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If you’ve been keeping up on your health news, even in passing, you’ve probably heard the term inflammation being thrown around a lot lately. What is it? Well, it’s actually quite a complex bodily response which is neither all bad, nor all good. As Joyce Hendley explains in her essay, The Hidden Health Factor” in the Special Edition of Eating Well (2022) “Inflammation is the way the body responds to infections and injuries, with the immune system releasing white blood cells and other factors to fight off invading pathogens and speed healing.” But while acute inflammation is the reason why your body can respond appropriately to an ankle sprain, cut, or bruise, when your immune system goes into overdrive your body can suffer from chronic or systemic inflammation. Sound bad? Well, it is! According to Hendley, more than half of all world-wide deaths can be attributed to inflammation-related disease. Indeed, inflammation plays a negative role in everything from heart disease, to diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. While the platelets and white blood cells that your body marshals over a short period to repair your sprain, cut or bruise are a normal part of your healing process, according to Jeanette Bennett (Associate Professor of Biological and Health Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte) with chronic inflammation the “immune system misfires” and the exact same “chemical messengers” are released in substantially larger numbers that misrecognize healthy functions as “invaders”.

So, what are the signs of chronic inflammation? Vivian P. Bykerk, M.D. (Rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery, NYC) cautions that there are no “classic signs” of early chronic inflammation. Instead, a rather vague cluster of systems include body aches, fatigue, mood changes, painful or stiff joints, brain fog, digestive issues (bloating, constipation, and diarrhea), increased blood pressure, heartburn, skin irritations, and weight gain. According to Dr. Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D., if you’re the one who always seems to catch the cold that’s going around the office or if you’re prone to being “hangry” (irritability linked to low blood sugar), you may also be suffering from chronic inflammation. Unfortunately, the CRP (C-reactive protein) tests now used to predict cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases by measuring inflammatory markers have not been proven effective in the testing of other inflammation related diseases.

But all hope is not lost. The same scientists who have been busy unpicking the role that inflammation plays in making us sick and unhealthy have also been discovering the rather simple ways that we can bring our inflammatory responses into balance. At the heart of this is a varied and nourishing diet that includes getting most of our nutrition from plants – think fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains. You see, plants contain the antioxidants and insoluble fibre that can prevent or reduce the damage cause by inflammation. This same fibre also helps support a healthy microbiome, feeding the good bacteria in the gut and helping to maintain a healthy weight to keep you out of the vicious cycle that binds weight gain to chronic inflammation. Evidence suggests that foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids – like fatty fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds – also help to control some of the not-so-good substances produced by the body’s inflammatory response.

So, remember, your chronic stomach upset, moodiness, and joint pain are not a “normal” part of aging. Instead, you may have chronic inflammation. Now that you know, you can make healthier choices.