What is inflammation and why do we need it?
Written by Justyna Wiraszka
Reading Time: 4 Minutes
The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks noncommunicable diseases among the top 10 greatest threats to human health. These are diseases that cannot be transmitted from one person to another, such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease. Although these three conditions might seem unrelated at first, they all have one thing in common: inflammation.
In this blog we will look further into what inflammation is, what can cause it, and whether it is actually good or bad for you. Finally, we will give you a few tips on how you can reduce or avoid inflammation.
Let’s dive in.
What is inflammation?
Although inflammation is a complex process, we will try to keep it simple here and spare you some of the details.
In a nutshell, inflammation is your immune system’s response to something damaging your body's tissues. If you have ever had a cut or scraped your knee, then you’ve probably experienced symptoms such as swelling, pain or redness around an injury before. That is inflammation at work.
Inflammation is an important physiological response to various triggers such as infection, tissue injury, trauma, radiation, or contact with chemical compounds (e.g. alcohol, glucose). It minimizes the damage, neutralizes the harmful factor and repairs damaged tissue.
In general, we can distinguish between two types of inflammation: chronic and acute. Acute inflammation is a short-term response to damaging factors such as cuts, while chronic inflammation is a prolonged reaction of the body to sustained injuries or a side effect of certain chronic diseases.
What causes inflammation?
Acute inflammation is usually caused by injuries such as sprains, or by conditions like bacterial infections and viruses that cause you to catch a cold. The acute inflammation process is swift and may be severe.
Chronic inflammation, or systemic chronic inflammation (SCI), cannot only be caused by various diseases, but several social, environmental, economic and lifestyle factors can lead to it as well. SCI is low-grade and persistent and causes serious damage to your tissues and organs over a long period of time.
SCI contributes to the development and progression of several diseases that are the leading cause of disability and mortality worldwide, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver, and autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. Alzheimer's). Additionally, chronic inflammation can impair your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections.
How does inflammation keep your body in balance?
The human body can thrive only in optimal conditions, or balance (or, more ‘medically’, in homeostasis), which is necessary for the maintenance of our good health and our survival.
There are many threats to this balance around us, such as bacterial or viral infections, as well as tissue-damaging injuries coming from cuts, frostbite, burns, toxins, alcohol, or chemical irritants such as nickel. When we do experience an infection or injury, for example, the immune system uses its toolset to restore our balance and keep us safe by launching a process of acute inflammation to neutralize these threats.
Is inflammation good or bad?
Inflammation is a natural response to factors that threaten our health. Therefore, we need inflammation to keep us safe from injuries or infections.
However, too much inflammation can also cause harm as SCI can damage your tissues over time, for example. Occasionally, “too much of a good thing becomes bad”, and acute inflammation becomes too intense, causing more harm than good and prolonging recovery time.
So, as with many things in life, it is important to keep a healthy balance between none and too much inflammation.
If inflammation is good, why do people use anti-inflammatory medication such as aspirin or ibuprofen?
As mentioned before, pain is one of the main side effects of inflammation, and as important it is to feel and to be aware that part of your body is asking for our attention, it can also be difficult to cope with.
To give you relief from pain, and by keeping inflammation more or less under control, different anti-inflammatory drugs have been developed. However, if we keep in mind the benefits of acute inflammation, it is clear that we should not be using these medications to stop inflammation completely, but rather to balance it out.
Perhaps the most famous ones are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen, as well as steroid ones, also known as corticosteroids, such as cortisone or prednisone. NSAIDs block some of the chemicals that are released during inflammation, thereby reducing its extent and relieving pain.
Corticosteroids are very powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that can block different parts of our immune system. As they can have severe side effects, they are only used for the treatment of diseases that cause exceptionally exaggerated inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
As mentioned, a variety of medications allows us to keep inflammation in check. For the best advice on medication and inflammation, you should consult with a healthcare professional.
Before you reach for medication, perhaps there is a way to tame inflammation by changing your lifestyle. Let’s look at some options.
How to reduce inflammation in your body
- Avoid inflammatory food such as highly processed food, alcohol, saturated fats, and red meat
- Eat anti-inflammatory food such as fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, fatty fish, seeds, and fresh herbs
- Drink plenty of water
- Exercise regularly. Research shows that regular exercise can help against long-term inflammation
- Get a good night's sleep. Studies hypothesize that sleep deprivation may affect inflammation, though more research is needed.
- Take care of your gut with pre- and probiotics
The Bloom Inflammation Test
As you are now aware of what inflammation is and how it can affect your health, are you curious to check whether you are affected by it? One way to check is to measure the level of C-Reactive Protein (CRP) in your blood.
CRP is a well-established indicator of inflammation widely used in clinical practice by healthcare professionals. It is a protein produced by the liver as part of the acute phase response to inflammation.
You can quickly and easily measure your CRP levels with the Bloom Inflammation Test. You can take the test in our flagship store in Zurich or at one of our partner locations. Find a Bloom partner near you here.
Kushner I. Furst DE, ed. UpToDate. Accessed May, 2022. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/acute-phase-reactants?search=Acute%20phase%20reactants&source=search_result&selectedTitle=1~150&usage_type=default&display_rank=1
Stone WL, Basit H, Burns B. Pathology, Inflammation. In: StatPearls. StatPearls http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534820. Published; 2021. Accessed May, 2022.
Calder PC, Ahluwalia N, Albers R, et al. A consideration of biomarkers to be used for evaluation of inflammation in human nutritional studies. Br J Nutr. 2013;109 Suppl 1:S1-34. doi:10.1017/S0007114512005119
Lothar T. Clinical Laboratory Diagnostics 2020. 10. electronic English edition (Clinical Laboratory Diagnostics 2020). https://www.clinical-laboratory-diagnostics-2020.com/k19.html
Pahwa R, Goyal A, Bansal P, Jialal I. Chronic Inflammation. In: StatPearls. Last Update: September 28, 2021. StatPearls http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173. Published; 2021. Accessed May, 2022.
Hannoodee S, Nasuruddin DN. Acute Inflammatory Response. In: StatPearls. Last Update: November 26, 2020. StatPearls http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556083. Published; 2021. Accessed May, 2022.
Furman D, Campisi J, Verdin E, et al. Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life span. Nat Med. 2019;25(12):1822-1832. doi:10.1038/s41591-019-0675-0
Sproston NR, Ashworth JJ. Role of C-Reactive Protein at Sites of Inflammation and Infection. Frontiers in Immunology. 2018;9:754. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2018.00754.
Mayo Clinic Laboratories. C-reactive protein, high sensitivity, serum. https://www.mayocliniclabs.com/test-catalog/Clinical+and+Interpretive/82047. Accessed May, 2022.