We all suffer from inflammation. It is the immune system’s response against foreign invaders, infection, injury, and hence diseases, which makes it a good thing. “Inflammation promotes blood flow to the injured tissue along with the transport of immune system cells, which helps with healing,” says Dr VS Chauhan, additional director, general surgery, Fortis Hospitals, Noida.
What is it?
Dr Rajeev Verma, HOD and consultant – joint replacement and orthopaedics, HCMCT Manipal Hospitals, Dwarka, describes inflammation as the body’s “protective mechanism against infection, which tries to stop the offending organism and limit it to one place by causing inflammation, and thus protects the other parts of the body”.
“On the other hand, if the body’s immune system is not good, the foreign agent can affect multiple body parts. And as we saw in the case of Covid-19, if the infection reaches lungs, it can even prove to be fatal,” he adds. Triggers can be anything, from pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and external injuries to chemicals, and inflammatory diseases. According to Dr Chauhan, some signs of inflammation are redness, heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function. “These, at times, are silent too,” he says. As per the health website WebMD, inflammation can also result in flu-like systems such as fever, chills, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, and muscle stiffness.
Despite its benefits, inflammation can be a double-edged sword. “In some cases, the immune system triggers inflammation despite the absence of any foreign invaders and harms the body instead of protecting it,” Dr Chauhan says.
Here comes chronic inflammation, the one that lasts more than six weeks. While acute inflammation, which lasts for less than two weeks, is a response to an infection or injury, such as the healing process right after you cut your finger, the chronic kind happens when your body keeps on sending inflammatory cells without any danger. It harms the body as it can lead to “chronic lesions, tissue injuries, fibrosis of tissue, etc,” Dr Chauhan explains.
Multiple factors can trigger chronic inflammation. “At times, our body’s immune system does not work to its capacity and fails to eliminate the offending agent. Also, the infection can be intolerant, which means the infection slowly affects the body like a tubercule or fungal infection. These can cause inflammation to turn chronic,” Dr Verma explains.
However, there is another and probably more prominent factor, which is the autoimmune reaction. In this, the immune system mistakenly attacks a part of the body, such as joints or skin as foreign and attacks them. Inflammatory arthritis, such as rheumatoid, psoriatic, and gouty arthritis, are examples. “In these cases, too, inflammation can be chronic,” the doctor says. Explaining these inflammatory arthritides further, Dr Verma says, the autoimmune reaction, in this case, causes the “autoimmune particles to deposit on joints leading to inflammation. This presents as pain, swelling, and redness in the joint, and patients can find it difficult to move the joints.”
“When a patient presents with repeated episodes of pain in a month, especially in any joint of the body, then they should seek an appointment with an orthopaedic specialist. If somebody has symptoms lasting for more than three days in a particular joint then also they should see a specialist surgeon. Other things for which a patient should seek treatment is reformatting of the joint, sudden sweating redness or any fever,” he adds.
It is not just linked to inflammatory arthritis but a host of other serious diseases, such as “asthma, diabetes, blindness, atherosclerosis and even cancers,” says Dr Chauhan. Elaborating on cancers, the doctor explains that “long-standing chronic inflammation leads to the activation of a cascade of events in the body that play a crucial role in the pathophysiology of cancer. It leads to the activation of interferons and cytokines. Tumour necrosis factors etc. eventually culminate in cancer.”
Stress harms in more ways than one
Just like inflammation, stress has both good and bad sides. While moderate stress helps you evade threats and improve cognitive function, an excessive amount of it can trigger anxiety, depression, weight gain, sleep problems and memory, and concentration impairment.“Stress can cause inflammation, especially chronic inflammation as when stressed, the body releases more irritant chemicals like cytokine,” Dr Chauhan says. In other words, “stress leads to over-activation of the immune system which leads to inflammation,” Dr Verma explains.
Inflammatory foods & prevention
While food protects you from illnesses and promotes healing, some do the opposite and trigger inflammation, such as “sugar, saturated and trans fats, omega 6 fatty acids, refined carbohydrates, gluten, and casein,” says Dr Chauhan.
Although not every function of the body is under one’s control, there are some things one can do to prevent damaging inflammation, such as stress management, getting adequate sleep, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, drinking moderately, managing weight and avoiding foods like refined carbs, sodas, fried food, and processed meat.
“Apart from these, add anti-inflammatory foods to your diet,” says Dr Chauhan.
So, what are some anti-inflammatory foods? According to Neha Pathania, chief dietician, Paras Hospitals, Gurugram, these include oily fish, such as tuna and salmon, berries like strawberries, cherries, blackberries, blueberries, etc, green vegetables, which include broccoli, spinach, and kale, beans, seeds and nuts, olives and olive oil and fibre. “Research also shows that antioxidants in food play a pivotal role in reducing inflammation,” says Dr Chauhan.
Explaining these, Pathania says, “carotenoids, vitamins C and E are antioxidants that may aid in preventing free radical damage to cells. Flavonoids, tannins, phenols, and lignans are additional naturally occurring antioxidants. The finest sources are foods made from plants.”
These fight off oxidative stress, shield cells from damage, eliminate excess free radicals, and also suppress inflammation, she explains. However, these are not the same as anti-inflammatory foods.
“While antioxidants shield tissues from deterioration, which stops unwelcome inflammatory reactions before they start, other nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids are involved in the inflammatory response itself,” the dietician explains.
Hence, to eliminate the damaging impacts of inflammation, apart from managing stress, sleeping adequately, and getting enough exercise, watch your diet by steering clear of inflammatory foods, while at the same time, eating anti-inflammatory ones and those containing antioxidants.
KEEPING INFLAMMATION AT BAY
- Some foods that trigger inflammation are sugar, saturated and trans fats, omega 6 fatty acids, refined carbohydrates, gluten, and casein
- Some things one can do to prevent damaging inflammation are stress management, getting adequate sleep, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, drinking moderately, managing weight and avoiding foods like refined carbs, sodas, fried food, and processed meat
- Some of the anti-inflammatory foods include oily fish, such as tuna and salmon, berries like strawberries, cherries, blackberries, blueberries, etc, green vegetables, which include broccoli, spinach, and kale, beans, seeds and nuts, olives and olive oil and fibre
- Antioxidants in food also play a pivotal role in reducing inflammation
- Flavonoids, tannins, phenols, and lignans are additional naturally occurring antioxidants. The finest sources are foods made from plants