation continues over a longer period of time, from months to years, because the cause of the inflammation is not eliminated. Chronic inflammation is inflammation on the cellular level and frequently one or several body systems, e.g., an internal organ or digestive system. Symptoms may be more vague, but pain, discomfort, and stiffness are frequent signs.
Causes of chronic inflammation include:2
- Untreated acute inflammation
- Long-term exposure to harmful chemicals, polluted air, or other irritants
- Autoimmune disorder that continually attacks healthy tissue
Other contributing factors for chronic inflammation include smoking, alcohol, obesity, and chronic stress.3 Some diseases that are associated with chronic inflammation are asthma, tuberculosis, periodontitis, periodontitis, sinusitis, and inflammatory digestive diseases such as Crohn’s. More recently, chronic inflammation has been linked to a number of diseases and health conditions.
Chronic inflammation may be treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, steroids, supplements such as fish oil and lipoic acid, and foods known to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Foods to eat to better manage chronic inflammation include:
- Olive oil
- Leafy greens (kale, spinach)
- Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines)
- Nuts (walnuts, almonds)
- Fresh fruits (blueberries, cherries)
Foods to avoid that may exacerbate inflammation include:
- Red and processed meat
- Fried foods
- Refined carbohydrates
Also, research has shown that some spices (e.g., turmeric, cayenne, ginger, cinnamon, cloves) and herbs (e.g., rosemary, sage) show potential in reducing chronic inflammation, but the research continues as to the efficacy of these substances. Be sure to discuss all forms of treatment—including foods, spices, and herbs—with your physician.
Research and discussion among scientists and medical professionals are ongoing to identify additional ways in which to diagnose and manage chronic inflammation.