Inflammation can affect your muscles

What Does Inflammation Do to The Body? Beginner’s Guide

Published: May 2022

We tend to think of inflammation as a bad thing—and in many, many cases, it is. But if it’s bad, why does it happen? Are there legitimate reasons for inflammation? And most importantly, are there ways to recognize inflammation—and get it to subside, if and when you’re suffering from it?

The answers to these and other questions you might have about inflammation are all here. Some of these inflammation facts, inflammation-reducing foods and diseases associated with inflammation will be old news—but other conditions and signs of inflammation may surprise you. Let’s get started!

What is inflammation?

If you’ve ever stubbed your toe, had a stuffy nose, or been stung by a bee, you’ve had first-hand experience with inflammation: a part of your body’s defense systems that reacts to injuries, infections or other insults (those bee stings hurt, man). But there’s more than one kind of inflammation.

In fact, there’s either two or three, depending on how you think about it. Acute inflammation, chronic inflammation and a middle-of-the-road kind called subacute inflammation. Let’s explore acute inflammation first, and then chronic inflammation.

Acute inflammation

Acute inflammation happens when you get injured, sick, or otherwise physically infringed upon. (Think infections and the like.) The physiological process of acute inflammation happens fairly quickly—whether it's redness at the site of an insect bite or that annoying postnasal drip that accompanies a respiratory infection. You should know that acute inflammation, while often uncomfortable, is generally beneficial—it’s how your body starts the process of dealing with injured tissue, infection or other unwanted insults. But what is actually doing all this?

There are quite a few different compounds in the “recipe” for an inflammatory reaction. Science calls them mediators—they’re chemical and protein messengers released from cells like neutrophils that get the inflammatory party going at the location on your body where you got hurt, infected, etc. They have many names: cytokines, chemokines, the list goes on. For simplicity’s sake, we can just call them “inflammatory factors.”

Another important thing to know about acute inflammation: the inflammatory signs are not supposed to last more than a couple of weeks or so. If they do, then what you’re looking at is now called subacute inflammation, where your body’s acute inflammatory response didn’t successfully take care of the injury or infection, and things linger on for a while. When the problem and the inflamed state (even if it’s relatively mild) doesn’t go away after several months, that is called — as you might have guessed — chronic inflammation.

Chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation is different. While it may or may not have started its nefarious existence as acute inflammation, by the time inflammation is considered chronic, it is a whole different animal. Chronic inflammation occurs when the natural processes your body uses to protect itself start doing more harm than good, affecting healthy tissue. In fact, chronic inflammation is closely linked to the who’s-who of serious degenerative diseases.

Sometimes, the chronic inflammation causes the disease; other times the chronic inflammation is just a symptom. Key takeaway here: chronic inflammation is bad and should be avoided at all costs and treated as quickly and completely as possible when and where it occurs.

What is “inflammaging”?

Inflammaging is the merging of the words "inflamm-" and "aging." (I swear I’m not making this word up.) The very condition of getting older is marked by symptoms of low-grade, persistent (that’s chronic) inflammation. Underlying inflammation and the unwanted aspects of getting older (memory loss, heart disease, cancer — you get the picture) are so intertwined that experts have actually meshed the two terms into one: “inflammaging.”

Important key takeaways: most, if not all, age-related diseases go hand-in-hand with an inflammatory process of some sort. And while chronic, low-grade inflammation may seem merely inconvenient and manageable, it’s always there—and it’s chipping away at your health and longevity. So finding ways to manage, treat and ultimately resolve chronic inflammation is necessary to avoid inflammaging—and with it, many of the negative health consequences of aging.

What are the 5 classic signs of inflammation?

Anytime something is inflammatory, you can take that as sign that something’s wrong. But what about the signs of inflammation itself? Here’s a quick guide to tell if you’ve got an acute inflammatory response. (Think something’s really wrong? See a doctor.)

1. Heat

Is the area “hot” to the touch? When inflammation occurs, your white blood cells release chemicals that help increase blood flow, in order to begin healing and protecting injured or damaged tissue. This makes your nearby skin feel warm to the touch.

2. Redness

Inflamed areas will often appear red. This inflammatory reaction happens for the same reason as “heat”: the increase in blood flow close to the surface of your skin will cause the area to deepen in color.

