Inflammation is usually thought of as a negative thing when it comes to our health. However there are some situations in which inflammation is of benefit and we should not try to stop it from occurring in these cases. On the other hand, systemic inflammation is now being linked to many chronic diseases from cancer to heart disease. Understanding how and when to reduce inflammation can improve health and healing.
Chronic systemic inflammation occurs throughout the body. Blood tests such as CRP (C- reactive protein) and ferritin can be used to gauge the level of inflammation. Symptoms often show up as headache, arthritis and swelling of joints. Long term inflammation is now believed to be a major contributor to heart disease. Systemic inflammation is also thought to interfere with weight loss. The most effective way to reduce inflammation is through nutrition. Cutting back on carbohydrates, especially highly processed ones including sugar, helps to reduce full body inflammation. The other key dietary contributors of inflammation are industrial cooking oils such as soy oil, canola oil and safflower oil. At Robinsong Health Low Carb Clinic I had one client who saw a significant decrease in swelling in just one week by eliminating these two groups of foods. After six months his ferritin, which had been more than double the healthy limit for a decade, was in the normal range. He was as happy with this as he was with his significant weight loss, because they both allowed him to be much more active.
Localized inflammation happens when an injury occurs, for example at a joint or muscle. Swelling is often visible. In the past when an injury occurred, such as a sprained ankle, we were told to reduce swelling by applying pressure, icing the area, and taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS). This, like much conventional medical wisdom, was never actually studied before it became common practice. There are still few studies on the effectiveness of reducing inflammation to speed healing. The majority of the studies which have been done suggest that treating acute inflammation is not beneficial and likely slows healing of both soft tissues and bones. This makes perfect sense. The body causes inflammation in response to an injury for a very good reason: to help it heal. The inflammatory response sends cascades of chemicals and cells to repair the damage. Limiting these with ice or drugs only reduces the ability of the body to fix things.
When does it make sense to take NSAIDS? Chronic injuries which continue to be inflamed beyond a normal time frame for repair– months after the injury, for example—may benefit from anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce swelling which is no longer of physiological benefit. In some cases chronic arthritis is best treated with NSAIDS as well. But the medication comes with side effects, especially when used long term. Stomach upset is the most common. There is also an increased risk of kidney disease, serious stomach bleeds, heart attack and stroke. Pain control for either an acute or chronic injury can often be achieved most safely with acetaminophen (Tylenol), which does not affect inflammation and does not carry the same risks as NSAIDS. Check with your doctor, NP, or pharmacist to see what is right for you.
Inflammation can mean many different things for our health. With an acute injury, inflammation is a good thing, promoting healing and recovery. Long term localized inflammation usually means that the injury has not healed properly. Systemic inflammation is not healthy and is best addressed with nutrition, not medication. Understanding inflammation and how best to deal with it can help you on your road to better health.