Inflammation: What Is It, Why Does It Happen, and How Do We Fix It
November 18, 2021
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural response to injury or damage to tissues in the body. For example, you fall down the stairs and sprain your ankle; as a result, your ankle begins to swell, and redness and pain occur at the affected site. What you are experiencing is inflammation.
In other words, inflammation occurs due to trauma to tissue or infection-causing organisms such as bacteria or viruses. This normal response to trauma or tissue damage is known as acute inflammation. This type of inflammation is short in duration, typically lasting for a few minutes to hours to a few days depending on the extent of injury and trauma. Acute inflammation is a healthy response to trauma or tissue damage. It helps your body repair and heal the affected area (i.e., ankle example).
However, if inflammation in the body does not subside or the agent causing the inflammation persists for a long time, the inflammation becomes chronic. One crucial difference between acute and chronic inflammation is that acute is localized and chronic.
Chronic inflammation often goes undetected as symptoms are subtle and lead to considerable damage to the body and its tissues. Systemic chronic inflammation can have detrimental effects on the immune system, leaving those affected by chronic inflammation susceptible to infections, chronic disease, and inflammation-related disorders (i.e., rheumatoid arthritis)
Markers of Chronic Inflammation
There are several key markers (or biomarkers) associated with chronic inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (HS-CRP), fibrinogen, and cytokines (IL-1 β, IL-6, IL-18, TNF-α). Most common, however, is the testing of c-reactive protein (HS-CRP) and fibrinogen. These blood tests are relatively inexpensive and are good markers for the identification of systemic chronic inflammation. Other markers to look out for include symptoms associated with chronic inflammation, such as:
- Body pain
- Chronic fatigue, insomnia
- Depression, anxiety, and mood disorders
- Frequent infections
Origins (or Causes) of Chronic Inflammation
The origin of chronic inflammation is complex and not fully understood but can be viewed from a developmental perspective. Furman et al. state that childhood situations can significantly impact metabolic and immune responses later in life, leading to the future development of chronic inflammation.
Consider childhood obesity as an example – changes in adipose tissue and metabolic dysfunction that causes metabolism-related systemic chronic inflammation. Greater microbial exposure during infancy is associated with a decreased risk of developing chronic inflammation in adulthood. It has also been demonstrated that maternal environmental exposures along with paternal factors contribute to the transgenerational transmission risk of chronic inflammation.
Controversially, chronic infections or lifelong infections are thought to impact chronic inflammation and immune dysregulation in the body. Another cause is industrialization which is believed to be a culprit of increasing rates of chronic inflammation, particularly in westernized societies, as diet and lifestyle have changed considerably in comparison to the periods before.
One byproduct of industrialization is increased physical inactivity. Approximately 50% of Americans do not meet the recommendations for physical activity, which is a cause for concern as individuals with low physical activity have higher levels of HS-CRP and pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are markers for systemic chronic inflammation.
Our skeletal muscle is an endocrine organ that secretes anti-inflammatory cytokines during muscle contraction (i.e., exercise), which can help systematically reduce inflammation. This demonstrates the importance of physical activity in the regulation of the inflammatory response.
Diet is also a significant cause of systemic chronic inflammation, especially the modern-day diet, which involves consuming few fruits and vegetables and high consumption of refined sugars and ultra-processed foods. A poor diet can lead to changes in the composition and function of gut microbiota, leading to systemic chronic inflammation. Deficiencies in vitamins and micronutrients such as zinc and magnesium are also responsible for systemic chronic inflammation and are attributable to poor nutrition.
There are changes in social interaction and sleep quality due to the industrialization of society that influences the development of chronic inflammation in the body. For instance, certain work environments that involve high stress and little control lead to a chronic elevation of cortisol, thus resulting in systemic chronic inflammation and poor health outcomes.
In terms of sleep quality, blue light has become a significant issue as it keeps you alert at night, a time when you are supposed to be sleeping. This disruption in the circadian rhythm cycle can promote chronic inflammation.
With the fast progression of urbanization, concerns over environmental and industrial intoxicants have arisen. Nine thousand chemicals that cause inflammation and inflammation-related disease have been identified.
Like the gut microbiome, alterations in the composition of the oral microbiome can lead to infections such as bacteremia and endocarditis with chronic inflammation.
What Foods Are Inflammatory?
Certain foods can promote inflammatory responses, such as ultra-processed foods, especially those containing emulsifiers. Foods or meals with high salt and sugar content, specifically high glycemic load foods containing isolated and refined sugars, can increase oxidative stress (physiological stress on the body caused by the cumulative damage done by free radicals inadequately neutralized by antioxidants) and activate inflammatory genes. High-fat foods can cause alterations in gut microbiota composition, which, as discussed earlier, can result in chronic inflammation.