3. Swelling

Swelling at the site of an injury is the result of acute inflammation: blood flow to the injured area increases to allow fluid, proteins and white blood cells to get to the damaged tissue. And while it’s part of the healing process, swelling can impede movement—and hurt!

4. Pain

Acute inflammation activates special nerve cells that conduct pain signals to the brain, creating tenderness and pain. This pain serves a purpose in healing, as it keeps us off a sore ankle and gets us to seek out help (an ice pack, medical care, etc.) for what ails us.

5. Loss of function

Pain and swelling often team up to put the inflamed part of your body temporarily out of commission. While this is inconvenient remember that tissue is damaged, so using it is probably ill-advised.

Signs & symptoms of chronic inflammation

As nasty as acute inflammation can be, chronic inflammation is worse because it often goes unnoticed, causing long-term damage in tissues while you go about your day-to-day business. What if you’re “lucky” enough (or unlucky, to be more precise) to experience things that could be signs or symptoms that might accompany chronic inflammation? What should you be looking for?

  • Fever

  • Joint pain or stiffness

  • Mouth sores

  • Skin rash

If you are experiencing signs or symptoms like these, they could be a sign of something more serious:

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus)

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus

A note on autoimmune diseases like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis: with these conditions, many of the classic signs of inflammation might be present. Common chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis are often accompanied by chronic inflammation, but typically won't have symptoms in and of themselves.

How does inflammation affect your body?

Inflammation is part of your body’s healing process: a fever helps your immune system fight infection, pain and swelling keep you off that sprained ankle so it can repair itself. But inflammation that lasts interrupts both the healthy structure and intended function of the inflamed tissue. Even low-level inflammation, if it lasts, can be detrimental to your health…in several different ways.

Joint pain and inflammation

Joint pain is all too common. However, not all joint pain is caused by inflammation in the joint itself: there are ligaments, tendons and muscles just outside the joint that can cause pain…whether they’re inflamed or not. Similarly, joints can be inflamed without it necessarily hurting. Even people with arthritis (probably the most common joint-inflammation disease) aren’t always in pain.

So how can you tell if you’re experiencing acute or chronic joint inflammation? Well, first off remember that if your inflamed joint goes away in a couple of weeks or sooner, it was acute inflammation. Secondly, assess whether it’s just one joint or several (be it fingers, toes, knees, etc.). This is because similarly, chronic pain across multiple joints can be a tell-tale symptom of arthritis.

A word on arthritis: there are two types of arthritis. The most common, osteoarthritis, is defined as the degeneration of joint cartilage and with it, the underlying bone. There’s inflammation at work in osteoarthritis, but not as much as you think—and it’s rarely the primary cause.

The other kind of arthritis is much rarer. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition where your own immune system attacks healthy tissue—in this case in the delicate soft tissue in your joints. Rheumatoid arthritis IS characterized by inflammation, as well as painful deformity and loss of function.

Inflammation and weight gain

The relationship between weight and inflammation is a complicated one. Inflammation doesn’t cause weight gain, but excess weight can contribute to chronic, often unnoticeable, but destructive inflammation.

Losing weight is one of the healthiest things you can do for your body, if that needle on the scale keeps creeping higher year after year. It is the single best way to avoid diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even may even reduce your chance of developing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This is because excess body fat can create inflammation in your organs and other nearby tissue. You won’t see this inflammation because it’s not acute. But that extra weight can keep you from getting regular moderate exercise, one of the best anti-inflammatory practices there is. It can also contribute to the development of high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. And that in turn has a negative impact on your overall health and longevity down the road.

(Side note: it’s true that not everyone who is overweight will suffer the ill effects of inflammation—there is a concept called “metabolically healthy obesity” that does apply to certain individuals. Defer to your physician on whether that term applies to you, or if you have other health concerns suggesting that you should be tackling inflammation by losing weight.)

Inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease

Chronic and persistent inflammation in your brain is a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. It contributes to other neurodegenerative diseases as well. You won’t feel it (it’s not acute inflammation, and besides the brain does not have pain-sensitive nerve endings) and in most people the progression to Alzheimer’s progresses extremely slowly and can be difficult to pick up on. But managing inflammation (including eating an anti-inflammatory diet) can help you keep your brain healthy.

