Photo: Getty / Seksan Mongkhonkhamsao
Inflammation. It sounds bad, bad, bad and is seemingly on the rise, because it's showing up in every dinnertime conversation these days. The term is nonchalantly tossed around in locker rooms, wellness clinics and on your Facebook feed, and has become a catch-all phrase for health issues we can't quite explain. But here at EatingWell we like science, not sensationalism, so today we're going to break down exactly what the big bad "I word" is and what you can do to avoid it for real.
What is inflammation?
Simply put, inflammation is our body's response to injury or infection. Nope, nothing mystical about that. Basically, when we're injured or ill, our body sends our white blood cells and they release chemicals to help fight the infection.
There are typically two types of inflammation we see—acute and chronic. Acute inflammation tends to be more immediately apparent, as the body's immune response leads to swelling, pain, redness, heat and, in some cases, a loss in function. Chronic inflammation, however, is often not visible to the naked eye, may build gradually, and is sometimes not even something you would consider an "injury." Alas, after months or years of the body fighting the offending substances, injury or infection, chronic inflammation manifests itself as fatigue, pain, depression or anxiety, digestive disorders, weight disturbances or frequent infections. And, not surprisingly, at that point it's a harder road to recovery.
Common inflammatory conditions and their signs & symptoms
If any of this is sounding familiar, we've compiled a list of some of the most common inflammatory conditions and some signs and symptoms to be on the lookout for. Read on to learn what inflammation looks like and how to treat it.
Type 2 Diabetes
Research is now finding associations between inflammatory markers and the development of type 2 diabetes, a condition characterized as an inability to produce or use insulin properly. Common early signs of type 2 diabetes include frequent urination, increased thirst, fatigue, hunger, blurred vision and unexplained weight change. While the cause of diabetes is multifactorial, it's believed that the accumulation of glucose in the blood elicits an inflammatory response that results in insulin resistance, the early precursor to type 2 diabetes.
Don't Miss: Prediabetes Diet Meal Plan to lower blood sugars and prevent diabetes.
Heart disease is probably the most common example of chronic inflammation in the body and is recognized as the most common cause of death in the United States. It's often called the "silent killer," because victims often have no obvious signs of inflammation until it's too late. When it comes to diseases of the heart, the inflammatory events begin as atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up inside your arteries and cause them to narrow over time. Acknowledging the plaque as foreign, the body initiates an inflammatory response that can dislodge the plaque and cause a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular events.
Related: 15 Little Ways to Protect Your Heart
We tend to associate arthritis with old age, but research suggests it can affect people of all ages—almost two-thirds of the people diagnosed with arthritis are ages 18 to 64 and 300,000 American babies and children have arthritis or a similar rheumatic condition. Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation of the joints, with pain, swelling and stiffness in one or multiple joints being cited as the most common signs. While genetics are considered the biggest factor, other infectious agents, stress, cigarette smoke and hormones can also trigger an inflammatory response, causing your immune system to attack healthy tissues.
Affecting 8 million Americans, and up to 3% of the world's population, psoriasis is an inflammatory autoimmune disease characterized by dry, red, scaly, itchy and burning patches of skin. It's most common on the elbows, knees, scalp and lower back but it can make an appearance virtually anywhere there's skin. While its specific cause is unclear, many people with psoriasis find that stress, infections, hormonal changes and injuries can trigger the inflammatory cascade that manifests itself as this uncomfortable condition.
Inflammatory Bowel Diseases
Housing a whopping 70% of our immune system, our gut likely plays a major role in the pathophysiology of inflammation, especially for inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. As suggested by its name, IBD involves chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract as a result of the immune system incorrectly attacking healthy tissue. Over time, if left untreated, this inflammation causes anatomical damage to the GI tract that can interfere with its ability to absorb and digest nutrients from food. Ulcerative colitis occurs in the large intestine and rectum, and Crohn's can affect any part of the GI tract. Some of the most common signs and symptoms include abdominal pain, persistent diarrhea, bloody stools, unexplained weight loss and fatigue.
Related: Recipes for a Healthy Gut
Gingivitis and Periodontitis
While daily flossing may seem like a total pain, it's probably worth the extra 30 seconds if it can help prevent gingivitis, the painful inflammation of the gums. Most cases of gingivitis are caused by uncleared plaque, a thin, barely visible film made up largely of bacteria, that causes redness, swelling, bleeding and pain in the gums. If left untreated, the inflammation can result in pockets opening up between the gums and teeth, causing tooth decay and loss.
How to Treat Inflammation
Pictured recipe: Grilled Eggplant Salad
Now that we've scared you with some of the most common real, legit, evidence-based ways inflammation can affect the body, let's talk about what you can do to prevent or treat it. The treatment for inflammation largely depends on the unique condition, but medications like metformin (lowers blood sugar); NSAIDs, like ibuprofen and aspirin (reduce pain and swelling); statins (lower cholesterol to prevent stroke and heart attacks); and corticosteroids (suppress overactive immune system reactions) are commonly prescribed.
While most of these conditions have a strong genetic component, there may also be some lifestyle changes to help manage and mitigate symptoms, like following the Mediterranean diet and incorporating stress-relieving activities into your routine. Here are some of the top things you can do, starting today, to ward off inflammation.
Load up on fruits & veggies
One of the best things you can do for your body to reduce inflammation is to incorporate a wide variety of fruits and veggies into your diet. Fruits and vegetables are the most readily available sources of antioxidants, like vitamins C and A, and are also rich in dietary fiber, which also plays an important role in reducing the risk of chronic inflammatory diseases. The more colorful your plate is, the greater the range of helpful nutrients you get, so as the Mediterranean diet suggests, plan to eat the rainbow when it comes to fruits and veggies. Other foods that contain powerful anti-inflammatory compounds include green tea, dark chocolate, nuts and beans.
See More: Healthy Recipes to Eat More Veggies
Eat more healthy fats
Essential omega-3 fats also boast unique anti-inflammatory properties, with some research suggesting they play a role in symptom management. With rheumatoid arthritis, for example, fish oil supplements appear to be an effective in treating symptoms when taken alongside medication. With regard to heart health, while research on the role of omega-3 supplementation is conflicting at best, the overall consensus is that regularly enjoying fatty fish and other foods rich in omega 3s as part of a balanced diet can help improve blood lipids and reduce the risk of cardiac death.
Cut back on processed foods
Evidence also supports cutting back on processed foods like deep-fried fast food and packaged snacks, as trans fats may increase inflammatory markers. Likewise, while you don't have to go keto to keep inflammation at bay, cutting back on the added sugar in your diet may also offer some relief. Research warns that an excess of sugar can trigger the release of pro-inflammatory messengers called cytokines, so try to choose naturally sweet foods, like berries and ripe fruit, more often.
The Bottom Line
Bottom line on nutrition? Fill your plate with colorful whole foods, and cut back on the processed snacks in your day. Evidence has also found that reducing stress with soothing activities like meditation, focusing on getting enough sleep, and daily moderate exercise can have significant anti-inflammatory effects.
Anti-Inflammatory Recipes to Try
Want to put your best foot forward with an anti-inflammatory lifestyle? Check out some of our favorite summer recipes.