Despite inflammation being a natural response to damage or infection, it is often unwanted and can cause health problems and pain. Here I will explain the cause of inflammation, and how it can be controlled.
What is Inflammation?
The purpose of inflammation is to remove to a causative agent and stimulate a rapid healing process. This is done by a complex biological system, which results in a increased amount of plasma and immune cells moving from the blood to the site of inflammation (this is why inflamed area(s) are often ‘puffy’, swollen and sometimes itchy). The increased plasma brings with it nutrients which can be used in repair, and the immune cells can destroy any pathogens. Inflammation can be categorised into 2 types of inflammation:
Acute Inflammation – This is the initial response to damage/ infection, and usually starts to develop within a few seconds of time after the stimuli occurs. An example of this is the red and swelling you experience if you burn yourself, or hit your thumb with a hammer. When the stimuli occurs inflammation mediators are released by resident cells (such as macrophapages or dendrite cells) at the site of damage, these signal the body that there is damage which needs to be repaired and initiate the inflammation process.
Acute inflammation requires constant stimulation from inflammation mediators to maintain the vasodilation and increased levels of plasma. Once the damage/ infection/ irritation has been repaired/ removed the cells which release these mediators stop releasing them. This causes the inflammation to go down and the area returns to normal.
Acute inflammation is considered to be ‘good’, as it stimulates rapid healing, and quickly goes away once the damage is repaired.
Chronic Inflammation – Chronic inflammation is characterised by prolonged redness and soreness of an area which can last from days to years. This is a result of prolonged exposure to an irritant or infection, but can continue after the irritant or infection has been removed.
Chronic inflammation occurs in two stages, the first stage is acute inflammation (as explained above), the second stage is prolonged exposure to the irritant and is characterised by simultaneous healing and destruction of cells. Chronic inflammation leads to an increasing concentration of macrophage immune cells. These cells play a vital role in the defence of the body but produce a number of toxins themselves including reactive oxygen species. These toxins damage both human cells and any invasive pathogens, and this damage to native cells stimulates the production and expression of more cytokines and other pro-inflammatory mediators. If human cell damage is severe and extensive enough chronic inflammation can be self propagating even if the irritant is removed.
Dangers of Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation can lead to the manifestation of a number of inflammatory disorders such as acne, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), rheumatoid arthritis, and coeliac disease. On top of these inflammation disorders, chronic inflammation has shown to be an underlying cause for other diseases such as cancer, tumour growth and autoimmune diseases.
Inflammation & Diet
Diet can contain both pro-inflammatory agents (such as omega-6) and anti-inflammatory agents (such as turmeric). Pro-inflammatory foods, as a rule, are highly processed foods, especially ones which are high in sugar.
Here are some common inflammatory foods:
- Fruit juices – especially ones with added sugar
- Sugary fizzy drinks (such as coke)
- Fast food
- Sunflower oil
Here are some anti-inflammatory foods:
- Fish (hight in omega-3)
- Various herbs including turmeric and ginger
- Cruciferous Vegetables (such as broccoli)
- Green tea
- Fruits (especially berries)
- Sweet potato
Inflammation is a natural biological response, designed to initiate rapid healing and destroy any foreign cells. Acute inflammation is the initial response, and generally is considered ‘good’. However, if the causative agent of inflammation cannot be removed or destroyed, chronic inflammation can occur. This is considered as ‘bad’ inflammation, and can lead to a wide variety of very serious ailments. Chronic inflammation can also be self propagating, and so even when the cause is removed chronic inflammation may still remain.