Did you know that inflammation plays a role in cancer, heart disease and diabetes?
Find out how this “good” disease-fighting mechanism can damage your body if left unchecked.
Across the globe, three out of every five people die due to chronic inflammatory diseases such as stroke, heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.
When you think of inflammation, you’d be correct to think of the swelling, redness and pain you experience after a cat scratched you or after you accidentally cut yourself.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s immune response to an irritant. It also forms an important part of the body’s defence mechanism against disease and injury. The irritant may be bacteria, a virus or a parasite, or it can be a foreign object such as a splinter in your finger. Acute inflammation starts the moment your body starts to fight the irritant. As part of this process, your immune system releases white blood cells to surround and protect the injured area.
Too much of a good thing
While inflammation is a natural process, it can sometimes go on for a very long time. When this happens, you’re said to have chronic inflammation. This is a slow process that can go on for months or years without you even knowing about it.
When you have chronic inflammation, your immune system continues to respond as if it’s under attack or threatened by an irritant. Your body carries on producing white blood cells and chemical messengers, even though the irritant may no longer be there.
“When this happens, white blood cells may end up attacking nearby healthy tissues and organs,” Harvard Men’s Health Watch explains. “For example, if you’re overweight and have more visceral fat cells (the deep type of fat that surrounds your organs) the immune system may see those cells as a threat and attack them with white blood cells. The longer you’re overweight, the longer your body can remain in a state of inflammation.”
What causes chronic inflammation?
Chronic inflammation can be caused by ongoing exposure to an irritant or recurrent episodes of acute inflammation. It can also be caused by an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue. Examples are rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
Risk factors for chronic inflammation
• Increased age, obesity
• A diet rich in saturated fat, trans-fats and/or refined sugar
• Sleep problems
• Low levels of the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen
The good news is that certain medications (e.g. aspirin, ibuprofen and biologics) can help thwart chronic inflammation. Lifestyle changes such as following a healthy diet, minimising stress, sleeping sufficiently and exercising regularly can also help to control it, thereby decreasing your risk for chronic disease.
Good to know
Understanding how chronic inflammation affects your body can help you to live a longer, healthier life. It can also lead to a better conversation between you and your doctor, and speed up treatment and prevention, the Harvard Medical School says.
If you’re worried that your lifestyle could be putting you at risk for chronic inflammation, or that you may already have an autoimmune or other chronic disease, it’s important to check in with your doctor.
By Carine Visagie
The content on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.