Inflammation – the good, the bad, the ugly, and how to avoid it

Inflammation symptoms start from an early age

From the time we’re born, we’re all going to experience inflammation of one kind or another.  From temporary conditions like the common cold, painful bottom rashes in newborns, and tooth infections, to serious chronic diseases, inflammation is a pervasive phenomenon in populations throughout the world.

This article aims to explain what inflammation is, signs of inflammation, its associated diseases, the role of ‘leaky gut’ syndrome, and how to avoid chronic inflammation.

The ‘good’, the bad, and the ugly of inflammation

The ‘good’

No one likes to know that they have inflammation in their body.  However, the truth is that inflammation is a sign that the body’s immune system is doing its job to fight infections. When something damages your cells, your body releases chemicals that trigger a response from your immune system. This response includes the release of antibodies and proteins, as well as increased blood flow to the damaged area. 

When inflammation is short-lived, it is called acute inflammation, which means that although it may involve pain, redness, loss of function, swelling and heat, it generally only lasts for a few days.  Some examples of acute inflammation are acute bronchitis, a sore throat from a cold or flu or an infected ingrown toenail.

The good thing about acute inflammation is that generally, the body is able to fight off acute infection either on its own or with short-term topical or oral medications.

The bad

Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, happens when the inflammatory response lingers, leaving your body in a constant state of alert. Over time, chronic inflammation may have a negative impact on your tissues and organs.

Common symptoms of chronic inflammation include fatigue, body pain, depression or anxiety, gastrointestinal complications like diarrhoea or constipation, weight gain, weight loss, and persistent infections.

Inflammatory diseases include a vast array of disorders, such as allergy, asthma, autoimmune diseases, coeliac disease, hepatitis, and inflammatory bowel disease, among others.

Inflammation is also a major contributor to autoimmune diseases, in which a person’s immune system attacks confuses the pathogen it’s fighting against, with its own cells, leading to a range of diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis.

The ugly

Chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death in the world.  In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) ranks chronic diseases as the greatest threat to human health. Worldwide, three of five people die due to chronic inflammatory diseases like stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes.

While there are ways to test for inflammatory markers in a person’s body, many people living with low-level inflammation are completely unaware of the changes happening inside their bodies.

The role of a healthy gut in reducing chronic inflammation

The research world is booming today with studies showing that modifications in the intestinal bacteria and inflammation may play a role in the development of several common chronic diseases.

It has given rise to a term called ‘leaky gut’, also known as ‘intestinal permeability’, in which an unhealthy gut lining may have large cracks or holes, allowing partially digested food, toxins, and bugs to penetrate the tissues beneath it.  This triggers inflammation and changes in the gut flora (normal bacteria), which in turn causes a number of chronic diseases.

Practitioners are increasingly treating patients by getting them to remove foods that can be inflammatory and could promote changes in the gut flora.

How to protect yourself against chronic inflammation

While there isn’t a magic bullet to cure inflammation, experts now know enough about it to develop strategies to reduce the harmful effects of unhealthy inflammation. Here are some key takeaways:

1. Avoid these foods

Avoid sugar (some call it a poison!), gluten and dairy (for people who are lactose or casein (a milk protein) intolerant), as well as processed foods, all of which are known to trigger an inflammatory response.

2. Load up on anti-inflammatory foods

Eat more fruits and vegetables and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids. Some of the best sources of omega-3s are cold-water fish, such as salmon and tuna, and tofu, walnuts, flax seeds, and soybeans. 

Other anti-inflammatory foods include grapes, celery, blueberries, garlic, olive oil, tea, and some spices (ginger, rosemary, and turmeric).

3. Control your blood sugar

Limit or avoid simple carbohydrates, such as white flour, white rice, refined sugar, and anything with high fructose corn syrup.

4. Manage stress

When you’re stressed, a hormone called Cortisol, your ‘fight or flight’ hormone, ramps up excessively and leads to wear on the adrenal glands, excess glucose, and a heightened immune response in the form of inflammation.

5. Get enough sleep (but not too much)

Getting less than, (or more than), 7-8 hours of sleep per night has been shown to result in increased levels of inflammatory markers in the blood. These markers have been linked to chronic diseases like heart problems, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, suggesting that poor sleep is a behavioural risk factor for inflammation, in line with high-fat diets or sedentary lifestyles.

6. Get moving

Studies show that regular exercise reduces fat mass and adipose tissue inflammation which is known to contribute to systemic inflammation.  One study showed that walking for just 20 minutes works to stimulate cells that regulate inflammation.

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