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The word “inflammation” comes from the Latin word “inflammatio,” which means “setting something on fire.” The word is fitting because an inflamed area might be very red, like a flame, and might feel warm or even hot to the touch.
Your body may experience an extreme or “flared-up” inflammatory response when you’re suffering from an infection or an injury, or if you have a condition such as hay fever, Crohn’s disease, acne, or psoriasis.
Scientifically, inflammation is part of the body’s complex biological response to harmful stimuli, such as pathogens (bacteria or viruses), damaged cells (trauma or injury), or irritants (chemicals or dust).
Although you may think of inflammation as something negative, an inflammation is the body’s attempt to protect itself. If your inflammatory response were diminished, even simple infections would easily spread and your body’s ability to repair injured tissues such as wounds would become compromised—potentially leading to necrosis (the death of tissues).
Thus, inflammation is a good thing. As Mansour Mohamadzadeh, PhD, director of the Centre for Inflammation and Mucosal Immunology at the University of Florida, puts it, “In a healthy situation, inflammation serves as a good friend to our bodies.”
It’s important to note, however, that while the body’s ability to use inflammation to protect itself is good, inflammation itself is not. Chronic inflammation can be physiologically damaging, and even short-term acute inflammation can be bad for your health, especially if experienced repeatedly.
In healthy individuals, inflammation is essential. Its main purpose is to eradicate the initial cause of a cell injury; to eliminate old, dead, or damaged cells; to limit an infection; and to begin repairing damaged tissues.
These restorative processes result in the five characteristics of inflammation: 1) redness, 2) heat 3) swelling, 4) pain, and 5) loss of function of the affected tissues.
Inflammation may be either acute or chronic. Acute inflammation is the body’s first response to something it perceives as harmful; typically blood plasma and infection-fighting white blood cells move into the injured tissues. The following are some examples of conditions that can result in acute inflammation: acute appendicitis, acute bronchitis, dermatitis, an infected ingrown toenail, infective meningitis, sinusitis, a sore throat caused by a cold or flu, tonsillitis, a wound (scratch or cut on the skin), and a physical trauma such as an injury sustained in an automobile collision or a slip-and-fall accident.
NOTE: Some acute inflammations, such as appendicitis, are life-threatening emergencies requiring immediate medical intervention. Although others, such as a small uninfected scratch, may be treatable at home with basic first aid such as applying a sticking plaster, if you have acute inflammation, especially if the symptoms seem severe to you, it’s never a bad idea to contact your GP or A & E.
Chronic inflammation is a prolonged condition that involves the immune system. Chronic inflammation may lead to a shift in the type of cells at the site of inflammation, and it may cause the simultaneous destruction and healing of tissue because of the inflammation process.
Chronic inflammation conditions may include the following symptoms: fatigue, mouth sores, chest pain, abdominal pain, fever, rash, and/or joint pain.
NOTE: As with acute inflammations, if you have symptoms of chronic inflammation, especially if the symptoms seem severe to you, it’s never a bad idea to contact your GP or A & E.
Sometimes your body’s inflammation process becomes unbalanced. When this happen, you may experience visible or hidden inflammation responses.
A “flare-up” of your inflammatory response may occur during bouts with an infection or as an allergic reaction such as hay fever (which is the body’s intolerance to pollen grains).
Sometimes, however, an unbalanced inflammation response is due to more severe problems with your immune system. Such issues can affect the body’s ability to limit unnecessary inflammation in your body. The result can be illness and premature aging.
When your body’s inflammation response becomes overactive for an extended time period, your immune system may generate a chronic inflammatory process towards stimuli that are not damaging. An example of this is Crohn’s disease, which is an inflammation of the digestive tract, particularly the large intestine.
Sometimes the body’s protective immune system perceives your own healthy tissue as something foreign. Your body then begins attacking it in an inflammatory chain reaction. When this happens, you are said to have an autoimmune disorder.
These disorders are typically categorised according to the tissues the immune system targets and attacks. For example, in rheumatoid arthritis the body’s immune system attacks your joint coverings, and in multiple sclerosis your immune system targets the myelin, the protective covering of nerve fibres.
The body’s inflammatory response should ideally be monitored, because an overactive response can cause any of a number of detrimental effects. In addition to affecting the physical body, inflammation has been linked to mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.
Scientists have noted that autoimmune conditions are on the rise. Researchers point to several possible causes.
One cause is the environmental pollutants that are a by-product of our industrialised society. These include air-borne irritants produced by industry and motor vehicles, such as carbon monoxide, as well as smog and fine dust or ash from wood-burning fireplaces. They may also include water and soil contaminants.
A second possible cause is the trend in Western eating habits towards diets that are high in both fats and carbohydrates, not to mention refined flours and sugars.
