March 4, 2024

Inflammation: Understanding the Basics

Inflammation: Understanding the Basics
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Inflammation is part of the body's defense mechanism.

It is the process by which the immune system recognizes and removes harmful and foreign stimuli and begins the healing process.

Inflammation can be either acute or chronic.

Acute Inflammation

Tissue damage due to trauma, microbial invasion, or toxic compounds can induce acute inflammation.

It starts rapidly, becomes severe quickly, and symptoms such as cellulitis or acute pneumonia may last a few days.

Subacute inflammation is the period between acute and chronic inflammation and may last 2 to 6 weeks.

Acute And Chronic Inflammation
A. Acute Inflammation B. Chronic Inflammation Source

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is also referred to as slow, long-term inflammation lasting for prolonged periods of several months to years.

Generally, the extent and effects of chronic inflammation vary with the cause of the injury and the ability of the body to repair and overcome the damage.

While acute inflammation is typically a protective response that helps the body fight pathogens and promote healing, chronic inflammation can harm the body.

Here's what inflammation can do:

  • Local Effects: Inflammation at the site of injury or infection can cause redness, swelling, heat, and pain. These symptoms are part of the body's attempt to isolate and destroy harmful agents and promote tissue repair.
  • Systemic Effects: Chronic inflammation can lead to systemic effects, affecting the entire body. It can contribute to conditions such as fever, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
  • Tissue Damage: Prolonged inflammation can cause damage to tissues and organs. This damage can be due to the release of reactive oxygen species and other harmful molecules by immune cells and the direct action of inflammatory mediators.
  • Chronic Diseases: Chronic inflammation is associated with a range of diseases, including autoimmune disorders (such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis), cardiovascular diseases (such as atherosclerosis), metabolic disorders (such as type 2 diabetes), neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer's disease), and certain types of cancer. In these conditions, inflammation plays a central role in disease progression and exacerbation of symptoms.
  • Immune Dysregulation: Inflammation can disrupt the normal functioning of the immune system, leading to autoimmune reactions where the immune system attacks the body's tissues.
  • Impaired Healing: While acute inflammation is necessary for tissue repair, chronic inflammation can interfere with the healing process, leading to delayed wound healing and tissue fibrosis.
  • Increased Risk of Infection: Chronic inflammation can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections.

While inflammation is a crucial part of the body's defense mechanism, chronic inflammation can have detrimental effects and contribute to the development and progression of various diseases. 

How Diet Can Help in Reducing Inflammation

Diet plays a significant role in modulating inflammation in the body.

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Photo by Jonathan Pham on Pexels.com

Certain foods have been shown to reduce inflammation. Here are some dietary strategies that can help in reducing inflammation:

  • Anti-inflammatory Foods: Incorporate foods known to have anti-inflammatory properties into your diet. These include fruits (such as berries, oranges, and cherries), vegetables (especially leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts), nuts (such as almonds and walnuts), seeds (flaxseeds and chia seeds), fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, and sardines), and healthy fats (olive oil and avocados).
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which have potent anti-inflammatory effects. Sources include fatty fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and omega-3 supplements.
  • Whole Grains: Choose whole grains over refined grains. Whole grains like oats, quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat contain fiber and phytonutrients that have anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Herbs and Spices: Use herbs and spices known for their anti-inflammatory properties, such as turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, and rosemary, in cooking.
  • Probiotics: Incorporate probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi into your diet to support a healthy gut microbiota, which plays a role in modulating inflammation.
  • Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated, as dehydration can exacerbate inflammation.
  • Maintain a Healthy Weight: Aim to maintain a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise, as excess body fat can contribute to chronic inflammation.

Foods to avoid

  • Reduce Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates: Limit your intake of added sugars and refined carbohydrates, as these can promote inflammation. This includes sugary beverages, processed snacks, and desserts.
  • Limit Saturated and Trans Fats: Reduce consumption of foods high in saturated fats and trans fats, such as fried foods, processed meats, and high-fat dairy products, as these can contribute to inflammation.
  • Moderate Alcohol: Limit alcohol consumption, as excessive alcohol intake can promote inflammation.

Adopting a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods and avoiding pro-inflammatory foods can reduce inflammation in the body and the risk of developing chronic inflammatory conditions.

How do Anti-Inflammatory Foods Work On a Cellular Level?

Anti-inflammatory foods exert their effects on a cellular level through various mechanisms.

Here are some ways in which these foods work to reduce inflammation:

  • Reducing Proinflammatory Mediators: Many anti-inflammatory foods contain compounds that inhibit the production or activity of pro-inflammatory mediators, such as cytokines, prostaglandins, and leukotrienes. For example, omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and certain seeds can decrease the production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids derived from arachidonic acid.
  • Antioxidant Activity: Free radicals can damage cells and contribute to inflammation. Antioxidants help protect cells from oxidative damage, thereby reducing inflammation. Antioxidants in anti-inflammatory foods include vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, flavonoids, and polyphenols.
  • Modulating Signaling Pathways: Certain compounds in anti-inflammatory foods can modulate intracellular signaling pathways involved in inflammation. For instance, curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, can inhibit the activation of nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-κB), a key transcription factor involved in the expression of pro-inflammatory genes.
  • Promoting Resolution of Inflammation: Some anti-inflammatory foods contain bioactive compounds that promote the resolution of inflammation, helping to restore tissue homeostasis after an inflammatory response. For example, resolvins and protectins derived from omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to actively resolve inflammation by stimulating the clearance of inflammatory cells and promoting tissue repair.
  • Balancing Gut Microbiota: Certain anti-inflammatory foods, such as fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can promote a healthy balance of gut microbiota. A dysregulated gut microbiota has been linked to chronic inflammation and various inflammatory diseases. 
  • Inhibiting Enzymes: Some anti-inflammatory foods contain natural compounds that inhibit enzymes involved in producing inflammatory mediators.

For example, polyphenols found in green tea and olive oil can inhibit the activity of cyclooxygenase (COX) and lipoxygenase (LOX) enzymes, which are responsible for the synthesis of prostaglandins and leukotrienes, respectively.

Summary

  • While inflammation is a critical protective response of our body to injury and infection, it can lead to various health issues when it becomes chronic.
  • Recognizing the difference between acute and chronic inflammation is essential in understanding its impact.
  • Fortunately, diet plays a pivotal role in managing inflammation.
  • Incorporating various anti-inflammatory foods and avoiding those that exacerbate inflammation can profoundly influence our body's inflammatory response.
  • By making informed dietary choices, we can support our body's natural defenses, promote healing, and potentially reduce the risk of chronic inflammation-related diseases.

References

Michels da Silva D, Langer H, Graf T. Inflammatory and Molecular Pathways in Heart Failure-Ischemia, HFpEF and Transthyretin Cardiac Amyloidosis. Int J Mol Sci. 2019 May 10;20(9) [PMC free article] [PubMed]

Zhang X, Wu X, Hu Q, Wu J, Wang G, Hong Z, Ren J., Lab for Trauma and Surgical Infections. Mitochondrial DNA in liver inflammation and oxidative stress. Life Sci. 2019 Nov 01;236:116464. [PubMed]

Fritsch J, Abreu MT. The Microbiota and the Immune Response: What Is the Chicken and What Is the Egg? Gastrointest Endosc Clin N Am. 2019 Jul;29(3):381-393.

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