What Is Inflammation in the Body? Causes, Symptoms & Remedies

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what is inflammation

Many health conditions with the ending “itis” are inflammatory in nature. Some examples include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, diverticulitis, pancreatitis, dermatitis, conjunctivitis, gastroenteritis, sinusitis, prostatitis, and the list goes on and on. There are also conditions that don’t end in “itis” that fit this description, like heart disease and metabolic syndrome. 

Inflammation results when the immune system is activated for long periods of time and/or the immune response becomes dysfunctional. Long-term uncontrolled inflammation can damage cells, connective tissue, arteries, joints, and even organs, so it’s important to know the underlying causes behind the inflammation and treat them accordingly. In many cases, unbeknownst to most people, inflammation can originate from the gut when intestinal permeability is compromised and a condition known as “leaky gut” develops. 

Causes of Inflammation in the Body

Inflammation that lasts for a short period of time is generally a good thing. Let’s say you’re walking in town when suddenly you twist your ankle. Within minutes to hours, your ankle swells, indicating that the immune system has been activated. Immune cells are deployed to break down inflammatory mediators and bring in fresh blood and nutrients to facilitate healing at the injured site. The acute inflammation that ensues will eventually subside after the ligaments are repaired.   

But what happens when the ligaments are not healed, and the ankle continues to stay inflamed with redness, swelling, and pain? This unrelenting chronic inflammation can actually cause more harm than good as the immune cells inadvertently damage surrounding cells. 

Outside of physical trauma, there are many other causes of inflammation. Below is a shortlist that I often investigate if patients are presenting with an inflammatory condition.   

  • Environmental toxin and toxicant exposures. Some examples include:
    • Pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides
    • Heavy metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc.
    • Other environmental chemicals such as BPA, phthalates, flame retardants, etc.
    • Pollens from trees, grasses, and weeds
    • Mold and mycotoxins
    • Dust
  • Physical, emotional, and/or psychological stress
  • Infections from various bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, parasites, worms, etc.
  • Insomnia or lack of restful sleep
  • Over-exercising
  • Foods (see list below for more detail)

What Foods Cause Inflammation in the Body?

  • Deep-fried foods: Fried foods like French fries, fried chicken, or even fried vegetables are often cooked in low-quality oils prone to rancidity and oxidation. Some restaurants and fast-food chains do not change the frying oil for weeks at a time, so I say no thank you to those foods! 
  • Sugar-containing foods: Not only is sugar one of the most addicting substances, but it can also lead to inflammation in the body. 
  • Gluten-containing foods: We are seeing a rise in celiac disease, and we are also seeing a rise in non-celiac gluten sensitivity. This rise is due to many reasons, but gluten inherently can lead to inflammation in the gut by causing the release of zonulin, a protein capable of disrupting gut barrier function. 
  • Dairy-containing foods: Many people are lactose intolerant, or they are reactive in general to dairy. I’ve seen many cases of ear infections, sinus congestion, and postnasal drip clear up when dairy is removed from the diet. Dairy can be mucous forming for many people. 
  • Nightshade vegetables: Rarely, nightshade vegetables can lead to inflammation and joint pain. Some of these foods include peppers (hot peppers, bell peppers), tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants.
  • Refined carbohydrates: These foods are broken down very quickly in the body and can cause spikes in blood glucose and insulin levels. 

Signs and Symptoms of Inflammation in the Body

Inflammation can present in many different ways in the body, and how it manifests really depends on the trigger or underlying cause, genetic predisposition, and the body’s immune response.

For some, their joints ache and are noticeably swollen. Many complain of frequent headaches. Others can present with mucous membrane inflammation, which may cause sinus congestion and stuffy nose, itchy eyes/ears/throat, GERD, diarrhea, and even fissures or hemorrhoids. 

In conventional medicine, when looking for external signs of inflammation, the following 5 parameters are assessed:

  • Heat
  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Loss of function

Unfortunately, most inflammation occurs beneath the skin, so assessing for these classic inflammation signs and symptoms is not enough to determine if an underlying tissue, vessel, or organ is inflamed.

After practicing medicine for over 10 years, I’ve come to learn that most signs and symptoms are a result of an aberrant inflammation response or dysfunctional immune system. Again, any condition that ends in “itis” usually means that chronic inflammation is present.   

Health Issues Caused by Inflammation

As there are probably hundreds of medical conditions caused by inflammation here are some that you're likely familiar with that don't “itis.”

  1. Leaky gut syndrome: Normally, the intestinal wall is well protected and does not allow unwanted substances to pass through. When the gut becomes inflamed and “leaky,” however, food particles, bacteria, and other microorganisms can pass unchecked through the intestinal wall barrier. The substances that pass through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream can activate the immune system, which can subsequently lead to inflammation. You may experience joint pain, as immune complexes become deposited in the joint space causing more immune activation, or atypical skin rashes. This condition can develop for many reasons. A common cause that I see clinically is SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), which is a condition where too many bacteria are present in the small intestine. An overgrowth of bacteria, or dysbiosis, can damage the lining of the intestinal tract. 
  1. Diabetes: Diabetes occurs when the body loses insulin sensitivity, or the ability to transport glucose molecules across cell membranes into cells. Too much glucose for too long a period of time can damage cells, vessels, tissues, and eventually organs. 
  1. Autoimmune disease: Autoimmune diseases are on the rise these days, and there are many reasons for this upward trend. When the immune system becomes confused, it may attack your thyroid gland for example, instead of a virus or bacteria. A dysfunctional immune system can cause chronic inflammation. 
  1. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): As the name suggests, IBD is a condition that is usually caused by chronic inflammation.  Again, as with most medical conditions, there can be many possible causes for the development of IBD. 
  1. Sinusitis: For those reading this who have suffered through bouts of sinusitis, you know how painful this condition is. The reason there is pain is that the mucous membranes lining the sinuses are inflamed. This can happen due to exposure to pollens, molds, and bacteria, to name some causes. 

Foods That Reduce Inflammation in the Body

Although it’s more important to REMOVE the underlying causes of inflammation, including certain foods that may be causing inflammation, there are some foods that may help reduce inflammation in the body. 

  1. Turmeric root
  2. Ginger root
  3. Fermented foods
  4. Cruciferous foods
  5. Green leafy vegetables
  6. Olive oil
  7. Fiber-containing foods

When available, choose organic foods as doing so will reduce exposure to toxic pesticides, including glyphosate, which is now ubiquitous in our environment.

Dr. Drew Sinatra

Meet Dr. Drew Sinatra

Dr. Drew Sinatra is a board-certified naturopathic doctor and self-described “health detective” with a passion for promoting natural healing, wellness, and improving quality of life by addressing the root cause of illness in patients of all ages. His vibrant practice focuses on treating the whole person (mind, body, and spirit) and finding missed connections between symptoms and health issues that are often overlooked by conventional medicine.

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