What Is Inflammation, Really?

by Dr. Jason Barker April 23, 2015

What Is Inflammation, Really?

Inflammation is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. And, it seems like there's a never-ending list of things that cause inflammation too. But what exactly do we mean when we say 'inflammation', and more importantly, how can you use this information to affect your health?

The Basics

You can think of inflammation as certain processes carried out by your immune system. In turn, the immune system involves several different types of white blood cells, organs like the spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes, and specific groups of tissues like the mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT), which are found in places like the GI tract, thyroid, lungs, breast and other areas.

The immune system is a massive, complicated 'organ' that involves numerous types of cells, and hundreds of different chemicals that then orchestrate what these cells do.

The most well known inflammatory processes were originally described in the first century using the Latin phrases dolor = pain, tumor = swelling, calor = heat, and rubor = redness.  However, our understanding of inflammation has expanded far beyond this simplistic definition.

For our purposes, inflammation occurs when the immune system responds to something that the body perceives as dangerous. I say “perceives” because many times inflammation is the result of something that is typically harmless – like pollen, animal dander or foods. But in some people, when exposed to these things, a massive inflammatory reaction can be set off causing a wide set of symptoms ranging from mild to life threatening.

Other common causes of inflammation include things like:

  • Viruses and bacteria (germs)
  • Injuries like a scrape or splinter
  • Sunburn
  • Chemicals

Diseases that end in “Itis” indicate an inflammatory state – otitis (ear infection), bronchitis (lung infection), tendonitis (tendon injury), etc

Typically, inflammation leads to things like:

  • Redness, which is a sign of increased blood flow as capillaries dilate to allow more immune cells and chemicals to the site of an injury.
  • Heat is the result of the increased blood flow and increased metabolism from chemicals that stimulate the metabolism of the affected tissues (an injured joint may feel hot to the touch, or the entire body in case of a fever).
  • Swelling occurs when the capillaries become ‘leaky’ allowing certain immune cells to leave the bloodstream and enter the tissue, to take action against the cause of inflammation.
  • Mucus production is another sign of inflammation, when mucosal tissues create more of this substance to help the body trap and remove something like a virus or pollen, for example.

These are the most commonly observed signs of inflammation. However oftentimes inflammation is not always so apparent – in chronic inflammation, it can be likened to a smoldering fire – you can’t always tell that the ashes are hot, but beneath the surface they continue to burn.

Good Inflammation

In some cases inflammation is beneficial. For instance, the inflammation that occurs around a wound outside the body is good; this is a sign that the immune system is fighting bacteria that gained access to the skin at the injury site. 

In an injury like a sprain, where ligaments are injured, the area will become red, swollen and painful. Pain is another product of inflammation and is probably Mother Nature’s way of encouraging you to rest the injured area.

All the sneezing, runny nose, mucus, cough are products of your body’s response to the virus to get it out of your body. The fatigue you feel is due to the massive energy expenditure the immune system uses!

Signs of Bad Inflammation

While the symptoms of inflammation listed above are bothersome, they serve us well to get our bodies healed. Without this inflammatory response, you’d never get over a cold and infections would eventually overwhelm us.

As I mentioned before, smoldering inflammation doesn’t serve us and eventually causes dysfunction and disease.

In some cases, this type of inflammation can be measured with certain blood tests, but oftentimes a person’s symptoms are a reliable indicator that inflammation is out of control.

Common signs of “smoldering” inflammation include:

  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Rashes or acne
  • Itching
  • Diarrhea, cramping or constipation
  • Fatigue, lethargy
  • Ongoing sinus infection or congestion
  • Constant throat clearing or cough
  • “Allergic shiners” (dark circles under the eyes)

Dealing With Inflammation

The best, most direct way to deal with inflammation is through diet and lifestyle.

The biggest inflammatory foods are sweetened, processed flour-based items, sugary, and fried foods - think breads, pastas, cookies, muffins, crackers, chips, candy, soda, etc.

Alcohol is also inflammatory.

An imbalance of healthy fats can contribute to inflammation as well, as a diet with an elevated ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats can allow inflammation to get out of control.

This happens when a person eats too much animal-based protein, certain processed plant oils (corn, safflower) and not enough healthy fats from things like nuts, seeds, and fish.

Lastly, a sedentary lifestyle can promote inflammation as well. Regular exercise increases tissue metabolism, allowing inflammatory waste products to be moved out of the cells, and also increases production of the body’s main anti-inflammatory chemicals.

In summary, the best way to keep chronic inflammation under control is to exercise regularly, eat a diet high in omega-3 fats, and minimize processed flour foods, fried foods, sweets and alcohol. 

Dr. Jason Barker
Dr. Jason Barker


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