If you’re hearing the word “inflammation” a lot lately, you might think it’s just another health-related buzzword. While inflammation is associated with the latest diets, supplements and books, it’s also the subject of serious medical research.
When it functions properly, inflammation is a beneficial process. It is your body’s way of protecting itself after an injury.
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When you stub a toe or cut a finger, and the tissue surrounding the injury becomes red and swollen, that is acute inflammation at work. Your body sends extra fluid and blood to repair the damaged tissue. This type of inflammation serves an immediate purpose, to fight infection and heal wounds. When the job is finished, it goes away.
Sometimes, however, the body’s attempt to heal and protect itself goes into overdrive. Rather than coming and going for a specific purpose, this type of inflammation lingers quietly for months or years. This is known as chronic, or systemic, inflammation. It is dangerous and has a long list of health complications.
Inflammation plays a key role in more than 80 autoimmune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. In recent years, chronic inflammation has been linked to many other diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, asthma, migraines, cancer and dementia.
A whole host of causes
There is no definitive answer as to why inflammation sometimes goes haywire.
“What we do know,” says Dr. Bill Jagiello, medical director at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, “is that without an infection to fight, the inflammatory response goes from healing damaged cells to harming healthy ones. This results in tissue and cell damage.”
Research suggests that chronic inflammation can be caused by many factors. It may be a malfunction, for example, in which the body is unable to turn off its natural defense. It may be that the body’s inflammatory response is poor and never rids itself of what’s causing the inflammation in the first place, like bacteria.
It may also be a response to ongoing stress, smoking, or carrying extra weight, which in itself may set up a cycle that promotes inflammation. Researchers also believe that diets high in saturated fats, refined grains and sugar can cause inflammation.
Symptoms can be hard to detect
“Chronic inflammation develops over time, so symptoms are typically not obvious,” says Jagiello.
“Swelling and joint pain are two clear signs. Less obvious signs include muscle stiffness, gum disease, fatigue, headaches and unexplained rashes.”
Even worse, chronic inflammation often goes unnoticed, until another illness, such as diabetes or heart disease, or an auto-immune condition — like psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis — is diagnosed.
Fighting inflammation with food
So, why all the buzz about inflammation and anti-inflammatory diets?
The latest evidence links poor diets to moderate, chronic inflammation. In one recent study, researchers at the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the University of South Carolina found a clear link between the two. In their study, the researchers found that people who eat a diet high in sugary soft drinks and low in fruits, vegetables and fish have higher levels of inflammation, as measured by chemical markers in the blood.
The researchers created an index External Site of thousands of foods and their inflammatory properties, along with information on calories, fat, protein and carbohydrates. The tracker is also available as a mobile app. Foods with the lowest scores are the best at fighting inflammation.
Are you dealing with chronic inflammation? Check out these foods that soothe, as well as some foods to avoid.