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I recently sat through a lecture about inflammation. As I scribbled notes, I was reminded just how complicated inflammation really is. Even as a dietitian, I get caught up in the “anti-inflammatory” movement, but the truth is, inflammation can be good or bad.
Think I’m crazy? Consider your body’s response to illness: a bacteria or virus enters your system, the body identifies it as a “foreign” substance and starts to attack it by releasing a complex mixture of immune cells. In the short term, this response can cause fever, water retention and pain; otherwise known as acute inflammation. In this case, inflammation is the process of getting rid of the “foreign” substance that is making you sick.
Now, think about your sore muscles after a good workout. Your body’s response to exercise includes an acute inflammatory response that makes your muscles sore and warm. This mechanism repairs damaged tissues, helps your muscles grow and protects them from future injury.
In both cases you don’t want to “fight” inflammation. You may want to control some of the inflammatory response symptoms like pain and fever, but the inflammation will naturally subside when your body heals.
On the other extreme, chronic inflammation has been linked to diseases like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and even Alzheimer’s. In chronic inflammation, the body continuously fires off immune mediators which cause low-grade inflammation that ultimately do damage to tissues and organs. Unfortunately, you don’t usually feel the effects of chronic inflammation; which means it’s hard to know when and how to control it.
Because it’s hard to identify, celebrities, athletes and probably your neighbor are all talking about the best way to combat chronic inflammation. While some foods, herbs and even “diets” claim to have “anti-inflammatory” benefits, the truth is that everyone’s body reacts differently to foods it encounters every day; and that reaction may be affected by other “stressors” like environment, mental stress, and physical activity, to name a few. That said, research does not support adding or eliminating specific foods to control chronic inflammation.