Inflammation: The Root of Many Major Health Issues?
Our first reaction to inflammation is usually the urge to put an end to it as soon as possible. And while inflammation can be painful and uncomfortable, it’s important to remember that it’s a normal part of the body’s immune response. Through it, the immune system recognizes irritants, pathogens, and damaged cells, and subsequently begins the healing process. So while it may be uncomfortable, inflammation indicates that the body is trying to heal itself.
What causes inflammation?
But what exactly causes inflammation? In short, the body’s immune system triggers a range of physical reactions in response to a perceived harmful stimulus. And while this stimulus may, in some cases, be an injury or infection, inflammation doesn’t always indicate the presence of infection.
Acute vs. chronic inflammation
So does that mean that all inflammation is good? Not quite. While acute inflammation may be normal after a tough workout or race, long-term inflammation from infection or injury is neither ideal nor healthy. Because while with acute, short-term inflammation, the body is able to heal itself, chronic inflammation is harder or even impossible for the body to clear up by itself.
But how do you know which form of inflammation you’re suffering from? Acute inflammation, on the one hand, is normally associated with some degree of pain, redness, immobility, swelling and/or heat. It generally starts rapidly, with symptoms increasing in severity over a short period of time, and clears up in a few days or weeks. Situations or conditions that could potentially result in acute inflammation include, among others:
- High-intensity exercise
- Physical trauma
- A skin wound
- A sore throat associated with a cold or flu
- Ingrown toenails
Keep in mind, though, that not all acute inflammation always clears up by itself after a few days. In some cases, it may, instead, become an abscess or develop into chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, manifests through one or more of the following symptoms: Mouth sores, fatigue, a fever, a rash, chest pain, abdominal pain and/or joint pain.
It is caused by pathogens that the body is unable to break down, the latter which can include viruses, overactive immune responses or foreign bodies that stay in the system for a long time. The onset of chronic inflammation is usually slow, and symptoms can last anything from a few months to several years. Conditions normally associated with chronic inflammation include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Ulcerative colitis
- Chronic peptic ulcers
The link between chronic inflammation and non-infectious diseases
So while it is clear that acute inflammation is a normal part of the healing process in the human body, chronic inflammation has been linked to a number of non-infectious diseases. To date, an increasing number of molecular and epidemiological studies have confirmed an intimate link between chronic inflammation and diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, some cancers (including colon cancer), disorders of the central nervous system and even mental illness (in mice). And while a lot of work has been done in this regard, the general consensus is that more large, controlled studies are needed.
It’s worth noting here that chronic inflammation does not, without fail, lead to serious, non-infectious disease. While it is the case in many instances, it appears as if additional environmental and genetic factors have to be present in chronic inflammation sufferers in order to trigger non-infectious disease.
Natural ways to fight inflammation
Adjust your diet
So what can you do to treat or avoid falling prey to chronic inflammation? While non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen chemically prevent the body’s anti-inflammatory response from ramping up, its long-term use is not advisable. Not only may it worsen asthma symptoms, but it may also cause kidney damage and increase the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
The good news is, however, that eating a wide variety of anti-inflammatory foods on a daily basis can have a similar, but natural, effect. The exact mechanisms through which phytonutrients help decrease inflammation are not clearly understood, but a diet rich in the following can go a long way in maximizing your recovery, improving your longevity as an athlete and helping to prevent a number of inflammatory-related diseases:
- Eat a colorful 5 to 9 servings of natural produce daily, including cherries, strawberries, tomatoes, oranges, sweet potato, pumpkin, broccoli, red grapes, and blueberries.
- Have at least two large servings of alkalizing greens each day, including spinach, kale, cucumber, celery and bell peppers. And don’t worry – it’s a lot easier than it sounds. Kick your day off with a natural green smoothie and voila! It’s done.
- Regularly cook with herbs and spices known for their anti-inflammatory properties, including turmeric, ginger, rosemary, thyme, and oregano.
- Focus on ingesting foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This includes walnuts, chia seeds, sardines, and salmon.
- Avoid inflammation-aggravating foods, such as fried foods, overly refined foods, soda, margarine and too much red meat.
Other lifestyle adjustments
And while shaking up your diet is a good place to start, it doesn’t end there. Be sure to also pay attention to the following:
- Stay active! A 2012 review of 45 scientific articles published between 1950 and 2011 concluded that, in 27 of these studies, physical activity was associated with reduced mortality as a result of breast and colon cancer. The authors speculate that “physical activity might beneficially change the circulating levels of insulin, insulin-related pathways, inflammation and, possibly, immunity”.
- Make sure that you get enough rest and recovery after hard workouts. Give your body the opportunity to heal and rebuild itself before pushing hard again.
- Get enough good quality sleep.
- Be sure to get your daily dose of Vitamin D. Don’t stick to the treadmill all through winter – go outside and get some sunshine on your face! But don’t overdo it. Slop on some sunscreen when appropriate.
- As always, seek professional medical help from a suitably qualified specialist if you suspect that chronic inflammation is negatively impacting your quality of life.
So be proactive and do what you can do to help your body recover faster, perform better and stay healthy. It’s the least you can do!
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