Inflammation Part I: Causes and Effects

inflamationBy Jacquie Eubanks BSN, RN

The word inflammation comes from the Latin “inflammo,” meaning “I set alight, I ignite.” Acute inflammation is a biological immune response to harmful stimuli such as pathogens, damaged cells, irritants or injuries.  It is the body’s attempt at self-protection and a basic survival instinct.  When something harmful or irritating affects a part of our body, the body will attempt to remove the stimuli and initiate the healing process.  Without acute inflammation, wounds and infections would never heal and survival would be compromised. 

The familiar signs of acute or normal inflammation are pain, redness, swelling, heat and loss of function.  These are signals that your immune system has been activated.  Inflammation actually begins when pro-inflammatory hormones send out a call for white blood cells to clear out an infection or damaged tissue.  Equally powerful anti-inflammatory compounds move in to begin the healing process once the threat is neutralized.  Acute inflammation that ebbs and flows when needed indicates a well-balanced immune system.  Acute inflammation has an immediate onset, is of short-lived duration and has a definitive resolution or outcome.  It’s when the symptoms of inflammation don’t recede that troubling chronic inflammation begins. This type of inflammation is a key cause or factor in almost all chronic degenerative and lifestyle-caused diseases. 

Chronic inflammation differs from acute inflammation in that it can involve persistent foreign bodies, a persistent infection, a non-degradable pathogen that can cause persistent inflammation, or an overactive immune system response.  These can kick the immune system into high gear lasting from several months or even years.  The outcomes of chronic inflammation can be the destruction of the tissue, thickening and scarring of connective tissue, and death of cells or tissues. 

Diseases and conditions associated with chronic inflammation include asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and chronic hepatitis.  Chronic or long-term inflammation can result from:

  • Failure to eliminate whatever was causing the acute inflammation.
  • An autoimmune response where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.
  • A chronic irritant of low intensity that persists.
  • Dysbiosis, an imbalance of bacteria or fungi in the gastrointestinal tract. 
  • Stress.  Constant psychological, emotional or physical stress raises cortisol levels, creating inflammation.
  • Environmental toxins.  Pollutants and toxic metals contribute to inflammation.
  • Diet and lifestyle.  Too much fat, sugar and processed foods, obesity, inactivity and poor sleep quality can all increase inflammation. 

Chronic internal inflammation can remain undetected as there are no visible symptoms such as pain and swelling.  Results of chronic inflammation may include:

Low grade inflammation is a factor in most health issues.  Studies show that the risk of heart disease and cancer are modifiable by our lifestyle choices which includes the foods we choose to eat each day. With every bite we take, we’re either balancing the pro- or anti-inflammatory compounds in the body, or tipping the scale to one end. 

Many common foods in the Standard North American Diet can cause or exacerbate inflammation in the body.   Foods known to cause inflammation include:

  • Fast foods.  Processed, packaged and prepared foods top the list of inflammatory foods due to harmful oils, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and food additives. 
  • Sugar.  Excessive sugar intake is linked to increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. 
  • Common vegetable cooking oils.  Common vegetable cooking oils are very high in omega-6 fatty acids and dismally low in omega-3 fats.  A diet consisting of a highly imbalanced omega-6 to omega-3 ratio promotes inflammation and breeds inflammatory diseases like heart disease and cancer.
  • Trans fats.  Trans fats increase levels of bad cholesterol while lowering levels of good cholesterol.  They have also been found to promote inflammation, obesity and resistance to insulin, laying the groundwork for degenerative illnesses to take place.
  • Dairy products.  As much as 60% of the world’s population cannot digest milk.  Milk is also a common allergen that can trigger inflammatory responses, such as stomach distress, constipation, diarrhea, skin rashes, acne, hives and breathing difficulties in susceptible people.
  • Feedlot-raised meats.  Commercially produced meats are fed with grains like soy beans and corn, a diet that is high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids but low in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats.
  • Processed meats.  Processed meat includes animal products that have been smoked, cured, salted or chemically preserved.  Compounds in meats can cause an immune response that may trigger a chronic low-grade inflammatory response which has been linked to cancer and heart disease. 
  • Alcohol.  Regular high consumption of alcohol has been known to cause irritation and inflammation of the esophagus, larynx and liver. Over time, the chronic inflammation promotes tumor growth and gives rise to cancer at the sites of repeated irritation.
  • Refined grains.  Refined grains are devoid of fiber and vitamins and full of empty calories.  Refined grains have a higher glycemic index than unprocessed whole grains.  Consistently consumed, they can hasten the onset of degenerative diseases such as cancer, coronary disease and diabetes. 
  • Artificial food additives.  Artificial food additives such as aspartame and monosodium glutamate can trigger inflammatory responses in people already suffering from inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. 
  • Food allergies.  Repeated long-term exposure to foods that irritate can cause inflammation and lead to chronic disease.

It’s become increasingly clear that chronic inflammation is the root cause of many serious illnesses.  “Cooling the fires of hidden inflammation may be the most important thing you can do for your long-term health and well-being,” says Dr. Mark Hyman, editor in chief of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 

Up next:  Part II: Reducing inflammation with supplements, diet and lifestyle changes.

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