Understanding And Supporting A Healthy Inflammatory Response

A woman in pain rubs her neck.

A healthy inflammatory response is the body's immediate reaction to harmful stimuli such as pathogens, damaged cells, or toxic compounds.

Inflammation is a crucial biological response to injury or infection, playing an essential role in healing. However, chronic inflammation can contribute to various health issues, including autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular problems, skin issues (like eczema), and chronic pain (1,2). 


This article shares information on what constitutes a healthy inflammatory response, the signs and causes of chronic inflammation, and how to support a healthy inflammatory response through lifestyle and dietary choices.

What Is An Inflammatory Response?

A healthy inflammatory response is the body's immediate reaction to harmful stimuli such as pathogens, damaged cells, or toxic compounds. An inflammatory response to an acute issue involves the activation of immune cells, the release of signaling molecules known as cytokines, and increased blood flow to the affected area to facilitate healing (2,3).

What Is The Difference Between Acute And Chronic Inflammation?

It is important to understand the difference between acute inflammation and chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation is the initial, short-term response to injury or infection and is characterized by redness, heat, swelling, and pain. These symptoms, though uncomfortable, are essential for repairing tissues and fighting infections, and, in a healthy response once the harmful stimuli are removed, the inflammation subsides and the body begins to heal (3).


Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation is a prolonged and often low-grade inflammatory response that can last for months or even years (4). This persistent state of alert is associated with various chronic diseases. Chronic inflammation is essentially a dysregulation of the inflammatory response and can occur due to several factors, including persistent infections, autoimmune disorders where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues, and long-term exposure to irritants like pollution and industrial chemicals (2). Additionally, lifestyle factors such as a diet high in processed foods (5) and chronic stress (6) can also contribute to chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can affect people of all ages (7).

What Are The Signs Of Chronic Inflammation?

The signs of chronic inflammation are less overt than those of acute inflammation (redness, swelling, pain) and can include (1,2):

These symptoms can significantly impact an individual's quality of life and yet they often go unnoticed as they develop slowly over time.

A fatigued man rubs his forehead.

The Link Between Chronic Inflammation And Disease

Chronic inflammation is thought to be a common underlying factor in many chronic diseases (8). Chronic inflammation can disrupt normal cell function over time, which in turn can contribute to various health problems (8). Below are some examples of what this can look like:


In the cardiovascular system, chronic inflammation has the potential to slowly damage the inner lining of arteries (9), which may increase the risk of cardiovascular events (9).


Chronic inflammation also has the potential to interfere with insulin signaling, which may contribute to insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar levels (10).


Inflammatory processes in the brain may contribute to neuronal damage and cognitive decline, something that is seen in various neurocognitive conditions (11,12,13).


Additionally, respiratory conditions such as asthma and allergies can be exacerbated by chronic inflammation (14), as can common skin conditions like eczema and dermatitis (15).

Supporting A Healthy Inflammatory Response

Supporting a healthy inflammatory response involves adopting lifestyle and dietary habits that promote overall wellness and reduce the risk of chronic inflammation.

Dietary Habits

A diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods can play a role in maintaining a healthy inflammatory response (16). Consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber is important. Berries, leafy greens, and cruciferous vegetables — like broccoli and Brussels sprouts — are also important parts of a healthy anti-inflammatory diet (16).


To learn more, read this article: The Basics Of Anti-Inflammatory Eating For The Whole Family


Studies show that regularly incorporating healthy fats in the diet, such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, flaxseeds, and walnuts, may also help reduce inflammation (17), while the consumption of unhealthy fats such found in fried and processed foods can contribute to systemic inflammation (18). Additionally, certain herbs and spices such as turmeric and ginger are known for their anti-inflammatory properties (19).


If you are looking to incorporate more of these ingredients into your diet, try my favorite Golden Milk Recipe!

Hydration is also important for managing inflammatory processes in the body (20). Staying well-hydrated helps maintain all bodily functions, including those involved in the inflammatory response (20). Maintaining proper hydration is essential for the transport of nutrients and the removal of waste products from cells, which helps keep inflammation in check.

Lifestyle Habits

Regular physical activity is an essential component in managing inflammation (21). Aerobic exercises like walking, running, and swimming have been shown to reduce inflammatory markers (22), and strength training helps build muscle, which can regulate inflammatory responses and improve metabolic health (23). For children, this really just comes down to plenty of active time in whatever way they enjoy most!


The importance of adequate sleep is often underestimated. Sleep is vital for the body's repair processes (24) and a chronic lack of sleep can affect the body's inflammatory response (25).


