What Actually Is Inflammation? This Is What You Need to Know

Updated 06/23/17

Inflammation is one of those health terms that simultaneously intrigues and confuses us. It's dominated health headlines of late and is said to be startlingly common and linked to other health concerns like stress, leaky gut, weight gain, and more. Given the frequency with which we now see this buzzword in the news, we thought it time to do a deep dive and ask exactly what we're all thinking: What actually is inflammation, and what does it mean for you?

To find out, we called on Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, who has written and spoken at length about this puzzling health concern. Here, he explains everything you need to know: what it is, what the symptoms are, and what simple changes you can make to your diet to combat the negative effects. Intrigued? Us too. Consider this Inflammation 101.

We the People

What Is Inflammation?

There's an important distinction to make between acute and chronic inflammation. "Inflammation is the body's natural defense against damaged cells, viruses, bacteria, and other harmful substances, and it's triggered when the body tries to rid itself of these substances," explains Axe. "Inflammation can be acute—when an ankle is swollen after injury (i.e., damaged cells), for example, or it can be chronic." When you read about the link between inflammation and gut health, weight gain, and more, it's referring to chronic inflammation.

Chronic inflammation occurs when the body is in a constant state of stress. "I think we're seeing a spike because our bodies are bombarded with more toxins than ever before—whether from pesticides in the foods we eat; environmental pollutants; chemicals and preservatives in processed and fast food; toxins in health, beauty, and home products; etc.—and all of those toxins contribute to inflammation," says Axe. Unlike acute inflammation, which is a short-term response meant to heal your body, chronic inflammation can have long-lasting effects on your health.

What Are the Symptoms?

Signs that you might have inflammation can be broad and span multiple parts of your body. Axe says there are three main symptoms to be aware of that indicate chronic inflammation:

  1. Excessive feelings of fatigue
  2. Nagging health conditions that won't heal
  3. Inability to lose weight

Why Are People Concerned?

It's a startling message, but Axe argues that inflammation could be at the root of most diseases. "It's very common. When you consider how many Americans are overweight or obese, struggling with heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, or other chronic health conditions, we must consider that inflammation plays a major role in all of those cases," he says.

While it might seem extreme, Axe's opinion is certainly not isolated. Brent Bauer, MD, editorial board member of Mayo Clinic Health Letter, agrees that inflammation "appears to play a role in many chronic diseases." In a recent editor's letter, he explains that this buzzy term should be taken seriously. "Consider the vast array of autoimmune disorders—such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and polymyalgia rheumatica—where the body's immune system mistakenly initiates an inflammatory response even though there's no apparent inflammation to fight off," he writes. Chronic inflammation could have a similarly concerning impact on the body.

What's the Link Between Gut Health and Inflammation?

These two trending topics are actually interrelated, explains Axe. "When a person suffers from leaky gut, which can be caused by a number of factors, the intestinal lining becomes more permeable, which allows toxins, undigested food particles, and other foreign invaders to leak out of the gut and enter the bloodstream," he says. "Once in the bloodstream, these foreign invaders are then allowed to travel throughout the body, where they cause inflammation and a host of other health issues."

Stress also factors in. "Stress is one of the main causes of leaky gut (and, thus, inflammation) because it impacts digestion and gut health overall as well as the body's ability to heal itself," he explains.

What Can You Do to Combat Inflammation?

"The first step is to eliminate any pro-inflammatory foods or foods that may be triggering inflammation," he explains. "After that, you need to add in anti-inflammatory foods, including lots of organic produce, especially antioxidant-rich berries and dark, leafy greens. These foods are essentially the basis of my healing foods diet."

Axe also recommends adding bone broth to your diet. "One of the most important foods for healing inflammation is bone broth. It has been shown to soothe the gut and heal the intestinal lining, which is crucial for getting inflammation under control."

Pro-Inflammatory Foods to Eliminate:

  1. Refined sugars
  2. Processed foods
  3. Trans fats
  4. Non-organic meats
  5. Dairy
  6. Genetically modified foods
  7. Foods that elicit an allergic reaction

Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Introduce:

  1. Berries
  2. Dark, leafy greens
  3. Coconut oil
  4. Avocados
  5. Turmeric
  6. Tea
  7. Water

What Should You Eat on an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Try these four healthy recipes, developed by Axe's team to reduce inflammation.

This flavorful green juice is packed with nutrient-dense foods including celery stalks, cucumber, pineapple, green apple, spinach, lemon, and a knob of ginger.

If you don't like the idea of sipping on bone broth, try this alternative instead.

Axe's tortilla recipe is corn-free and uses healthy oils like avocado oil, plus coconut flour in place of refined flour.

Axe urges that turmeric is one of the best spices to incorporate into your diet to fight inflammation. Swap out your afternoon hot beverage for this healthy alternative.

Dinner: Vietnamese Pho

Gut-friendly and loaded with immune-boosting herbs and vegetables, this Vietnamese pho is a great meal to end your day with.

Have you tried an anti-inflammatory diet before? Tell us if your health improved. 

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