The anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle has been promoted by many as a tool to inhibit inflammation in the body. But what exactly is inflammation? And why should we avoid it? All inflammation is not necessarily harmful to the body; it depends on the type of inflammation. In this article, we will go over the different types of inflammation and explain how to prevent negative inflammation in the body.
Two types of inflammation
Inflammation is a normal, natural response of your body’s immune system. But there are two types of inflammation, acute and chronic, and the latter can cause a lot of damage to the body.
Acute inflammation is a biological response that is part of the body’s natural defences against injury and illness. In the event of a tissue injury or foreign bodies entering the body, for example, the inflammatory process is triggered and immediately begins to neutralise the threat and heal the damage. Acute inflammation activates very quickly and can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.
Acute inflammation is characterised by five “cardinal signs”: redness, pain, increased heat, loss of function and swelling. Causes of acute inflammation can be infections, trauma (physical injury), physical agents, chemicals, foreign particles and immunological responses.
Chronic inflammation is often referred to as low-grade or silent inflammation since it is harder to detect than acute inflammation and can last for several years before it manifests itself – usually as a number of different serious illnesses.
Chronic inflammation is not a disease itself, but a mechanism associated with other diseases. Examples of serious health conditions linked to chronic inflammation include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, various types of autoimmune diseases, cancer, Alzheimer’s, inflammatory bowel disease (for example, Crohn’s), rheumatoid arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and chronic kidney disease (CKD).
Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation is not characterised by the five cardinal signs, but presents with symptoms that are much more diffuse. Some examples of symptoms that can develop from chronic inflammation are:
- Aches and pains
- Unexplained fatigue and difficulty sleeping
- Hair loss
- Skin problems, for example, acne and unexplained rashes/redness
- Shortness of breath
- Sexual dysfunction
- Irregular menstruation
- Depression, anxiety and mood swings
- Frequent infections
- Weight gain
- Gastrointestinal disorders such as diarrhoea and constipation.
Causes and risk factors
- Imbalanced gut flora – Since about 70 per cent of the immune system is in the intestines, unbalanced gut flora causes the body’s natural defences to weaken, and particles and substances that trigger inflammation are able to get out into the body.
- High percentage of body fat– Research shows that adipose tissue (fatty tissue) seems to be able to secrete inflammatory substances, and in addition, pro-inflammatory molecules increase in proportion to increases in body mass index (BMI).
- Unhealthy diet – A diet high in saturated fat, trans fats and refined sugars is associated with increased production of pro-inflammatory molecules.
- Negative stress – In addition to causing sleep problems (see the next item), it has been found that both mental and physical stress release a type of inflammatory protein called cytokines.
- Poor sleep – Studies have shown that people with irregular sleep patterns are more likely to suffer from chronic inflammation than those who have regular sleep routines.
- Exposure to chemicals – Regular exposure to foreign materials and irritants can cause chronic inflammation over time.
- Parasites – Unwelcome organisms, such as parasites, that remain in the body for an extended period of time can cause chronic inflammation
- Acute inflammation can become chronic – Recurring episodes of acute inflammation can turn into chronic inflammation.
What can one do about chronic inflammation?
Chronic inflammation can be inhibited and prevented through lifestyle changes. Below is a list of changes you can make to live a more anti-inflammatory lifestyle.
- Change your diet
- Eating an anti-inflammatory diet means avoiding foods that cause inflammation and eating more foods that help fight inflammation. Foods that should be avoided primarily include sugars and refined carbohydrates, animal fats, trans fats and hydrogenated oils (found in margarine, for example). Choose natural foods instead, such as vegetables, legumes, gluten-free grains, fruits and berries as well as avocado and coconut as sources of healthy fat.
- Give yourself a boost
- Antioxidants and polyphenols, which can be found in many berries and spices, have a particularly potent anti-inflammatory effect
- Strengthen your gut flora by eating lacto-fermented foods and fibre
- Take an omega 3 supplement if you do not get enough from your diet. The modern diet tends to contain a lot of omega 6 and not enough omega 3. This creates an imbalance between the two fats which can lead to inflammation.
- Turmeric contains the polyphenol curcumin which has well-documented anti-inflammatory properties
- Magnesium and vitamin D are often noted as important nutrients to prevent inflammation
- Get 30 minutes of exercise every day
- Regular exercise can help maintain a healthy weight and reduce the amount of pro-inflammatory molecules. The Public Health Agency of Sweden recommends at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, 5 days a week, where you get your heart rate up, get out of breath and break a sweat. Exercise has also been shown to be good for the gut flora!
- Keep a regular sleep schedule and get enough sleep (7-8 hours)
- Try to avoid negative stress
- Yoga, meditation and walks in nature are good examples of stress-reducing activities.
Even small changes can help!
If you find yourself in need of a lifestyle change, all of this information can easily feel overwhelming. If this is the case, it may be good to focus on one or a just a few of the recommendations above, such as diet and sleep, so you can be sure to establish good routines and habits within these two areas before you move on to exercise, for example. It is also important to remember that as an individual, you have the power to control your own health, and by gaining control of just one of the items above, you can start to make changes that will improve your health both here and now and over the long term.
Hotamisligil, G. S. (2006) Inflammation and metabolic disorders, Nature, 444
Shacter, E., and Weitzman, S. A. (2002) Chronic inflammation and cancer, Oncology, 16
Pahwa, R., Jialal, I., Chronic Inflammation: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/