To learn more about an anti inflammatory lifestyle, read this article: Basics of an Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle

Supplementation

In addition to living a healthy lifestyle and consuming a balanced diet, nutritional supplements can provide additional support.

1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are well known for their ability to support a healthy inflammatory response (17). Considering that 68% of adults and 95% of children in the United States do not consume enough omega-3s to meet the US Dietary Guidelines (26), omega-3 supplements may be an especially good choice to ensure adequate intake.


2. Curcumin

Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, works to support a healthy inflammatory response by inhibiting various molecules that play a role in inflammation (27). Curcumin supplements are a popular choice for those looking to support a healthy inflammatory response. For enhanced absorption, look for curcumin supplements that contain piperine, a compound found in black pepper.


3. Ginger

Ginger is not just delicious, it is a time tested herb that has been used for centuries in traditional medicine. The active compounds in ginger, known as gingerols, have been shown to reduce inflammatory processes and oxidative stress in the body (28).


4. Green Tea

Green tea is rich in polyphenols, particularly epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) (29). Regular consumption of green tea, either in tea form or in supplement form, can help manage occasional inflammation (29).


5. Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone primarily known for its role in regulating sleep-wake cycles. However, it also possesses significant anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties (30). Melatonin supplements are a way to increase melatonin levels, which can help support inflammatory processes while simultaneously improving sleep quality and supporting the immune system (30).

To learn more about melatonin, read this article: Top Seven Reasons Why I Prescribe Melatonin In My Integrative Medicine Practice 


5. Hawthorn Leaf and Flower

Hawthorn leaf and flower are traditionally used to support cardiovascular health due to their ability to support a healthy inflammatory response as well as their antioxidant effects (31). Hawthorn can also be supportive of a healthy stress response (32).


6. Probiotics

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that support gut health, which is closely linked to the body’s inflammatory response. A healthy gut microbiome can help modulate inflammation and boost the immune system (33). Probiotic supplements can aid in maintaining a balanced gut flora (34) and regular intake of probiotics can also enhance digestion and nutrient absorption (34), contributing to overall health and well-being.

Maintaining a Healthy Inflammatory Response: What to Limit

While I recommend focusing on incorporating healthy habits into your daily life rather than causing yourself stress by being overly restrictive, there are certain things that are best avoided as much as possible in order to maintain a healthy inflammatory response. I subscribe to an 80/20 philosophy myself and find that balance works well for most families. Below are some dietary and lifestyle practices that I recommend avoiding as much as is feasible.

Avoid Ultra Processed Foods

Reducing the intake of ultra processed foods is perhaps the most impactful step that anyone can take to maintain their health. Ultra processed foods often contain unhealthy fats, refined carbohydrates, and additives that can promote inflammation (5). Diets high in processed foods have been linked to increased levels of inflammatory markers in the body (5). Instead, opt for whole, unprocessed foods that are nutrient-dense and supportive of overall health.

Avoid Toxins

Minimizing exposure to toxins can help reduce the inflammatory load on your body (35). This includes pollutants, chemicals in household products, toiletries and cosmetics, and pesticides in food and supplements. In our modern society, we are exposed to a much higher toxin burden than ever before, which can overwhelm the body's natural detoxification processes. An overburdened detoxification system can lead to a buildup of toxins, potentially contributing to chronic inflammation. By choosing natural and organic products whenever possible, you can limit your exposure to these harmful substances, allowing your body to focus on healthy processes and reducing the risk of inflammation.


To learn more about how your body deals with toxin exposure, read this article: How Does Detoxification Work? Understanding Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III Detoxification 

Limit Stress

Chronic stress is another major contributor to dysregulation in the inflammatory response process (6). It is important to understand that it is impossible to eliminate all stress from our lives; instead, our focus should be on managing stress effectively. Some ways to manage occasional stress effectively include mindfulness techniques, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, and making time for hobbies. Additionally, herbalism can be highly supportive for occasional stress.

Summary

Maintaining a healthy inflammatory response is essential for overall well-being. Acute inflammation is an integral part of the body's innate healing process, but when the inflammatory response is dysregulated and inflammation lingers, it can lead to a range of health problems. An anti-inflammatory lifestyle includes consuming a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods, staying well-hydrated, engaging in regular physical activity, and getting adequate sleep. Supplements can be beneficial, too. Supplements that support a healthy inflammatory response include omega-3 fatty acids, curcumin, and probiotics. Additionally, minimizing exposure to ultra-processed foods and environmental toxins, as well as effectively managing stress, are key strategies to reduce the risk of chronic inflammation.

References:

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