You may already know, or think you know, that inflammation is a bad thing. But is it? Here we’ll give you the lowdown on what inflammation is and when it’s bad and when it’s not.
What Is Inflammation?
In basic terms, inflammation is a natural response by the body to protect itself against harm. Contrary to what you might think or have been told, inflammation is not, in itself, bad. In fact, it’s essential. Without it, even a small cut could go bad, with potentially life-threatening consequences.
Think of inflammation as your body’s way of signalling that the immune system should go to work to protect it.
There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
- Acute inflammation usually occurs for a short period and is usually severe. It tends to resolve in two weeks or less, with symptoms appearing quickly. This kind of inflammation restores your body to its state before injury or illness.
- Chronic inflammation is a much less immediately severe form of inflammation and typically lasts longer than six weeks. It can occur even when there’s no injury, and it doesn’t always end when the illness or injury is healed. Chronic inflammation has been linked to autoimmune disorders, prolonged stress, obesity and diet.
You’re probably more familiar with the acute type, which occurs when you cut your finger, for instance, or bang your knee. As a result of the injury, your immune system dispatches huge numbers of white blood cells to surround and protect the area, leading to visible redness and swelling. The process works in a similar way if you have an infection, such as a cold or the flu.
This inflammation typically has five basic signs:
- loss of function
The specific symptoms you suffer will depend on where in the body the inflammation occurs, as well as what’s causing it. Stomach inflammation will not, obviously, cause visible redness.
Bad inflammation: Chronic
Chronic inflammation, however, is a different story. Having an over-reactive immune system – i.e. an immune system that is always on high alert – is a bad thing, because it exhausts the body and also leads to the accumulation over time of damage to tissues, with unpleasant or even potentially fatal effects. Chronic inflammation can even lead to auto-immune disorders where the body actually starts to attack itself.
Chronic inflammation can occur for a wide variety of reasons. It often occurs, for instance, in response to some unwanted substance in the body, such as the toxins from cigarette smoke or an excess of belly fat.
In the short term, it may be advisable to avoid certain vitamins or supplements around training as it may hamper the body’s ability to recover as nutrients and proteins are shuttled to damaged cells.
In the case of atherosclerosis, it is inflammation that helps to initiate the condition, as fatty plaques begin to form on the inside of the blood vessels. These plaques are identified as ‘hostile’ by the body, which attempts to wall them off to separate them from the blood. If the wall breaks down, the plaque can rupture. The fragments then mix with the blood, forming a clot that blocks the blood flow. Blood clots are responsible for most heart attacks and strokes.
Obesity is a common cause of chronic inflammation, and understanding the relationship between the two has taken on an increasing urgency as more and more people around the world become overweight or obese.
As the authors of a paper on the association between obesity and chronic inflammation explain:
‘this status is conditioned by the innate immune system activation in adipose tissue that promotes an increase in the production and release of pro-inflammatory cytokines that contribute to the triggering of the systemic acute-phase response which is characterized by elevation of acute-phase protein levels.’
Or, to put it in layman’s terms, fat tissue makes the body produce more of a particular kind of immune cell, and these in turn increase the level of inflammation within the body. We’ve already looked at how, in a not dissimilar way, fat tissue causes the body to produce more estrogen, which can produce a weight-gain cascade — prompting a massive lose-lose in your body as you’re more prone to sickness and producing less testosterone, setting you in motion for a vicious cycle.
As a result, chronic inflammation is part and parcel of ‘various chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and some cancers, among others, which are also characterized by obesity condition’
Of course, obesity is also linked to diet, and there is no doubt that certain foods and diets can drive inflammation up. Vegetable oil, for instance, is now coming to be recognised as a truly evil, pro-inflammatory food – we’ve called it ‘one of the worst things you can eat’, and vegetable-oil-laden processed food a ‘food that will make you ugly’.
Click here to read about the Nestlé ‘floating supermarket’ that’s been blamed for fuelling an obesity crisis in the Amazon, affecting children as young as 7, who are left with severe health problems.
Vegetable oil consumption has been linked to inflammatory damage to the gut and microbiome, including leaky gut, dysbiosis, and also, believe it or not, to changes to the genetic regulation of inflammation, leading to a myriad of health issues down the road.
As you might expect, inflammation is regulated by the body’s genes, and vegetable oil may even alter the expression of the genes responsible for controlling it. In a recent article, we discussed the shock findings of a study showing that soybean oil, the most widely consumed oil in the United States, caused significant genetic dysregulation in mice, affecting ‘genes associated with inflammation, neuroendocrine, neurochemical, and insulin signalling, as well as the production of oxytocin, an important hormone’.
In addition to its pro-inflammatory effects, vegetable oil consumption has been linked to:
- The transportation of toxins into the brain
- Damage to the arteries and blood vessels
- Immune system dysfunctions and nerve degeneration
- Damage to cell structure
- Damage to genetic material and increased rates of genetic mutation
What Can You Do?
The RICE method is one way of managing acute inflammation, especially after an injury
Given what we’ve said about the causes of chronic inflammation, it should be obvious that getting in shape and avoiding certain foods, especially vegetable oil and processed food, are good ways to reduce the inflammatory load your body is under.
Be wary that your approach to combatting delayed onset muscle soreness will vary to the above as you will want to induce more blood flow into the affected areas.
But there are plenty of other things you can do, including eating certain anti-inflammatory foods and taking anti-inflammatory supplements. We’ll be back soon with another article, on strategies to minimise chronic inflammation as much as possible.
Avoid alcohol in excess, get ample sleep, and make adequate lifestyle changes that will support positive changes that could have profound, yet positive effects on your quality of life.
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