Taming the Flames
Better Nutrition|January 2022
How to beat back chronic inflammation and protect yourself from related disease.
By Emily Kane, ND, LAC. Photographs by Getty Images

Q:I’ve heard that all disease and pain is linked to inflammation at some level. Is that true? How can I prevent inflammation?

A First off, there are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. The acute type is a natural immune response to infection or injury. Think of it as the body’s way to repair damage. Acute inflammation occurs when you bang your elbow hard, cut your finger, or catch a bug. In these settings, inflammation is essential—without it, injuries could fester, and even simple infections like the common cold could become deadly.

The “workhorses” of the immune system are your white blood cells, which are basically cunning little sacks of enzymes that break open at the site of injury, dump their enzymes, and “digest” the debris of tissue damage or the mess created by the bad bugs. Because extra blood (which carries the white blood cells) is directed to the damaged area, that part of your body will temporarily become swollen, warm, red, and tender. These are the hallmarks of inflammation.

Chronic Inflammation

If your immune system works well and isn’t dealing with battles on multiple fronts, and your underlying health is good, typically you make short work of the injury or infection. But when your immune system is overwhelmed, or your underlying health is compromised because of years or decades of poor dietary and lifestyle choices, then the inflammation can become chronic. If the swelling, heat, red appearance, and tenderness persist for months or years, that means you didn’t resolve the initial insult. You will need to assess where your immune system got overwhelmed, then take steps to restore your health.

Chronic inflammation can occur because of inability to heal from injury or infection, or as a response to unwanted substances in the body, such as toxins from cigarette smoke or an excess of fat cells (especially fat in the belly area). Inside arteries, inflammation helps kick off atherosclerosis—the buildup of plaque. Your body perceives this plaque as abnormal and foreign, so it attempts to wall off the plaque from the flowing blood. But if that wall breaks down, the plaque may rupture. The contents then mingle with blood, forming a clot. These clots are responsible for the majority of heart attacks and most strokes.

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