Inflammation: Friend or Foe?

Many would consider inflammation to be a negative thing. It’s understandable why as the process of inflammation is often experienced in the body as uncomfortable or painful. Swelling, loss of function, pain, heat and redness are the five classic signs of inflammation (none of which anyone would describe as being pleasant). The presence of inflammation has also been associated with chronic disease (such as heart disease and diabetes). Despite these things, inflammation is a natural and important process in the body and plays a role in both health and disease. It’s made up of a series of actions that the body uses to work to protect and heal itself.

Many would consider inflammation to be a negative thing. It’s understandable why as the process of inflammation is often experienced in the body as uncomfortable or painful. Swelling, loss of function, pain, heat and redness are the five classic signs of inflammation (none of which anyone would describe as being pleasant). The presence of inflammation has also been associated with chronic disease (such as heart disease and diabetes). Despite these things, inflammation is a natural and important process in the body and plays a role in both health and disease. It’s made up of a series of actions that the body uses to work to protect and heal itself. 

Consider a broken bone or strained muscle. The swelling that follows is certainly uncomfortable, but it’s part of the inflammation response and beginning of the healing process. The swelling encourages avoidance of moving or weight bearing the injured area (something which could cause further harm) while also indicating the rush to the scene of many different cells needed to defend, repair and clean up. 

Inflammation, despite the bodies need for it, can end up causing problems when it becomes overactive or constantly switched on. Diet and lifestyle provide opportunities to help calm inflammation in the body and the following are some of these areas worth exploring. 

 

Sound Sleep

Disrupted sleep patterns and sustained sleep restriction have been associated with increased markers of inflammation (1). While the body may appear to be at rest during sleep, and many of it’s systems are, there are many others which actually increase activity during sleeping hours. Without adequate sleep it is clear that the body and mind suffer (not only based on how someone feels but what can show up in labs too). Focusing on a regular routine and prioritizing adequate sleep can help support the body managing inflammation and much more. 

 

Stress Management

Stress can of course disrupt sleep and contribute to inflammation in that way. High levels of stress for extended periods of time keeps the body on high alert and contributes to higher amounts of inflammatory compounds being present than in an unstressed state. Consider first what the source of the stress might be. It doesn’t have to be life threatening to rev the body into high alert. Next examine if the stress can be adjusted or resolved. After those two things explore stress management practices. Intentionally practicing stress reduction such as meditation has been shown in experiments to reduce the inflammatory response in humans (2). Stress to some extent will always be present in modern life so regular practice with tools and support that work for each person, while they may vary, are key. 

 

Food

The best support for a healthy inflammatory process starts with a foundation of consuming a variety of foods including fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and adequate energy on a regular basis. This supports a variety of nutrients needed coming on board over time. Some foods, and compounds such as flavonoids and antioxidants found in them, have been associated with reduced levels of inflammation. Enjoying more of these could give additional support for a healthy inflammatory response. Some of these include berries, pomegranates, tomatoes, citrus fruit, black and green tea, garlic, cocoa, ginger, curcumin (in turmeric), fatty fish, walnuts, variety of nuts and seeds, leafy vegetables and vegetables in the cruciferous family (broccoli, cabbage) to list some. 

Inflammation is an important process and considering ways to support the body managing inflammation in a healthy way can help support overall health and well being. What will be most realistic and impactful for each person’s life will vary. Other things that could contribute to inflammation include alcohol, gut health status, industrial chemicals and pesticides as well as potential allergies and sensitivities. It’s important to keep in mind that support from a trusted doctor, therapist or dietitian may be needed depending on an individual’s health, needs and goals. 

 

References

1) Axelsson J, et al: Effects of Sustained Sleep Restriction on Mitogen-Stimulated Cytokines, Chemokines and T Helper 1/T Helper 2 Balance in Humans, PLOS One 8(12):e82291, 2013. 

2) Kox M, et al: Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111(2):7384, 2014.

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