Jane Collins May 28, 2019

There’s a lot of talk about inflammation these days. Chances are, you’ve heard about how it can set the stage for health conditions including arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and dementia – but do you really know what inflammation is? Here, we look at inflammation and what you can do to calm it. 

What is inflammation?

If you’ve ever suffered from a common cold or felt a flush of adrenaline in response to a stressful situation, you’ve experienced the effects of inflammation. A little of it is a good thing – the immune system launches an anti-inflammatory response to fight off infection or prepare you for impending danger – but niggling levels of inflammation can, over time, lead to more serious conditions.

“Inflammation is the body's response to any harmful stimuli, such as certain bacteria, viruses and irritants. It is a protective mechanism involving various blood cells that fight reactions which might otherwise harm the body,” explains Dr Anuj Chaturvedi, medical director and family doctor. “Sometimes, however, the inflammation can persist and become harmful to the body. This is chronic inflammation and it has been linked to arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, depression, periodontal diseases, and even Alzheimer’s.”

Inflammation: Acute versus chronic

Acute inflammation

"Acute inflammation is your body’s way of notifying the immune system to heal and repair damaged tissue, as well as defend itself against foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria," explains Barbara Cox, celebrity nutritionist and author at barbaracox.me. It’s a perfectly healthy reaction to things like infections, cuts or strained ankles and reveals itself in the form of swelling, scabbing, itching or redness. Without acute inflammation, cuts and grazes would never heal.

Chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation is long-term, low-level inflammation that causes damage to the body. "Inflammation becomes a problem when the inflammatory process goes on for too long or if the inflammatory response occurs in places where it’s not needed," adds Cox. It can develop if acute inflammation fails to eliminate a threat to the body, but it can also be independent of acute inflammation. Some diseases such as type 2 diabetes can be the result of chronic inflammation caused by poor lifestyle choices (see "What causes chronic inflammation?" below.

Grey-haired woman in pink top with head in hands as if depressedWhat causes chronic inflammation?

Scientists don’t fully understand what causes inflammation to simmer under the surface, but they have discovered that it can be triggered by certain bad habits such as being perpetually stressed, following a poor diet or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Indeed, one study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that prolonged stress can dampen the effectiveness that cortisol (the stress hormone) has in regulating the inflammatory response. This, in turn, can fuel chronic conditions. “Inflammation is partly regulated by the hormone cortisol and when cortisol is not allowed to serve this function, inflammation can get out of control,” explains study leader Sheldon Cohen.

Further data in the British Journal of Nutrition reveals how a deficiency or excess of micronutrients, such as folate, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, vitamin E and zinc, may lead to an excessive inflammatory response. The experts explain that a typical Western diet, rich in fat and simple sugars but poor in some micronutrients, could be behind the prevalence of certain diseases. And there’s ample evidence that a lack of exercise and excess weight can also cause inflammation to run out of control.

Layered red dot that starts as crimson red in middle and gets lighter towards the outsideInnate and adaptive immunity and autoimmune conditions

The body has two lines of defence against foreign invaders – its innate and adaptive immunity. The first line of defence is the non-specific innate response, which uses natural killer (NK) cells, phagocytes and proteins to immediately prevent the spread of infection. The second line of defence is the adaptive response, armed with T and B lymphocyte cells, which uses a highly specific response to attack pathogens. The clever thing about the adaptive response is that it remembers a foreign invader and how to respond to it. However, it can make errors and attack itself. Autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis can occur when a person’s immune system attacks their own healthy tissue.

Keeping inflammation under control

The good news: experts agree that there are tools and techniques we can use to keep inflammation under control. "Exercise regularly," advises Dr Chaturvedi. "Maintain a healthy weight (a body mass index, or BMI, of less than 25), stop smoking, control your blood sugar levels and manage stress effectively."

Inflammation and diet: what (not) to eat

Don't eat ✖

There's growing evidence that following an anti-inflammatory diet can help with chronic inflammation. "Stay away from foods that can promote inflammation, such as those high in saturated and trans fats like red meats, dairy products and foods containing partially-hydrogenated oils," suggests Cox. "Try to reduce and limit sugary foods and refined carbohydrates, such as cakes, chocolate, white bread and white rice, and cut back on the use of cooking oils and margarines that are high in omega-6 fatty acids [which are pro-inflammatory and therefore can contribute to inflammation]."

Do eat ✔

As well as reduce your intake of inflammation-causing foods, it pays to pack your diet with food that can help to reduce inflammation, such as fruits and vegetables that contain natural antioxidants and polyphenols, which have a protective effect against inflammation. You should also try to include healthy monounsaturated fats, such as those found in avocados and olive oil, and omega-3 fats, such as those in walnuts and tuna. "If you're looking for an eating plan that closely follows the principles of an anti-inflammatory diet, consider the Mediterranean diet," adds Cox. "This is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish and healthy oils."

Supplements for inflammation

Getting additional support from supplements may help. An increasing amount of data is showing that some supplements, such as fish oils and turmeric, can have an anti-inflammatory effect.

A bowl of turmeric powder with the turmeric root vegetable sitting around the outside Turmeric

"Turmeric contains a yellow pigment, called curcumin. This powerful antioxidant has multiple anti-inflammatory effects and is at least as effective as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) in reducing knee pain," Says Dr Sarah Brewer. In particular, turmeric may help with inflammatory joint conditions such as arthritis. Clinical trials have found it to be more effective than a placebo for relieving pain and swelling in people with osteo and rheumatoid arthritis. However, it’s important to read the label of any turmeric supplement – 500-1000mg of curcuminoids is the recommended amount to garner an anti-inflammatory effect. Curcumin is also more effective when combined with piperine, found in black pepper, which boosts its absorption rate.

A big fillet of raw salmon next to a bowl of olive oil and two eggsOmega

A good-quality fish oil supplement is also worth trying. Fish oils contain omega-3 fatty acids, and the more omega-3 fat you consume, the less pro-inflammatory omega-6 fat there will be available to your body’s tissues. "Omega-3 fatty acids help to suppress inflammation, especially the long-chain omega-3s, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). It’s therefore important to get these from your diet," says Dr Sarah Brewer. Aside from taking a fish oil supplement, you can also get EPA and DHA from fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and anchovies, while ALA is found in vegetable oils, nuts, linseeds and linseed oil.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.



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