Foods Sources of Inflammation:
- White bread
- White rice
- Certain kinds of pasta
- Fried foods such as French fries
- Red meat
- Margarine, shortening, lard
What Foods Are Anti-inflammatory?
There are a wide variety of foods with anti-inflammatory properties. Many of these foods contain nutrients that reduce the level of inflammatory markers; for example, carotenoids (β-carotene, α-carotene, lutein/zeaxanthin, β-cryptoxanthin, and lycopene ) which are pigments present in many plants, including vegetables and fruits.
Another source of anti-inflammatory properties is flavonoids (anthocyanidin, flavan-3-ol, flavonol, flavone, flavanone, and isoflavone) which are natural substances or compounds found in many fruits, vegetables, grains, roots, teas, and wines. Foods containing omega 3-fatty acids [α-Linolenic acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)] also contribute to the reduction of inflammation.
Food Sources of Carotenoids*:
- α-Carotene: carrots, pumpkin, spinach, collards, cantaloupe, sweet potato
- β-Carotene: turnip greens, winter squash, kale
- β-Cryptoxanthin: sweet red peppers, tangerines, yellow corn, watermelon
- Lycopene: Tomatoes, pink grapefruit, baked beans
- Lutein/Zeaxanthin: mustard greens, peas, summer squash, broccoli, avocado, egg yolk
*Note that many of the vegetables also provide a combination of other carotenoids.
Food Sources of Flavonoids:
- Anthocyanidin-rich foods: blackberries, blueberries, currants, grapes, red onions, raspberries, red cabbage
- Flavan-3-01-rich foods: red delicious apples, apricots, dark chocolate, black/green tea,
- Flavanol-rich foods: blueberries, broccoli, chili peppers, parsley, scallions, watercress
- Flavone-rich foods: celery, oregano, peppermint, thyme
- Flavanone-rich foods: white grapefruit, lemon, oranges,
- Isoflavone-rich foods: black bean sauce, soybeans, soymilk, tofu
Foods Sources for Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
- α-Linolenic acid (ALA): flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil, mustard oil, firm tofu
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): herring, salmon, oysters, rainbow trout, canned tuna, Dungeness crab
A healthy, anti-inflammatory diet consists of various foods rich in nutrients and antioxidants such as carotenoids, flavonoids, and omega-3 fatty acids foods. Much of the research conducted on dietary patterns and inflammation involves the Mediterranean Diet and its components. The Mediterranean diet is anti-inflammatory and consists of olive oil, a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, cereals, and moderate consumption of red wine.
What Lifestyle Factors Contribute to Chronic Inflammation?
Several lifestyle factors contribute to chronic inflammation, such as diet, physical activity, and stress. In terms of diet, excessive consumption of refined sugar, salt, and fat as well as processed foods promote inflammation in the body. Furthermore, diets high in sugar, unhealthy fat, and salt often lead to the development of obesity resulting in a disruption in the makeup of the gut microbiome.
Regular, recommended physical activity reduces inflammation in the body through contraction of muscle tissue (i.e., during exercise) which releases anti-inflammatory markers. Conversely, healthy individuals with low physical activity levels were found to have higher levels of CRP, anabolic resistance, and pro-inflammatory markers.
Chronic stress can also lead to chronic inflammation through the production of pro-inflammatory markers. In fact, a longitudinal study showed “an average annual rate increase of serum IL-6 in was four times as large in men and women who were chronically stressed by caregiving for a spouse with dementia compared to similar individuals with no caregiving responsibilities.” Through epidemiological and laboratory studies, we know that depression and stress can influence food choices such as lower fruit and vegetable intake and more snacking.
How Foogal Can Help
We believe that Foogal can help you alleviate your chronic inflammation through healthy eating. Our recipes are delicious, nutrient-dense, and curated by professional chefs. We have several diet protocols that can help you reduce inflammation as well as cater to your specific needs.
- Our Wellness Protocol is for the person who would like to maintain a healthy diet and prevent inflammation.
- Our Insulin Resistance Protocol is for the person who wants to manage their prediabetes, type 1 diabetes, and type 2 diabetes – inflammation is common among people with insulin resistance
- Our Autoimmune Protocol is for the person who wants to manage their autoimmune disorders as well as manage the inflammation that comes along with autoimmunity
Foogal is more than a meal-planning app; it is a tool that helps you manage your health by making eating healthy more effortless and accessible. We invite you to download our app via the App Store or Google Play.