Inflammation and cancer

Generally speaking, it’s debatable that inflammation outright causes cancer. That said, there are correlations between inflammation and certain types of cancer (colorectal cancer, which people with inflammatory bowel disease are at a greater risk for, comes to mind). Inflammation can also make it easier for tumors to grow. And chronic infectious hepatitis, an inflammatory condition, is one of the culprits behind many cases of liver cancer.

Inflammation and heart disease

Chronic inflammation in your blood vessels—especially the arteries that supply blood to your heart muscle itself—is actually one of the leading reasons for heart disease. Chronic inflammation can also lead to high blood pressure, which also negatively effects cardiovascular health.

As if that weren’t bad enough, here’s the kicker: acute inflammation at the site of damage in your blood vessels is what kicks off the chain-reaction that can lead to a heart attack or stroke—and in many cases, death.

Are there natural ways to reduce inflammation?

As we’ve covered, acute inflammation is a natural defensive mechanism—but it can become a real problem if it hangs around long enough to morph into chronic inflammation. So resolving inflammation is as important, just as inhibiting or preventing inflammation is in the first place.

Good news: there are ways to manage your inflammation, many of them simple lifestyle tweaks. While there are specific medical interventions you’ll need a doctor’s help pursuing, follow these tips to promote a healthy response to inflammation:

Exercise the inflammation away

We mentioned before that exercising helps reduce inflammation. First, moderate exercise produces an anti-inflammatory response at a chemical and cellular level (it also supports your immune system).

And of course, regular exercise and proper diet lead to weight loss, which is important for some people. Excess abdominal fat can contribute to inflammation and negatively affect your health, after all. But working up a sweat regularly in addition to an anti-inflammatory diet can help get you to your goal.

Eat an anti-inflammatory diet

Being aware of what you eat and actively curating your dietary habits is the first step towards managing or reducing inflammation. There are specific diets that work better than others, such as the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet.

The Mediterranean diet consists of whole grains, legumes, veggies, fruits, nuts, olive oil, and moderate consumption of protein from lean fish or chicken. It’s low in salt and saturated fat.

The DASH diet, developed to help people lower their blood pressure, is similar: it’s an eating plan that focuses on veggies, fruits and whole grains, while encouraging fat free and low-fat dairy, meat, beans and nuts. Both of these diets want you to avoid excess salt and sugar, which are triggers for inflammation.

These anti-inflammation diet strategies will help ensure you have an optimal omega-3 vs omega-6 balance. These two common fatty acid groups in our diet can have different influences on our inflammatory response. A diet high in omega-3 is anti-inflammatory.

Unfortunately, the typical Western diet (that’s us) is rife with omega-6 and low on omega-3, an imbalance that can interfere with the benefits of omega-3s, and that may be linked to chronic inflammation (and a whole bunch of unwanted health factors).

By following the DASH or Mediterranean diets, you will likely be eating a lot of the following anti-inflammatory nutrients:

Nutrients and foods that reduce inflammation

  • Omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardine and anchovies (although watch that last one—anchovies are often packed with salt)
  • Monosaturated fat from oils like olive oil, canola, high-oleic sunflower or safflower oil
  • Seeds and nuts like flax, pumpkin seeds and walnuts
  • Whole grains like quinoa, whole wheat, barley, oats and rye
  • Dark-colored fruit like cherries, blueberries and blackberries
  • Green & black tea (which both come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis)
  • Seaweed—believe it or not, this edible algae has potent anti-inflammatory properties

If these foods aren’t on your plate…well, perhaps they should be!

Additionally, certain nutritional compounds, such as specialized pro-resolving mediators from marine oil, encourage immune cells called macrophages to engulf and digest dying and dead cells at the site of the inflammation. They also help decrease pro-inflammatory mediators like cytokines and promote cellular regeneration, which repairs the damaged tissue. Right as rain!

As you can see, inflammation is either the main culprit or co-conspirator in some of the worst health conditions. But there are plenty of ways to avoid, manage and even resolve inflammation. Doing so will go a long way towards helping you live a happy, healthy and problem-free life for years to come.

References

By: John Gawley, Health & Wellness Writer

John Gawley graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in English before beginning his career as a technical writer, copy writer and content manager. John has extensive experience in the health and wellness field, and he is the Senior Copywriter at Life Extension.

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD