It’s the first line of defence against infection and repairs bodily harm, but there’s another side to inﬂammation that threatens rather than protects our overall health
Negative as the word sounds, inﬂammation is actually our body’s natural reaction to burns, infections and injuries. It’s a normal immune system defense and kicks in when our bodies are under attack.
However, scientific research shows that in some people this defense mechanism doesn’t switch off, which means the body’s defenses turn in on themselves, attacking our good health.
Scientists believe this puts us more at risk of developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease. This happens when the a cute inﬂammation that our body uses to fight infections turns into life-changing chronic inﬂammation.
Scientific findings on chronic inﬂammation
- In obese people, inﬂammatory proteins triggered in the enlarged fat cells have been linked to metabolic conditions such as insulin resistance.
- Cancerous tumors can set off an immune response causing inﬂammatory chemicals to fuel tumor growth.
- Recent studies into Alzheimer’s disease have revealed that higher numbers of microglia, a group of immune cells, linger in sufferers’ brains than in those with a healthy brain.
- Research has found chronic inﬂammation inﬂuences the formation of artery-blocking clots, which are the ultimate cause of heart attacks and many strokes.
- A new school of thought also links depression to a physiological response, rather than treating it as a state of mind. Earlier this year, scientists at King’s College London found a link between blood inﬂammation and increased oxidative stress on the brain, which disrupts brain signalling and leads to depressive symptoms. Now researchers are keen to explore whether this inﬂammatory response in the brain is the reason antidepressants (which target the emotion neurotransmitters in the brain) are ineffective in some patients. They also want to find out whether certain people are more susceptible to inﬂammation because of genetics, stress or both.
Risk, detection and treatment
THERE ARE MANY FACTORS that may inﬂuence whether chronic inﬂammation occurs, including illness and genetics. But research has also revealed that our lifestyle plays an important part – this includes a poor diet, being overweight, smoking, stress and excessive alcohol consumption.
Worryingly, there are very few symptoms of chronic inﬂammation itself – it usually only comes to light as the cause of another serious condition.
However, a blood test measuring levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) can be carried out to determine whether there is inﬂammation in the body (see Testing for inﬂammation, below). CRP levels become elevated by infection and long-term disease, and the test is used to:
- Check for infection after surgery
- Monitor an infection or disease that can cause inﬂammation, such as inﬂammatory bowel disease or rheumatoid arthritis
- Monitor the treatment of a disease or infection.
While the CRP test can’t identify exactly where the problem lies in the body, increased levels may prompt other tests to be carried out. ‘Treatment of chronic inﬂammation usually involves a number of factors,’ explains HFG expert and GP Dawn Harper. ‘It may include painkillers, anti-inﬂammatory drugs, physiotherapy or weight management – particularly if weight-bearing joints, such as the knees, are involved.’
A blood test can detect a family of proteins in our blood stream known as inﬂammatory bio-markers. Collectively called cytokines, they are produced by the cells of the immune system and stimulate the production of CRP, an inﬂammatory marker that is produced by the liver in response to inﬂammation.
Levels of CRP in the blood are raised when we have an infection or injury, but once the healing process starts, they should return to normal. Consistently high levels of CRP may be an indication of chronic inﬂammation and long-term health issues such as heart disease.
The diet remedy
WHAT WE EAT can have a significant impact. In fact, the link between diet and inﬂammation is so strong scientists have developed the Dietary Inﬂammation Index (DII), which scores foods for their positive or negative effects on chronic inﬂammation.
The Different Types Of Inflammation
1. ACUTE INFLAMMATION
This is the visible, short-term form that most of us are familiar with – a bump, a bruise or healing cut that lasts for a few days. ‘Think about a splinter in your finger or an abscess on a tooth,’ explains Dr Donna Arnett, chair and professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama. ‘Our body launches an attack with our white blood cells and chemicals that results in redness and swelling to kill the bacteria or rid the body of the intruder.’
2. CHRONIC INFLAMMATION
This is when the immune system is constantly responding to substances it sees as a threat. These substances can seem harmless at the outset, such as certain foods, or be more obvious risk factors such as smoking.
Chronic inﬂammation can lead to poor gut health, which in turn causes symptoms such as heart burn, IBS, fat storage and insulin resistance. It also poses perhaps the biggest threat to our long-term physical and mental health, triggering conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, high cholesterol, Alzheimer’s disease and many cancers.
Natural Ways To Fight It
Good news – your risk of chronic inﬂammation can be reduced. First, if you smoke, quit. Next on your checklist are these:
- EAT A HEALTHY DIET: Include as many anti inﬂammatory foods, such as fresh fruit and veg, in your daily diet as possible.
- REACH AND MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT: Healthy eating and exercise will help you lose weight. One study found overweight or obese post-menopausal women who lost at least 5% of their body weight through diet and exercise reduced their risk of inﬂammation by almost half.
