It’s the first line of defence against infection and repairs bodily harm, but there’s another side to inflammation that threatens rather than protects our overall health.
Negative as the word sounds, inflammation is actually our body’s reaction to burns, infections and injuries. It’s a normal immune system defence and kicks in when our bodies are under attack.
However, scientific research shows that in some people this defence mechanism doesn’t switch off, which means the body’s defences turn in on themselves, attacking our good health. Scientists believe this puts us more at risk of developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease. This happens when the acute inflammation that our body uses to fight infections turns into life-changing chronic inflammation (see later in the blog for the different types).
Scientific findings on chronic inflammation
- In obese people, inflammatory proteins triggered in the enlarged fat cells have been linked to metabolic conditions such as insulin resistance.
- Cancerous tumours can set off an immune response causing inflammatory chemicals to fuel tumour growth.
- Recent studies into Alzheimer’s disease have revealed that higher numbers of microglia, a group of immune cells, linger in sufferers’ brains than in those with a healthy brain.
- Research has found chronic inflammation influences the formation of artery-blocking clots, which are the ultimate cause of heart attacks and many strokes.
- A new school of thought also links depression to a physiological response, rather than treating it as a state of mind. In 2016, scientists at King’s College London found a link between blood inflammation and increased oxidative stress on the brain, which disrupts brain signalling and leads to depressive symptoms. Now researchers are keen to explore whether this inflammatory response in the brain is the reason antidepressants (which target the emotion neurotransmitters in the brain) are ineffective in some patients. They also want to find out whether certain people are more susceptible to inflammation because of genetics, stress or both.
Risk, detection and treatment
There are many factors that may influence whether chronic, inflammation occurs, including illness and genetics. But research has also revealed that our lifestyle plays an important part – this includes a poor diet, being overweight, smoking, stress and excessive alcohol consumption.
Worryingly, there are very few symptoms of chronic inflammation itself – it usually only comes to light as the cause of another serious condition. However, a blood test measuring levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) can be carried out to determine whether there is inflammation in the body (see Testing for inflammation). CRP levels become elevated by infection and long-term disease, and the test is used to:
- check for infection after surgery
- monitor an infection or disease that can cause inflammation, such as inflammatory bowel disease or rheumatoid arthritis
- monitor the treatment of a disease and infection.
While the CRP test can’t identify exactly where the problem lies in the body, increased levels may prompt other tests to be carried out.
“Treatment of chronic inflammation usually involves a number of factors,” explains Healthy Food Guide expert and GP Dawn Harper. “It may include painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, physiotherapy or weight management – particularly if weight-baring joints, such as the knees, are involved.”
TESTING FOR INFLAMMATION
A blood test can detect a family of proteins in our bloodstream known as inflammatory biomarkers. Collectively called cytokines, they are produced by the cells of the immune system and stimulate the production of CRP, an inflammatory maker that is produced by the liver in response to inflammation.
Levels of CRP in the blood are raised when we have an infection or injury, but once the healing process starts, they should return to normal. Consistently high levels of CRP may be an indication of chronic inflammation and long-term health issues such as heart disease.
The diet remedy
What we eat can have a significant impact. In fact, the link between diet and inflammation is so strong scientists have developed the Dietary Inflammation Index (DII), which scores foods for their positive or negative effects on chronic inflammation.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES
This is the visible, short-term form that most of us are familiar with – a bump, a bruise or healing cut that lasts for a few days.
“Think about a splinter in your finger or an abscess on a tooth,” explains Dr. Donna Arnett, chair and professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama. “Our body launches an attack with our white blood cells and chemicals that results in redness and swelling to kill the bacteria or rid the body of the intruder.”
This is when the immune system is constantly responding to substances it sees as a threat. These substances can seem harmless at the outset, such as certain foods, or be more obvious risk factors such as smoking.
Chronic inflammation can lead to poor gut health, which in turn causes symptoms such as heartburn, IBS, fat storage and insulin resistance.
It is also posses perhaps the biggest threat to our long-term physical and mental health, triggering conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, high cholesterol, Alzheimer’s disease and many cancers.
NATURAL WAYS TO FIGHT IT
Good news – your risk of chronic inflammation can be reduced. First, if you smoke, quit. Next on your checklist are these:
EAT A HEALTHY DIET: Include as many anti-infammatory foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, in your daily diet as possible.
REACH AND MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT: Healthy eating and exercise will help you lose weight. One study found overweight or obese post-menopausal worm who lost at least 5% of their body weight through diet and exercise reduced their risk of inflammation by almost half.
DEAL WITH STRESS: While some stress is unavoidable, too much can cause inflammation. Explore ways to manage your stress levels to reduce your risk, such as exercise, meditation and yoga, a long soak in the bath or talking it out with a close friend or relative.
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