Inflammation isn't all bad – this is what we're getting wrong about it
Inflammation has become a buzzword for bad things happening in our bodies, but there’s more to it than gut health and heart disease.
We’ve all heard of inflammation, and most of what’s reported isn’t good news. According to research, chronic inflammatory diseases are the most substantial cause of death in the world, leading to diseases such as diabetes and arthritis.
While many types of inflammation are harmful to the body, it’s important to remember that inflammation is a natural and essential bodily response to external stressors, including everything from alcohol and cigarette smoke to viruses and bacteria.
With this in mind, we asked the experts for the lowdown on what’s what, inflammation-wise.
Always exhausted? It could be inflammation
“The signs and symptoms of inflammation can vary greatly from person to person and from condition to condition,” explains doctor and personal trainer Dr Aishah Iqbal. “It can occur anywhere in the body and has many symptoms ranging from tiredness and fatigue to diarrhoea and stomach pain.”
“The fact that three out of five people around the world die from a disease linked to inflammation makes this topic really important,” says Louise Westra, a naturopath and author of You First: Your Body, Your Needs, Guilt Free. “Long-term, inflammation can turn into a silent killer that contributes to cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and other conditions.”
Always got a runny nose?
Typically, complaints such as poor digestion, low energy, skin rashes and even excess mucus can be signs of inflammation. Even a simple graze will prompt an inflammatory response – think redness and swelling around the injury site, so anyone who has even so much as fallen off their bike will have experienced it.
But it’s important to note that not all inflammation is harmful – in fact, it’s often useful.
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Inflammation is an essential inbuilt warning system
“Inflammation is not always bad,” reassures Dr Iqbal. “It’s a natural process that occurs in the body to identify areas that may be injured or may have an infection. It basically notifies the immune system to start responding to things in the body, like bacteria, that need removing.”
“Broadly speaking, inflammation is your body’s defensive response to an irritant,” agrees Dr Zoe Watson, GP and founder of wellness platform Wellgood Wellbeing.
“This may be an organism such as bacteria or virus or a foreign object such as a splinter in the finger.Inflammation is your body’s way of identifying and removing these harmful foreign stimuli to begin the healing process.It does this by flooding the area with white blood cells (part of your immune system) and releasing a bunch of chemicals (known as inflammatory mediators), which then exert a variety of actions in order to help clear the infection or heal the wound.”
So why do we worry about it so much then?
“There are two broad types of inflammation: acute and chronic,” explains Dr Watson.
“Acute inflammation is generally short-lived and disappears after a few days – for example a scraped knee. You might notice that the area around the damaged skin looks a bit red and is sore for a few days following the injury, but it naturally subsides over the course of a few days. This is because your white blood cells have done their job well, preventing a full-blown bacterial infection.
“In chronic inflammation, which is the one we worry about, the inflammatory process may begin even if there is no clear injury or infection, and it doesn’t end when it should. Why this inflammation continues isn’t always clear.”
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The causes of chronic inflammation are varied, but according to Westra, “They all essentially result in chronically raised levels of pro-inflammatory molecules which over time, can cause damage to the cells of your body, and increase your risk of developing conditions such as cancer, heart disease and stroke.”
Dr Watson adds: “This type of inflammation can either be caused by infections that don’t go away. This could be due to issues such as latent tuberculosis, gum disease or abnormal immune reactions to normal tissues (rheumatoid arthritis or lupus) or conditions such as obesity.”
It’s not just about lifestyle
So, how can we treat inflammation before it becomes a serious issue?
“This depends very much on what we’re classifying as ‘inflammation’ and what type of inflammation we’re talking about: acute or chronic,” clarifies Dr Watson. “There are certain medical disorders which are classified as ‘inflammatory’ disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and Crohn’s disease, all of which have specific medical treatments to help manage symptoms.”
For the majority of us, our inflammation is likely to be acute, non-specific and low-level, meaning the treatment is very much lifestyle led. “It’s helpful to stop smoking, limit alcohol intake, maintain a healthy weight, actively manage stress and get regular physical activity,” advises Dr Watson.
While this may seem a lot to focus on, remember you don’t have to make big changes all at once. Even small changes are a good place to start, and the experts agree that a balanced diet and regular exercise are vital.
“There are certain food types which seem to contribute to inflammation more than others,” explains nutritional therapist Alice Godfrey. “They are gluten, dairy, refined grains (rather than whole grains), sugar, processed foods and alcohol.Other than food, your lifestyle can be inflammatory – eg not getting enough sleep, high stress levels, negative relationships, smoking, pharmaceutical or recreational drug use and living or working somewhere with high pollution.”
Notice something new?
“It’s important if you feel you are experiencing symptoms to seek medical advice,” stresses Dr Iqbal. “Changing your diet and lifestyle are always important steps to take but for some inflammatory conditions, this simply won’t be enough, so make sure you consult your GP if you’re worried.”
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