- DEAL WITH STRESS: While some stress is unavoidable, too much can cause inﬂammation. Explore ways to manage your stress levels to reduce your risk, such as exercise, meditation and yoga, a long soak in the bath or talking it out with a close friend or relative.
Amanda Ursell’s storecupboard saviours
Veg and Pulses
Both are full of antioxidants, including polyphenols, which may help fight inﬂammation. Try onions, broccoli, tomatoes, kale and spinach, and pulses such as butter beans, lentils, haricot and red kidney beans. Carrots, peppers and dark green leafy vegare a good source of carotenoids, which may help lower CRP levels
- How much? At least three 80g servings each day
Wholegrain Starchy Carbs
Wholegrain foods add fiber to your diet, which appears tolower CRP. Think wholemeal bread, pitta and tortilla wraps, wholewheat pasta and brown rice, and wholegrain breakfast cereals such as porridge oats, Weetabix and Shredded Wheat.
- How much? One serving with every main meal
Studies have associated nuts with reduced CRP, so snacking on a handful of almonds, walnuts and cashews, for example, might be a good idea. Choose unsalted nuts with skins, ideally.
- How much? A 30g handful as a snack or part of a main meal
All berries are packed with anti-inflammatories. Also include in your daily diet apples, oranges and any seasonal fruit that’s good value for money.
How much? At least two 80g servings each day
Full of heart-friendly mono unsaturated fats, olive oil also gives us antioxidants and contains oleocanthal, a compound scientists say can help reduce inﬂammation.
How much? As a guide, 1tbsp a day in cooking or dressings.
The omega-3 fats in oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines help reduce CRP and interleukin-6, two inﬂammation-promoting proteins in our bodies.
How much? Aim for at least one serving a week
Coﬀee and tea both contain polyphenols and other compounds that may protect against inﬂammation. Be sure to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, too.
How much? Around 3–4 cups of coﬀee or tea a day is fine. If you’re pregnant, stick to 1–2 cups and have no more than 200mg caﬀeine daily (this also includes other caﬀeine-containing drinks)
What Not To Eat?
Filling up on natural, fresh and plant-based foods helps to minimize your intake of inﬂammatory foods.
Inﬂammatory foods include:
- refined starchy carbohydrates
- fried foods
- high-fat or sugary puddings
- sugary drinks
- large portions of red meat
- processed meats, such assausages and burgers
Regular intake of these foods will also contribute to weight gain, which itself increases the risk of inﬂammation.
Your anti-inﬂammatory meal plan
Ready to make changes to your diet? Keep inﬂammation in check with Amanda’s easy-to-follow menu.
50g low-sugarmuesli with 1 handful blueberries and 150ml skimmed or unsweetened almond milk
30g handful almonds
1 wholemeal pitta flled with ½ can tuna in spring water mixed with 3tbsp canneds weetcorn (both drained) and1tbsp light mayo. Plus 1 chopped apple and 1 orange topped with a 170g pot fat-free Greek yogurt
4 oatcakes with 4tbsp reduced-fat hummus and cucumber sticks
Medium portion homemade veggie chilli served with 1 baked potato, 30g reduced fat cheddar and salad. Plus a serving of stewed rhubarb with sweetener
1,693kcal, 53.9g fat, 11.6g saturates,76.1g sugars, 4.2g salt
2 scrambled eggs served on 2 slices toasted wholemeal bread with 2tsp low-fat spread and 1 grilled tomato.
1tbsp sultanas and 30g unsalted cashews
1 wholemeal tortilla wrap flled with ½ small sliced avocado, ½ small ball reduced-fat mozzarella and a handful rocket. Plus 1 slice cantaloupe melon
1 skinny latte with 1 pear
Stew made with 1 skinless chicken breast, 2 handfuls butternut squash,½ onion, 1 carrot, 4tbsp pearl barley and 200ml reduced-salt stock.
Plus 1 apple 1,738kcal, 55.4g fat, 16.5g saturates, 88.4g sugars, 4g salt
Porridge made with 4tbsp oats and 275ml skimmed milk, topped with 1tbsp sesame seeds and 3 dried apricots
30g unsalted peanuts
2 slices wholemeal breadflled with 100g low-fat cottage cheese mixed with diced 6 cucumber. Plus 2 satsumas
3 rye crispbreads topped with 1 sliced hard-boiled egg and 1 sliced tomato.
Stir-fry made from 150g salmon steak, 1tsp olive oil and lots of stir-fry vegetables (eg spring onions, carrots, peppers and broccoli), served with 1 layer of dried wholewheat noodles, boiled. Plus 1 grilled banana with 1 small pot low-fat plain fromage frais.
1,757kcal, 64.6g fat, 13.1g saturates, 82g sugars, 2.9g salt