What Exactly Is Inflammation?
You’ve heard, seen or read anti-inflammatory this and that a hundred times, and still haven’t a clue what it really means.
Simply put, inflammation is a natural, essential part of our immune system and the body’s response to injury. It signals our immune system to heal and repair damaged tissue, and defend against viruses and bacteria. For instance, a bee sting that turns red and swells up are symptoms of inflammation.
But, if inflammation goes on for too long, it becomes problematic.
Let’s break it down, there are two forms of inflammation:
Short-term, comes and goes rapidly (hours or days); it’s commonly associated with redness, pain, swelling, loss of function and heat. For example, fever, losing your sense of smell during a cold, or redness and swelling (like the wound example we talked about earlier) from an injury are signs that your body is combating the toxins released by bacteria, viruses or infections. Acute inflammation can be treated with over-the-counter medication.
Harmful, rather than helpful. It can last months or even years and have damaging consequences over the long term. You may start to feel fatigued, depressed or have digestive problems, some people don’t even notice any symptoms, but as it progresses, it starts to damage your arteries, organs and joints. Basically, the immune system fights against the body’s own cells by mistake, causing harmful inflammation.
Left untreated, it can develop into more chronic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (joints are permanently inflamed), psoriasis, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
The most common way to measure inflammation is to consult your doctor and do a blood test. It’s called a C-reactive protein test (or a CRP test) which measures levels of a blood-plasma protein that can rise with and signal inflammation. It is not however, a specific marker for chronic inflammation since recent injury or sickness could elevate acute inflammation levels.
What causes chronic inflammation?
It’s still unclear, as it varies from person-to-person; but several risk factors are known to contribute to chronic inflammation. These include increasing age, exposure to irritates like cigarette smoke and pollution, and an unhealthy diet rich in saturated and trans-fats, refined sugar and carbohydrates, and processed meats. Certain genes, unfortunately, stress and sleep disorders are also correlated with it.
It’s possible to control and prevent chronic inflammation through a healthy diet and lifestyle. Eat foods that are helpful in removing inflammation triggers, including vegetables and fruit that are high in natural antioxidants; fibre-dense whole grains and beans, nuts and oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, mackerel, sardines). Avoid mercury-heavy fish like swordfish and ahi tuna, as it’s linked to inflammation.
Curcumin, a constituent of turmeric, has also been shown to cause significant improvements in several inflammatory conditions.
Other inflammation-lowering activities: regular exercise, getting adequate sleep (both are linked to obesity, another risk factor), and managing stress levels.