When most people think of inflammation, injuries, joint pain, and short-term illnesses such as bronchitis and tonsillitis spring to mind.
By default, this leads to the assumption that all inflammation can be cured by taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatories until the pain subsides.
Although it might be tempting to obtain temporary relief by seeking medication to suppress symptoms, it is important to understand what is happening in the body when inflammation sets in, and the difference between acute and chronic inflammation and how each affects your health.
What is inflammation?
Our immune systems are designed to attack any foreign substances such as bacteria, viruses, and chemicals that enter our bodies, as well as heal injury.
This immune response causes a series of reactions at the cellular level that lead to symptoms such as swelling, heat, redness, pain, and the inability to move the affected area – think about what happens when you sprain your ankle.
This chain of events allows white blood cells, hormones, and nutrients to easily move into the infected area and ingest germs or other foreign substances and promote healing.
This is known as acute inflammation – it is accompanied by a host of recognisable symptoms that manifest for a short period of time, and subside once the threat has been taken care of.
Acute inflammation is an essential protective mechanism and forms part of the body’s natural healing process.
Sometimes, the immune system triggers an anti-inflammatory response when there isn’t a foreign invader to fight off. This is chronic inflammation – low-grade, persistent inflammation that does not manifest in any acute visible symptoms or discomfort, but has a profound effect on the body.
Instead of attacking foreign invaders, the immune system attacks bodily tissues or partially digested food molecules, which in the long-term may contribute to a host of illnesses such as heart disease, cancers, autoimmune diseases, food intolerances, arthritis, Attention Defecit Disorder (ADD)/Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and even depression.
The most damaging part of chronic inflammation is that there are often no visible symptoms until the disease has already set in.
This is why prevention is better than cure when it comes to treating chronic inflammation.
An effective means of reducing chronic inflammation is to cut out inflammatory triggers. Targeting the root cause means considering lifestyle and dietary factors that contribute to, and prevent, inflammation.
Research affirms that one source of chronic inflammation may be the gut. Your intestines have a semi-permeable lining, which allows certain substances to pass in and out, enabling nutrients to be delivered into your bloodstream and reach different organs.
When lifestyle factors such as stress or lack of sleep raise cortisol the gut becomes more permeable, which coupled with not fully digesting and breaking down your food, may allow foreign substances such as toxins, undigested food, viruses, and bacteria to pass into the bloodstream.
This sets off an immune response to attack these foreign invaders, and also inhibits proper functioning of your digestive system over time, which further hinders nutrient absorption and decreases immunity.
The end result is increased inflammation, allergic reactions, and illnesses. This illustrates the importance of living a healthy, balanced lifestyle, and taking care of what we eat, because ultimately, there is the potential for both the good and the bad we ingest to enter into our bloodstreams.
Certain foods are known to trigger inflammation. These include fried foods and food cooked at high temperatures – especially those cooked in heated vegetable oils which form trans fats – refined carbohydrates and sugars, processed meats, oxidised cholesterol- cholesterol that has gone rancid because of overcooking – and trans-fats, for example margarine.
The good news is there are also several foods that help fight inflammation. These include animal-based omega-3 fats – found in fatty fish such as fresh salmon, tuna, and mackerel and grass fed animal meats – leafy green vegetables, nuts, fresh berries, fermented and cultured foods, and garlic. It once again comes back to eating a wholefoods diet that includes a variety of foods.
Numerous spices also have powerful anti-inflammatory benefits – try to include organic, non-irradiated spices such as cloves, ginger, turmeric, and rosemary in your diet.
Excessive stress, lack of exercise, smoking, being overweight, and social isolation also contribute to inflammation, so living a balanced lifestyle is essential. Food alone cannot fix everything.
Make sure that you put mechanisms in place to minimise stress and channel negative emotions appropriately – for example through physical activity, times of relaxation, and being outdoors.
Strive to build healthy, life-giving relationships, and exercise regularly. The key to remember is that you are a whole human being.
Your body needs nourishment on all levels – physical, social, emotional, and spiritual – in order to thrive. So start taking ownership of your health today by putting the right mechanisms in place to create a healthier you on all levels – and enjoy the benefits for years to come.
Tracy Venter is a Somerset West nutritionist, and her column appears monthly.