What’s All This Talk About Inflammation?

We talk a lot around here about inflammation, and some of you have raised good questions (and answers) regarding what we’re really getting at. A continuing thanks for your comments and thoughtful responses.

So, what do we mean by inflammation when we harp on the evils of sugars, grains, trans fats and other nutritional fiends? Ah, the many sides of swelling: abscesses, bulges, distensions, engorgements, boils, blisters, bunions, oh my! Do swollen ankles and puffy black shiners really have anything to do with the inflammation of arterial walls? Can flossing possibly help prevent heart disease? Let’s explore, shall we.

Anyone who has ever, say, walked into a door knows that with injury comes inflammation (and a little humiliation). The effects are right there: redness, pain, swelling. It hurts to touch the site, and we might for some time look like Marcia Brady in the infamous football episode. We might be horrified at the visual effects that ensue, but it’s just the body’s natural and essential response to defend itself from infection or trauma. In fact, the swelling initiates the healing process itself. Remember, the body doesn’t care what you look like as long as it can regain your good health.

Walking into that door is an example of “acute inflammation,” a localized response characterized by compression of the surrounding nerves (ouch!) and collection of fluid in the area that helps bolster an immune response. The microscopic trainers are busy shouting orders, notifying the brain of wounded status, calling in the clotting response and going to work to reset things and get you taped up. They take care of business, you avoid all human contact for two weeks out of embarrassment, and you come out basically no worse for the wear.

Acute inflammation circumstances tend to be pretty run of the mill: sprained ankles, cuts and scrapes, bumps on the head, etc. In certain cases, however, inflammation takes on much larger significance, such as in the case of the major trauma of a car accident, significant burns, major allergic reaction or a previously localized infection that spreads to other parts of the body. Major and/or multiple sites of trauma and infection initiate a larger, systemic response.

In cases of severe trauma, the body elicits a massive inflammatory response. The immune system kicks into high gear, and white blood cells, among others, migrate to the injured areas. Receptors that sense the sweeping call to inflammatory action get in on the action. The blood supply to major organs, such as the lungs, is compromised. If left unchecked, organs failure can ensue.

But there’s another wrinkle to the inflammation picture. Sort of an “in-betweener.” Ongoing health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure and autoimmune disorders can instigate what’s known as chronic, low-grade inflammation. This kind of inflammation doesn’t result in the immediate, sweeping response of trauma, but it keeps the body in a constant state of repair response. Immune cells (macrophages, monocytes, and lymphocytes) take charge, and a recurring, destructive process of tissue destruction and repair effort develops and continues until the source of the chronic inflammation is removed.

And there are serious consequences to this unchecked, ongoing inflammation. Neutrophils, one of the cells involved in inflammatory response, attack what they perceive as outside damage/invaders with the massive production of free radicals. They and other cells will keep pumping and spreading these free radicals throughout the body as long as they sense the inflammation. As you know by now, free radicals also destroy healthy cell walls and DNA, so there is collateral damage, too. The body’s general immune response (the ability to deal with daily exposure to bacteria, virus and fungus) is compromised because the system is kept busy tending to the incessant, active inflammation. Long-term effects of chronic inflammation can influence the development of many other conditions from Chrohn’s disease to cancer. And, of course, countless studies have connected chronic inflammation with the development of atherosclerosis (and, increasingly, insulin resistance). Remember we spoke recently about the devastation caused when arterial walls are inflamed and the body responds with a “cholesterol band-aid“? Yep, chronic systemic inflammation is a big factor there, too. Even to the extent that chronically inflamed gums might be a tangential cause of heart disease – and if not a cause, at the very least an accompanying symptom of systemic inflammation.

Frightening scenario, eh? The good news is that a CRP or C-reactive protein test can offer you and your doctor a better sense of your inflammation picture. Another test called hs-CRP may offer a detailed picture of inflammation as it relates to heart disease risk. If you get these tests, be sure to do so when you don’t have a recent injury or illness, since CRP can linger from the acute response, too.

We’ll say what we’ll always say. (Systemic) inflammation sucks. Get rid of simple carbs. Eliminate stress. Get some exercise (but not too much). Embrace a Primal anti-inflammatory diet. Check ’em out in the archives, and share your comments.

ulybug, late night movie Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Top 10 Natural Ways to Reduce Inflammation

Science Daily – Seeing is Believing: Visualizing Inflammation in Fat Tissue

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15 thoughts on “What’s All This Talk About Inflammation?”

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  1. I’m familiar with that image of puffy feet… I used to see something very similar at the end of my own legs.

    Is this the result of inflammation? Sitting in the heat seemed to trigger it. Likewise my hands would become puffy little sausages after a long walk in a tropical forest.

