What Does Inflammation Really Mean? 10 Things You Should Know

At one time or another, everyone experiences inflammation. But there’s no need to panic, because it’s not always a bad thing. In fact, more often than not, it is simply a protective reaction by the immune system, according to the Huntington’s Outreach Program for Education. It’s the body’s natural response to combat minor health issues.

But when inflammation is prolonged, or something interferes with the process, that’s when it can lead to more serious conditions. So, what’s the purpose of inflammation? Is the inflammation you’re experiencing normal? Read on to learn how you can protect yourself against long-term damage.

1. Inflammation helps protect the body

an image of inflammation in the body

Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response. | iStock.com/Rost-9D

Inflammation is a process that helps protect us from internal and external threats, like viruses and harmful bacteria. HOPES says it’s one of our body’s most important natural defense mechanisms. Without it, we’d be much more susceptible to major and minor health issues — including injury, infection, stress, and problems linked to toxic chemicals, says Health.

The reaction is first triggered when living tissue is damaged, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. When the body notices this change, it begins the healing process by first creating a change in blood flow. This means blood vessels become more absorbent, which then allows more fluids and white blood cells to travel to the site of the attack in order to remove the damaged tissue. The usual outcome of a successful response is the elimination of harmful substances to repair what’s been damaged.

2. It’s normal to feel pain during inflammation’s protective response

woman holding her painful leg

A little pain during this process is completely normal. | iStock.com/kwanchaichaiudom

Since inflammation is the body’s way of protecting us from harmful substances, pain is a normal part of the reaction, which is why it’s often viewed in such a negative light. WebMD mentions we feel pain when fluid released by white blood cells leaks into damaged tissue. As a result, it’s common to experience warmth or redness from swelling around the area where there’s damage during the body’s natural healing process.

And when there’s too much congestion of inflammatory substances and cells in one area, it can create joint pain or stiffness. WebMD says symptoms like these are extremely common and can simply be the result of a sprain or strain. However, there are some cases when joint complications can be a warning sign of a more serious issue. In occurrences where pain doesn’t subside, or if the pain seems to have developed out of nowhere, it’s best to discuss your symptoms with your doctor.

3. There are different types of inflammation

woman in pain in her bed

Chronic inflammation can damage your cells over time. | iStock.com/AndreyPopov

There are two main types of inflammation, Live Science says — acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is temporary — the effects only last a matter of days at most. It’s the kind of inflammation that protects your cells from suffering too much damage. Chronic inflammation is the kind you should worry about. Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation is long term. If left untreated, it can actually start to damage your cells and tissues. If it goes on too long, consequences could become even more severe.

4. Long-term inflammation can lead to disease

man in pain with a swollen foot

Chronic inflammation can have negative health effects. | iStock.com

According to Live Science, chronic inflammation that results from certain conditions or poor health choices can eventually lead to serious issues, including heart disease. It can also lead to autoimmune conditions. The National Center for Biotechnology Information mentions some of them, including arthritis, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.

Because the cause of chronic inflammation isn’t always known, Mayo Clinic’s Health Letter says to avoid things that may increase the risk of inflammation. Some suggestions include following a healthy diet, avoiding tobacco use, and refraining from excessive alcohol consumption. Besides possibly reducing risk of chronic conditions, following these guidelines is ultimately better for your health overall.

5. Some foods could make your inflammation worse

a pile of sugar and a spoon

Added sugars are even worse than you thought. | iStock.com/stocksnapper

You’re much more likely to experience inflammation if you struggle with poor eating habits. For example, consuming large amounts of added sugars, Harvard Health says, can trigger inflammatory responses throughout your body. The same goes for processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and foods with too much sodium.

In a nutshell, diets rich in heavily processed foods are more likely to lead to chronic inflammation later on. People who get most of their calories from processed foods are also more likely to be obese, which is also a risk factor for chronic inflammation and related conditions.

6. Some foods might make it better

a meal of salmon, tomatoes, and asparagus

Certain ingredients in foods might be able to prevent inflammation in some cases. | iStock.com/Elena_Danileiko

Since a diet high in processed foods is so damaging to your body, it only makes sense that eating more whole, nutritious foods could have the opposite effect — in some cases. Livestrong notes foods high in vitamins C and E, as well as other antioxidants, tend to relieve the inflammation-causing physical stress that occurs as your body ages. And certain strains of probiotics, healthy fats, low-glycemic carbohydrates like quinoa, and omega-3 fatty acids also fight against inflammation and protect your body in the long term. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that eating these foods doesn’t prove effective if you continue to eat inflammation-triggering junk.

7. But anti-inflammatory diets aren’t scientifically sound

a big cut of steak

What you eat is important, but it’s not a cure-all. | iStock.com/Superanry

There’s no certain way of eating that’s guaranteed to cause or prevent inflammation-related diseases. Jeff Schweitzer, Ph.D., breaks down the truths and misconceptions about inflammation and disease in an article for The Huffington Post. He reminds readers inflammation is only one of many pieces that forms a number of diseases — not the root cause.

Inflammation, for example, does not cause diabetes. However, over-consuming processed foods can lead to inflammation, which can lead to insulin resistance, which can develop into type 2 diabetes. The two things are related, but inflammation is not exact the cause. This means certain foods might increase or decrease your risk for these diseases, but they are neither the sole cause nor the definite cure.

8. There’s a much better way to prevent inflammation

woman getting ready to exercise

Exercise will protect you. | iStock.com/GeorgeRudy

Exercise is good for more than just your waistline and your heart. Research has found physical activity can reduce inflammation markers in some people. When you work out — whether that’s walking, jogging, swimming, or playing a sport — your body produces specific hormones. These hormones activate receptors in your immune cells that reduce production of a certain type of protein that causes inflammation. Fewer of these proteins means you’re less likely to encounter persistent inflammation.

9. Psychological stress can also trigger an inflammatory response

man gripping a stress ball tightly

Find healthy ways to keep your stress levels at a minimum. | iStock.com/RobertoDavid

In the short-term, stress can give you a headache, mess with your appetite, and completely ruin your chances of a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, stress isn’t just a short-term burden. If you’re too stressed for too long, it might result in an inflammatory response. One study found chronic psychological stress interferes with your body’s ability to regulate an inflammatory response. This, in the long term, could have more of a negative impact on your health than you originally thought.

Again, this simply means you’re at much higher risk of developing certain diseases if you’re dealing with chronic inflammation, so you want to keep it under control. Managing stress can be difficult, especially if it’s stress you can’t just walk away from. However, in the long term, you never know — it might save your life.

10. The key to fighting inflammation is balance

woman tying the laces of her sneakers

There are a few things you can do to keep inflammation at bay. | iStock.com/fizkes

A little bit of inflammation is normal — it’s even good for you. Too much can severely impact your quality of life down the road, and managing the risk factors associated with chronic inflammation seems to be the best way to prevent and treat a number of diseases and conditions. While inflammation isn’t the cause of disease, reducing and preventing it can be an effective way to live longer, healthier, and better.

Balance is key. Exercise — but not too much. Eat a variety of foods — especially the most nutritious ones, antioxidants included. And do what you can to manage your stress. If you’re experiencing any type of inflammation that doesn’t seem to go away, discuss your options with your doctor to begin treating the problem before it does too much long-term destruction.

Sarah Kaye Santos also contributed to this story