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Inflammation: causes, diet & prevention

Siski Green / 12 January 2021

Inflammation occurs when the body fights injury or disease. Find out what might be causing inflammation, and what treatments you could try.

Burning match against red background referring to inflamed pain
What you need to know about inflammation and its causes

Causes of inflammation

Inflammation seems to be linked with a whole host of different illnesses: heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, colds and flu, and yet it’s also an essential physical response. Because inflammation is a side effect of what happens when your body is fighting something, whether that’s an irritant, a toxin, or an injury.

Your body goes into overdrive to try and fix the problem, sending more white blood cells to the area affected to try and combat whatever is doing damage there. The higher number of white blood cells in the area also lead to skin that’s warmer to the touch, redness and sometimes pain, something that is thought to be related to the nerves in the area becoming more sensitive.

Stress is a factor

Sometimes, however, an inflammatory response isn’t healthy. So, for example, if you are stressed, your body can produce too much of the stress hormone cortisol. This causes unnecessary inflammation and can then contribute to an increase in your blood pressure and your heart rate, and other health issues. These can include pain, stiffness and swelling around your joints, as well as feeling feverish and having swollen joints.

Be aware of allergies 

Similarly, your body can also produce an inflammatory response when it doesn’t need to. This could occur in the form of an allergy, for example.

People who suffer with hayfever experience streaming noses, sneezing and itchy eyes because their body incorrectly perceives a threat – pollen – and so triggers an inflammatory response. If the pollen were a toxin, the streaming nose and eyes would help remove it from the body, which would be a good thing. Because it’s not, however, people take anti-histamines and so control that inflammatory response. Read more aboutRead more about controlling hayfever symptoms..

Take care if you have arthritis

Not all unnecessary inflammatory responses are as harmless as hayfever, however. If, for example, you have ongoing inflammation around a joint – as a result of a type of arthritis – the extra swelling in the area can result in the wearing down of cartilage, causing permanent damage.

Acute inflammation and chronic inflammation

Because of the different effects and outcomes of inflammation, it’s important to differentiate between the two main types, which are:

Acute inflammation. This is what happens when you injure yourself and is a normal healthy response. Most inflammatory responses in this category have names that end in -itis. So, tonsilitis describes inflamed tonsils; cystitis describes inflamed bladder; meningitis is an inflammation of the brain, and so on. NB not all inflammatory illnesses follow this rule, however, as asthma is also an inflammatory illness but doesn’t have the -itis ending.

Chronic inflammation. This is when your body responds in an abnormal way and overcompensates. Systemic inflammation, a recently-coined term, refers to a type of chronic inflammation that doesn’t just affect the tissue (ie muscle and so on) but also organ systems. Obesity can cause systemic inflammation, for example.

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How can you prevent inflammation?

Not all inflammation can be prevented, but there are certain lifestyle factors that can contribute to more inflammation. A diet high in saturated fat, for example, chronic stress and a sedentary lifestyle, can all make your risk of inflammation higher.

Foods for an inflammation diet 

Things that help prevent inflammation are regular exercise (be aware, though, that taking on new exercise could cause a healthy inflammatory response, as you build new muscle); meditation or yoga (thought to be a result of reduced stress levels although other factors may play a role too); a balanced diet with a focus on fresh fruit and vegetables and avoiding unhealthy fats such as trans fats, and upping intake of certain substances, such as omega 3 fish oil and curcumin, both of which have been shown to reduce inflammation.

Anti-inflammatory treatments to try

Most acute inflammation is the result of a healthy physical response but its symptoms can still be painful. Inflammation as a result of an infection, for example, can be treated with painkillers and/or anti-inflammatory painkillers. With chronic inflammation, long-term solutions are ideal, but often a patient simply has to find a way to live with the symptoms.

Thankfully, some of these symptoms can be eased with treatment. For example, NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can help reduce swelling and pain. Some patients may also be recommended corticosteroids, and yet others may be given narcotics as pain relief. Depending on the type of inflammation, lifestyle changes may also help.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.