    I assumed it was a circulation issue but it’s true I haven’t noticed the problem since I cut out wheat and simple carbs.

    This retroactive observation is probably a serious case of selective sampling… but it is an intriguing theory. Thanks.

  2. If total cholesterol is good, HDL is high and triglyceridies are low, is it pretty safe to assume that you don’t have inflammation issues even without a C-reactive protein test?

  3. I certainly suffer from this sort of chronic inflammation as I suffer from fairly severe Crohn’s disease. Late last summer I was feeling well, and I decided that I would try to remove refined carbohydrates from my diet and try live off of vegetables and proteins as much as possible. It was absolutely disastrous. Within a month I was in hospital for several weeks and suffering from the worst flare-up in my 12 year history with the disease, they told me they were going to have to remove 5-6 feet of my intestine just so I could eat again!
    I don’t know if I removed the refined carbos from my diet too quickly or what precisely caused the flare-up, but it coincided exactly with the change in my diet. I very much believe in the science as it is presented on this blog. We certainly do eat too many processed foods, but I cannot stress enough that changes in diet must be done incrementally and observations taken carefully for those with noticeable inflammation or auto-immune disorders or the results could be catastrophic.

  4. There has been much recent research into the overall effects of inflammation in our bodies. Your article hits it right on the head! Some people have been getting good results in the use of the mangosteen to combat inflammation. It contains Xanthones, a phytonutrient that helps ease inflammation and some of its side effects. It is an amazing discovery worth looking into!

  5. my wife has got inflammation in her ankles for last 14 days. test report indicates CRP at 15 m/L.
    LIPID PROFILE test shows total chlestrol -159 and triglycerides at 190, hdl at 42, and LDL at 79.
    can anybody tell me cause of ankle inflammation and treatment required.

  6. You mentioned flossing…

    I remember even back in the 90’s they were talking about mouth bacteria and it’s link to heart disease. My friend at the time, not understanding the difference between correlation and causation was obsessive about brush, flossing, mouthwash, etc. I remember wondering briefly at the time (I was 18) at how mouth bacteria could cause heart disease? Migrating through the body or something?

    Given my new found perspective on diet, it seems to me that the correlation here could be accounted for by the fact that the bacteria in our mouth go nuts on carbohydrates, and sugar taxes our system and causes inflammation, which is also related to heart disease.

    1. that used to be a concern for people with mitrovalve prolapse…they were prescribed antibiotics prior to dental appointments…two years ago I was told this is no longer necessary, and do not have to take antibiotics before going to the dentist.

  7. Hi,
    Very helpful information. I love your site and will spread the word of health and wellness. I am a cancer survivor and know how important it is to safe healthy. Our health id our greatest asset.

  8. I went gluten, soy and dairy free. I got rid of swelling. But I have noticed when I eat rice, processed foods- gluten free pasta and breads, I don’t feel so good. I get joint swelling sometimes rashes and abdominal problems. So maybe I should try paleo diet. I went off processed food, sugar, coffee, dairy, gluten and ate small amounts of meat. I ate lots of fruits, veggies, some meat and seafood.I lost 10lbs in two weeks and lost tons of swelling. Then I went to gluten and dairy free diet. I lost 40lbs not even trying.

  9. We’re new to Paleo which sounds very comparable with Primal. This article about inflammation was very helpful. Thank you so much for all your time and work.

    It sounds like any inflammation is dangerous and to be avoided, but that the worst is if it’s made chronic by a daily consumption of the things that trigger it.

    I’m wondering if you have a list of spices, seeds, nuts etc. that cause inflammation even in the small amounts used in cooking a dish and then divided into the servings per person. Like, say the spices in Taco Meat, and eaten as a salad – so no grain. Just the spices. Or some kind of Curry Chicken with veggies and sesame seeds. Not the seeds in trail mix – apt to be eaten by the hand-full.

    Thank you for any info you can give 🙂

  10. What is the point of asking questions when they are never answered???????????

  11. What is the point of asking questions here? I think people looking for answers should rely on those people who have “been there and done that”. Scientific research is not up to the task. You gain (or lose) only if you try out something new. We are individuals first, with a shared genome and 21st Century environment. Whether you sleep in a hayloft, bathe in the Ganges, breathe the air in Beijing, eat with your fingers, walk 10 miles a day or spend your time flying in a jet plane, you who are lucky enough to have some free will might be stronger for trying something older than all of us.

    1. Yes I can understand your frustration , I want to put a query up but I can’t see the point as no one replys…..Have asked 10 Doctors so far but they just won’t listen…….Have noticed that they never ask questions either……..So maybe if you spoke to your Doctor you might be luckier than me……..Good luck anyway….Maddie.