Red, swollen, hot, and painful: We all recognize these cardinal signs of inflammation. They remind us that we have been injured or that an illness is present. Though often uncomfortable or even painful, inflammation is a normal response to injury and illness; it is closely linked with the processes of repair and healing.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation dilutes, destroys, or walls off harmful agents that have entered the body. It activates a sequence of biological events to heal the damage. The inflammatory process is fabulously complex, and we owe our lives to it. Without inflammation, wounds would never heal and infections would rage out of control.
Inflammation is a double-edged sword, however. The very processes that repair the body can harm us when they become chronic. Americans swallow innumerable anti-inflammatory medications each year, hoping to fend off the unpleasant signs and symptoms of inflammation.
The most common causes of inflammation are infections, burns and trauma, and many types of immune reactions. Short-term (acute) inflammation follows a very predictable course, regardless of what caused the injury. It may resolve completely, heal by scarring, or progress to chronic inflammation. A healthy inflammatory response is a limited one: White blood cells and inflammatory mediators migrate to the area of injury, do their work, and then deployment ceases. But the body is not always in the optimal state of health. In these cases, inflammation can hang on too long.
Long-term (chronic) inflammation tends to produce abnormalities in blood cells and vessels and in the connective tissues supplied by those blood vessels. Low-level irritations may go unnoticed until cell and organ function are interrupted. Chronic lung disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and even tuberculosis are all-too-common examples of inflammation that develops insidiously and then packs a devastating punch once the condition settles in. Fortunately, there are safe ways to prevent unhealthy inflammatory responses.
Inflammatory processes degrade the body's vitamin C stores, so people with inflammatory conditions may require additional C in the diet or as a supplement. Vitamin C is required for the synthesis of new connective tissue, making it important when you are healing from an injury. Studies have demonstrated an anti-inflammatory effect of vitamin C, which is sometimes combined with bioflavonoids to increase its absorption and availability.
Natural antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, and other plants, bioflavonoids are commonly available in citrus fruits. These compounds-which include rutin, hesperidin, and quercetin-have been shown in many studies to inhibit inflammation in the body. Bioflavonoids benefit connective tissue in several ways: They limit inflammation and associated tissue degradation, improve local circulation, and promote a strong collagen matrix, which is required for tissue repair.
Essential Fatty Acids
For a concentrated dose of omega-3 fatty acids, a fish oil supplement is the way to go. Fish oil contains an omega-3 fatty acid called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) that fights inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids appear highly effective in some inflammatory conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis) but less so in others (such as inflammatory bowel diseases and asthma). More studies are needed to clarify the benefits of essential fatty acids in the treatment of inflammatory diseases.
The ingredient that imparts the characteristic color and flavor to Indian curries is also one of the plant world's most powerful antioxidants, liver protectors, and anti-inflammatory agents. The kitchen spice turmeric (Curcuma longa) contains an ingredient known as curcumin, which has been shown in multiple studies to combat inflammation. Turmeric is a mainstay of Indian Ayurvedic medicine and has been used in that tradition for centuries to treat a wide range of conditions. Curcumin is a well-studied, powerful free-radical scavenger that has even been shown to fight cancer.
Supplements known as proteolytic enzymes have the power to break down inflammatory proteins in the body, thus combating inflammation. One important proteolytic enzyme is bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapples. When significant amounts of bromelain are taken orally (and especially if the supplement is "enteric coated" to protect it from stomach acids), it can reduce the inflammation associated with sinusitis, sports injuries, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The typical American diet lacks adequate fruits and vegetables and contains excessive amounts of meat, refined grain products, and dessert foods. Choosing healthy sources of carbohydrates, fats, and protein is critical to fighting the war against inflammation and chronic disease.
Here are some diet tips to lower the heat:
Obesity and excess weight increase the inflammatory burden in the body. The diet strategies listed above will not only reduce inflammation on their own but will do so indirectly by promoting weight loss in overweight individuals.
Avoid smoking. The relationship between smoking and increased levels of inflammatory markers is well documented. Smoking triggers the release of inflammatory mediators. These markers predict future heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular causes of death.
Get plenty of exercise. Exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, perhaps due to loss of body fat, less accumulation of inflammation-promoting white blood cells in fat tissue, exercise-induced production of natural anti-inflammatory agents in muscle tissue, and balancing of autonomic nervous system function, which governs the body's stress and relaxation responses.
Relax. The central nervous system stokes or dampens inflammatory cellular reactions depending on one's state of psychological stress. These inflammatory reflexes are thought to be of major importance not only for heart disease but also for many autoimmune diseases that stress is known to exacerbate. Stress-relieving activities, such as exercise, yoga, and meditation, have been shown to alleviate certain inflammatory conditions.
Remember R-I-C-E for your sprains, strains, and pains. The rule of thumb when you twist your ankle, smack your finger with a hammer, or otherwise cause yourself an inflammatory pain-in-the-(insert body part here) is this: rest, ice, compression, elevation, or RICE. Give that swollen, throbbing finger a rest, wrap it snugly in an ice pack, and prop it up above the level of your heart. This will help keep the inflammation in check and stop it from getting too painful.
The optimal program for preventing and reducing inflammation will be highly individual. It depends on one's overall state of health, risk factors, and the nature of the inflammatory condition. Because inflammation is a common sign of a great many conditions, not all cases are comparable, nor should they be treated in the same way. Still, if you follow the basic recommendations described here, there is a better chance that inflammation won't rule your life when it does arise, and that you will be better able to cope and avoid potentially harmful drugs in the process of treating yourself. Discuss any inflammatory condition with a medical practitioner.
"The effects of diet on inflammation: Emphasis on the metabolic syndrome" by D. Giugliano et al., J Am Coll Cardiol, 8/06 "Exercise, inflammation, and innate immunity" by J. A. Woods et al., Neurol Clin, 8/06 "Linking stress to inflammation" by A. Bierhaus et al., Anesthesiol Clin, 6/06 "N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, inflammation, and inflammatory diseases" by P. C. Calder, Am J Clin Nutr, 6/06 "Trans fatty acids - effects on systemic inflammation and endothelial function" by D. Mozaffarian, Atheroscler Suppl, 5/06
An inflammatory response is a common occurrence, but knowing you're not alone hardly helps you when you're in the midst of the experience.
Inflammatory foods might seem impossible to avoid, but it is easy to eliminate them from your diet if you know precisely what to stay away from.