The immune system activates its inflammatory process when the body recognizes foreign invaders, such as microbes, plant pollen, or chemicals. The intermittent activation of the inflammatory response protects our health from invaders and helps to heal damaged tissue.
- Intermittent inflammation helps protect us from getting sick and heals damaged tissues.
- Chronic inflammation can lead to chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.
- Healthier lifestyle choices can help reduce inflammation.
However, sometimes our inflammatory response is activated without a true threat. As a result, chronic inflammation can lead to the development of chronic diseases. Healthier lifestyle choices can decrease inflammation to reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is an important part of the immune system. When we are sick, the immune system is activated, and our body attacks foreign cells. This inflammatory response is also activated when we experience an injury, such as a cut or scrape. The first responders our body sends to fight the virus are inflammatory cells and cytokines, which stimulate the production of more inflammatory cells.
These cells play an important role in trapping the virus or bacteria and start to heal any injured tissue. During this process, we may experience pain, swelling, bruising, or redness. Sometimes we may have inflammation that we cannot see.
It is a good thing when the body activates the inflammatory response intermittently. It means that it’s protecting us against a true threat. Unfortunately, however, sometimes the inflammation persists even when there is no foreign invader. This can lead to many major diseases.
Acute vs chronic inflammation
There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
When the body experiences acute inflammation, the body naturally responds to a sudden injury. For example, this occurs if we skin our knees or cut our fingers. For the cut to heal, the body sends inflammatory cells and cytokines that start to heal the injured tissue.
Chronic inflammation occurs when there is no injury or virus threat, yet the body continues to produce inflammatory cells. This occurs in autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. In autoimmune disorders, the body sends the inflammatory cells that start to attack healthy parts of the body and can damage them.
Symptoms of inflammation
Symptoms of inflammation depend on whether it is acute or chronic inflammation.
|Acute inflammation symptoms:
|Chronic inflammation symptoms:
|Pain or tenderness
Redness at the site of injury
Chronic inflammation can lead to the development of many conditions, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Heart disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Type 2 diabetes
Causes of inflammation
There are many causes of inflammation. Autoimmune disorders are a known cause of inflammation because the body attacks healthy tissue, leading to inflammation. Exposure to toxins has also shown evidence of causing inflammation. If we were to have untreated acute inflammation, and it got infected, it could cause more severe inflammation and lead to other health problems. However, our lifestyles often contribute to developing inflammation. Lifestyle choices that cause inflammation include the following:
- Drinking alcohol in excess
- Eating a diet high in fat, sugar, and red meats
- Being obese
- Not exercising enough
- Chronic stress
- Sleep deprivation
It’s true that exercise stresses the body — but it is usually good stress. For example, doing high-intensity workouts too often does not give the body enough time to recover, and this can lead to inflammation. Studies have shown that just 20 minutes of moderate exercise can decrease inflammation in the body.
When we sleep, our blood pressure drops, and blood vessels relax. Without enough sleep, our blood pressure doesn’t decline like it should, which triggers cells in the blood vessels to activate the body’s inflammation response. A lack of sleep can also change the body’s stress response system.
A good night’s sleep is also important for brain function. In the deepest sleep state, the brain performs housecleaning by sweeping away beta-amyloid protein, which has been linked to brain cell damage. As a result, without enough sleep, this process is shortened, allowing the beta-amyloid protein to accumulate, causing inflammation. This buildup also makes it harder to sleep and retain memories.
The easiest way to avoid inflammation is to avoid it altogether. Therefore, adopting a healthier diet and lifestyle choices — and sticking with them — is the best insurance. These healthier habits help the body better battle invaders and provide it with the tools to repair itself. However, if inflammation is already affecting the body, some easy, at-home remedies are worth trying before visiting a medical professional.
Eating anti-inflammatory foods
Lifestyle modifications can also help reduce inflammation. One of the best ways to treat inflammation is by following an anti-inflammatory diet. Eating foods with anti-inflammatory properties can reduce the risk of illness. Examples of anti-inflammatory foods include:
- Olive oil
- Green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, collards)
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts)
- Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines)
- Fruits (strawberries, blueberries, cherries, oranges)
Anti-inflammatory foods are high in antioxidants and polyphenols, which are protective compounds found in plants. Studies have found that nuts can help reduce the risk of developing diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The Mediterranean diet is a popular anti-inflammatory diet often recommended because it is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and healthy oils. Eating a healthy diet reduces inflammation and the risk of developing chronic diseases and improves mood and quality of life.
Limiting or avoiding inflammatory foods
Consistently eating the wrong types of food can lead to inflammation in the body; therefore, they should be eaten in moderation. For example, consuming too many fatty or fried foods, sugary drinks, or highly-processed foods increases the risk of developing diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Foods that cause inflammation include:
- Refined carbohydrates (white bread, pastries)
- Fried foods
- Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages
- Red meat (burgers, steaks)
- Processed meats (hot dogs, lunch meats, sausages)
- Margarine, shortening, and lard
Adopting a healthy lifestyle
Not only does eating poorly cause inflammation, which can lead to the development of other diseases, but it also contributes to weight gain. Not maintaining a healthy weight is also a risk factor for inflammation. However, diet is not the only factor affecting inflammation in the body. For example, making healthier lifestyle choices can help prevent or at least reduce inflammation. Adopting healthy habits, such as the following, can minimize inflammation, which leads to better overall health:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Avoiding or quitting smoking
- Exercising 3–5 times per week
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Managing stress
For acute inflammation caused by an injury, rest, ice, and wound care will help reduce the discomfort while the body heals. However, for chronic inflammation, it’s best to talk to a healthcare provider about the recommended treatment.
Common treatments for chronic inflammation include:
- Supplements (vitamin A, vitamin C, zinc, turmeric, ginger, garlic)
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Steroid injections
Not all treatments are appropriate for everyone, so a healthcare provider can determine the best course of treatment to produce optimal results.
Limiting or reducing unhealthy diets and lifestyle choices while adopting and adhering to healthier lifestyle choices can help reduce inflammation and prevent the development of chronic diseases.
- Clevelan Clinic. Inflammation.
- Harvard Health Publishing. Foods that fight inflammation.
- Harvard Health Publishing. How sleep deprivation can cause inflammation.
- Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Inflammation and exercise: Inhibition of monocytic intracellular TNF production by acute exercise via B2-adrenergic activation.