You stub your bare toe on the coffee table, then what happens? Sure, you let out a yelp of surprise, flail around the living room for a few moments clutching your poor, injured appendage, but then what? A process begins in your body as your immune system recognizes that a trauma has occured. Your toe begins to swell, and you feel pain and maybe even heat from the affected area. Inflammation has begun.
Inflammation may mean different things to different people. To the woman with arthritis, inflammation means pain and stiffness in her joints. To the teenager with psoriasis, inflammation means raised, red patches on the skin. For the man with Crohn's disease, inflammation means abdominal pain, a reduced appetite, and ulcers. To the kid who falls down on the playground, inflammation is happening at the site of his scraped knee.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the most common causes of inflammation are
• Pathogens (germs) like bacteria, viruses or fungi
• External injuries like scrapes or foreign objects (a thorn in your finger)
• Effects of chemicals or radiation
That's not all... Diseases or conditions that cause inflammation often have a name ending in "itis". Examples of these may be Cystitis, an inflammation of the bladder, Bronchitis, an inflammation of the bronchi, or Dermatitis, a disease where the skin is inflamed.
Signs of inflammation can include redness, heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function.
The Inflammation Process
So how does the immune system use inflammation to heal? When tissues are damaged by bacteria, heat, trauma, toxins, or other causes, chemicals are released to attract the local immune cells to the site of inflammation. Let's look at how the inflammation process works in the case of an invading pathogen.
Local immune cells known as tissue histiocytes begin to fight back the invading organisms until white blood cells can arrive in the blood stream. More chemicals are released that widen the local blood vessels, and this leads to the swelling, redness, warmth, and pain associated with inflammation. This widening of the blood vessels brings more blood to the site, allowing the white blood cells to rush in and provide support to the local immune cells.
The local cells process information from the invading bacteria or virus, and uploads this to the incoming supporting white blood cells. This information tells the the defending cells what specialized forces are needed to win this battle. For example, a virus signals CD-8 T-Lymphocytes to come and fight, while a bacteria signals neutrophils to join the battle.
Finally, the fighting white blood cells have elimated the invading organism, and return back to the blood stream. Dead cells are removed from the site, and specialized cells begin to repair the damage that occured at the site of inflammation.
This process is a fascinating part of the body's immune system, and is a natural part of the healing process when you have a temporary infection, wound, or trauma. But for some people, inflammation can be chronic, leading to a number of diseases and conditions.
Chronic Inflammation Conditions
When the immune system has an inappropriate response to something that it has been exposed to, it can get confused and begin attacking itself, causing considerable damage and a variety of problems.
Celiac's disease, lupus, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), arthritis, irritable bowel disease, and psoriasis are all examples of conditions related to chronic inflammation.
These people experience the signs and symptoms of inflammation without cease, and often have to take prescription medications to manage these.
While there is no definitive answer for stopping inflammation entirely for those experiencing these debilitating conditions, it may be possible to counteract inflammation naturally by carefully selecting the foods you eat. Numerous diets and books have emerged lately claiming to have the answer to inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet is recommended by well known personalities such as Barry Spears, MD (The Zone Diet), Andrew Weil, MD, and Nicholas Perricone, MS (The Perricone Diet).
"One of the greatest joys of my research has been discovering the role of key nutrients in the foods we eat and how they impact our beauty, health and longevity. What I often refer to as 'superfoods' are those remarkable anti-inflammatory, healing and rejuvenating properties, which have all but been forgotten in today's world of fast and processed 'food'."
- Dr. Nicholas Perricone, M.S, FACN
What do these anti-inflammatory diets have in common? They all encourage the following:
• Plenty of fruits and vegetables
• Include foods rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, such as walnuts and salmon, or a high quality fish oil supplement
• Eat lean protein sources, and cut back on red meat or full fat dairy products
• Enjoy spices and herbs with anti-inflammatory properties, such as turmeric and ginger
• Reach for whole grains like brown rice and bulgar wheat
Most anti-inflammatory diets also discourage certain foods as well:
• Cut out trans fats and minimize saturated fats
• Avoid refined foods and processed foods
• Avoid sugar
• Reduce your intake of refined carbohydrates such as pasta and white rice
Interestingly enough, gluten is avoided by an ever-growing percentage of the population these days, and not just those with celiac's disease. If you are interested in eating an anti-inflammatory diet, you may want to experiment with removing gluten to see if this is the right choice for you.
Other than omega-3 essential fatty acids, are there other nutrients that have anti-inflammatory potential?
Vitamin A deficiencies have been linked to inflammation in the intestines, lungs, and skin. This antioxidant has anti-inflammatory effects, and can protect against harmful free radical substances that can lead to a host of chronic illness and disease.
Vitamin B6 deficiencies have been linked to higher levels of C-reactive proteins - a marker of inflammation that has been linked to heart disease, according to WebMD.
Vitamin C is another antioxidant nutrient that can defend against free radical damage. In addition, vitamin C may lower levels of the C-reactive proteins mentioned above.
Other vitamins that may effect levels of inflammatory markers are vitamin E, vitamin D, and vitamin K.
Many herbs have been used as folk remedies for inflammation for centuries in various cultures around the globe. Dr. Weil recommends Turmeric, Ginger, and Boswellia, three herbs that have a long reputation in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indian Ayurveda as potent anti-inflammatories. (Read more about Boswellia's anti-inflammatory properties, here.)
Be sure to speak with your medical professional to see if changes to your diet, additional nutrients, or herbs will help you with your own fight against inflammation.
PubMed Health; What is Inflammation?: November 2012; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0009852/
Psoriasis.org; About Psoriasis http://www.psoriasis.org/about-psoriasis
MayoClinic.com Crohn's Disease http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/crohns-disease/DS00104/DSECTION=symptoms
Show Us Your Hands; Understanding Inflammatory Arthritis http://www.showusyourhands.org/resources/
MedLine Plus; Immune Response; http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000821.htm
WiseGeek.com; What is a Chronic Inflammatory Disease http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-chronic-inflammatory-disease.htm#didyouknowout
WebMD; Anti-inflammatory Diet: Road to Good Health?; http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/anti-inflammatory-diet-road-to-good-health?
WebMD; Vitamins and Supplements Lifestyle Guide: Vitamins that Fight Inflammation http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/lifestyle-guide-11/inflammation?
DrWeil.com; Can Herbs Combat Inflammation; http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/QAA142972/Anti-Inflammatory-Herbs.com