There’s also a “hygiene hypothesis” about the increase in autoimmune disorders. The theory suggests that children’s immune systems are no longer being challenged as effectively as they once were. This may be happening due to improved hygiene and powerful modern antiseptics. The result is that the human inflammatory response is no longer developing and maturing as it once did, and so it is becoming confused or out-of-balance and it mistakenly attacks healthy tissues.
So how do you develop and maintain a well-regulated inflammatory response?
The main answer involves leading a healthy lifestyle.
Perhaps the most important aspect of lifestyle is diet. As noted above, diet is thought to be a contributor to the rise in autoimmune disorders. In addition, several foods should be avoided by those with inflammatory response imbalances, such as autoimmune disorders, while other foods have anti-inflammatory effects and so they should be consumed.
NOTE: Of course, you should check with your GP or other healthcare professional before undertaking major lifestyle changes.
Some foods should always be avoided.
But it’s hard not to add a spoonful of sugar to your coffee, or to tipple when celebrating your birthday with friends.
However, staying away from these is particularly important when your inflammatory condition is acting up, such as during a hay-fever, acne, or psoriasis flare, or when you’re recovering from an infection or injury.
Limiting your sugar intake is probably the most effective dietary change anyone can make for any reason, but particularly if you’re wanting to modulate your inflammatory response.
Studies have proved that excess glucose in your body increases the production of pro-inflammatory messenger molecules called cytokines. Furthermore, the intake of sugar may diminish some of your body’s natural immune response, making you more susceptible to illnesses and infections.
Unfortunately, using a sugar-substitute in your tea instead of real sugar is not a solution.
Artificial sweeteners not only decrease good bacteria in your digestive system, they increase the bad bacteria. This detrimental effect on “gut flora” has been shown to have a negative impact on the body’s normal inflammatory response.
Research shows that eating certain foods—such as margarine and cooking oils derived from corn and some other vegetables—with high amounts of trans fats can cause your body to create an unnecessary inflammatory response.
Although valid research suggests the benefits of small amounts of wine or beer (about 1 serving daily), the over-consumption of wine, beer, or spirits may have a very negative effect on your body’s inflammatory response.
When your body breaks down alcohol, it creates toxic by-products. These affect the many reactions required for a healthy inflammatory system.
These beneficial foods should be incorporated into your diet.
If you’re experiencing a flare-up of your inflammatory condition, such as during the high-pollen season if you’re a hay-fever sufferer, or if you’re recovering from an infection or injury, you should make it a point to consume the foods listed below.
Replace the margarine and vegetable oil in your diet with olive oil or coconut oil.
Walnuts, almonds, and other nuts contain beneficial oils that can reduce superfluous inflammation, as do chia and flax seeds.
The so-called “fatty fish”—which is a misnomer because these fish are good for you—include mackerel, salmon, sardines, and tuna. Like olive and coconut oil and seeds, these fish contain beneficial oils that help reduce unnecessary inflammations.
It’s probably no surprise to you that vegetables are on this list. Chief among these are broccoli, celery, beetroot, and leafy greens. Add them to your smoothies or eat them in salads and other dishes as part of your “5-a-day fruit and veg” dietary routine.
Fruits—particularly the antioxidant ones, such as pineapple, oranges, cherries, and blueberries—have powerful positive effects on your body’s inflammatory response. Fruits are also high in dietary fibre. Consuming sufficient amounts of fibre helps slow digestion, thus aiding the body in absorbing nutrients that can fine-tune your inflammatory response.
Dairy products are not typically recommended for those with an out-of-balance inflammation response.
But yogurt contains probiotics—the good bacteria your digestive system uses to function optimally. So boost your “gut flora” with a regular serving of “live” or “bio” yogurt.
Turmeric and ginger have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. In addition to promoting a healthy inflammatory balance, these root-based spices or “rhizomes” are believed to inhibit the growth of tumours. It’s easy to add either or both to your tea, and you can find lots of tasty recipes online that include these ingredients.
Supplementation is a powerful tool for improving your health. The following supplements are recommended for optimising a balanced inflammatory response. Note that whenever possible, you should invest in higher quality supplements; quality takes precedence over quantity.
Mentioned above as a component of “live” yogurt, probiotics are also available in supplement form. The best way to take probiotics is in combination with prebiotics. Together the two help create a healthy balance in your digestive system.
These are found in fish and flax-seed oils, mentioned above. But an easier way to be sure of getting a sufficient daily dose is through supplements.
Pineapple contains an enzyme called bromelain, which is one of the reasons this prickly fruit is so good for you. Bromelain is also sold as a supplement in most quality health-food stores.
If you’re experiencing a flare-up of your inflammatory condition, or if you’re are recovering from injury, bromelain is well worth considering.