Causes of Inflammation in the Body & Foods that Can Help
Fever, swelling, redness, pain… these symptoms of inflammation can make day-to-day tasks unbearable. From working on a computer to walking to the bathroom, a day at work can feel like a lifetime. Not to mention the agony of inflammation-related limitations on leisure time, family events, and social outings. Fortunately, causes of inflammation in the body are well-known and many symptoms can even be alleviated by certain foods.
Biologically, inflammation is a sign of healthy healing, as well as an indicator that something foreign has irritated the body. When the body senses an intruder, it launches an automatic response to try to remove it. Cue the release of antibodies and pathogen-killing chemicals, which cause fluids to leak from blood vessels into tissues, causing swelling.
The assailant could be a foreign object (like a thorn or bee sting), an irritant, or a pathogen (i.e. bacteria, virus, or other infection-causing organisms). Sometimes, the body may even mistake its own cells or tissues as harmful, leading to autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes.
Before we dive into specific causes of inflammation in the body, it’s important to note that there are two main types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
Acute, or short-term, inflammation is the result of injury or illness and may last a few days to about six weeks.
Signs of acute inflammation include:
- Pain – Can be ongoing or occur only when the area is touched
- Redness – This is the result of increased blood supply to the capillaries in the affected area
- Loss of function – Swelling in any area may make it difficult to use that part of the body (i.e. moving a joint may be difficult due to injury and sense of smell may be limited when swelling occurs in the nose)
- Swelling – Fluids increase in the area thanks to the body’s biological response. A condition called edema can develop if fluids build up
- Heat – The area may become warm to the touch due to increased blood flow
Symptoms of chronic, or long-term, inflammation may range from mild to severe and last months or years.
In addition to the symptoms present in acute inflammation, symptoms of chronic inflammation may include:
- Mouth sores
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
Common Causes of Inflammation in the Body
Acute inflammation is the result of illness, injury, or exposure to a substance (like a bee sting or dust). Other common causes of acute inflammation include:
- Acute bronchitis, appendicitis (and other illnesses ending in “-itis”
- Allergic reactions
- Chemical irritants
- Trauma injury
- Foreign bodies (thorns, bee sting, dust, etc.)
On the other hand, common causes of chronic inflammation include various diseases like:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Autoimmune disease
- Arthritis or other joint diseases
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Chronic inflammation may also be the result of untreated acute inflammation or long-term exposure to irritants like industrial chemicals or air pollution.
Additionally, there is not always a clear cause of chronic inflammation, leaving many people with severe pain and minimal answers.
That said, several factors may increase the risk of chronic inflammation, including older age, smoking, stress, and a diet that is rich in unhealthy fats and added sugar.
If you suspect inflammation (with or without a clear cause), inflammatory blood work can help you understand your body’s reaction. These blood work profiles test levels of certain antibodies that are present when the body reacts to various irritants.
How Chronic Inflammation Affects the Body
While inflammation is part of the body’s natural immune system response, it can result in negative side effects over time.
Eventually, your body’s natural inflammatory response can damage healthy cells, tissues, and organs, which can result in DNA damage, tissue death, and internal scarring.
Foods that Fight Inflammation
- Olive oil
- Leafy greens (like kale and spinach)
- Fatty fish
- Fruits (especially cherries, blueberries and oranges)
- Vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower are great for fighting inflammation)
- Dark chocolate
- Green tea
- Red wine (one to two servings — 5 ounces for women and 10 for men — per day)
You’ll also want to consider foods that can cause inflammation in some people. These include:
- Refined carbohydrates
- Fried foods
- Red meat
- Processed meat (hot dogs, sausage, etc.)
- Foods and drinks with added sugars