By Tracy Wright

When an infection strikes the body, it can trigger a certain response like a fever or a sore throat. Often, when a body sustains a blow, it signals an immune response known as inflammation. Most of us know the symptoms of inflammation: redness, pain and swelling. But, do we really understand its underlying causes and associated problems?

Just like any immune response, inflammation is triggered to help protect our bodies against harmful stimuli or damaged cells. For example, if you bang your shin, inflammation is the way your body responds to care for the wound. Blood flow increases and white blood cells storm the area, which can cause redness, swelling and warmth in the area. Cytokines are released which signals nutrients and immune cells to that part of the body.

Acute inflammation can be caused by a cut, a sore throat or a blow to the body. Once the healing process begins, acute inflammation typically goes away. Chronic inflammation, however, can be harmful to overall long-term health. This type of inflammation transmits low levels of immune response into the body even when there is no illness or wound, which may cause the body to attack its internal cells and organs, causing possible disease development.

Chronic inflammation can lead to adverse effects like heart disease and stroke. Inflammatory cells can build up plaque that can form a clot obstructing blood to the heart or brain. Chronic inflammation can also lead to cancer, or be a sign of a condition like rheumatoid arthritis. Other conditions associated with chronic inflammation include asthma, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, hepatitis and dermatitis.

Although chronic inflammation may not always be preventable, there are certain lifestyle and environmental factors that can contribute to it. Fighting against inflammation includes sustaining a healthy diet filled with omega-3 fats, which can help to protect harm from inflammation. This can include fish, especially fatty ones like salmon and mackerel, a variety of fruits and vegetables (especially leafy greens), nuts, and healthy fats like olive oil and avocado. Spices like ginger, rosemary and turmeric have also shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Diet changes also include avoiding foods with trans and saturated fats, like red meat and dairy, as well as foods containing refined sugar like white bread and sweet drinks.

To treat the pain associated with both acute and chronic inflammation, over-the-counter medications like Advil or Aleve are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) that help to fight pain from inflammation. Naproxen, ibuprofen and aspirin are all NSAIDS that can be found at any drugstore. People who choose to take NSAIDS over the long term should discuss this with their doctor, as there are side effects such as bleeding ulcers.

Prescription medications like corticosteroids can help to overcome inflammation, but patients should discuss the use of these medicines with their doctor and weigh the benefits with the side effects, which can include weight gain and severe bloating. Other ways to fight inflammation without medication include carving out time for both aerobic and weight-bearing exercise at least four times a week, getting a proper amount of sleep (at least 7-8 hours) and controlling stress. Yoga, meditation or prayer have all been shown to relieve stress.

*If patients have a family history of inflammatory diseases like heart disease, they should talk to their doctor about making lifestyle changes to prevent inflammation and always consult their doctor prior to taking any medications.*