Inflammation-friend or foe?

When we think of inflammation, it may present in various different ways. In more simple terms it can be produced by the body in either acute or chronic situations.

In an acute setting, inflammation is the body’s natural way to achieve healing. Let us consider an acute ankle sprain- we turn our ankle as we walk off the pavement. Often this is followed by rapid onset pain and swelling- the affected area becomes hot and swollen/red. This is in part due to increased blood flow going to the area. This brings cells to stimulate healing and to remove debris etc.. This is a natural physiological response to injury and is needed for tissue recovery.

However with chronic inflammation in the body, harm may occur- chronic inflammation has been shown to be the cause of many diseases. This may include but is not limited to cancer, arthritis, obesity, diabetes and heart disease as examples. Autoimmune diseases where the body’s own cells cause chronic inflammation may also occur.

Some lifestyle factors may directly contribute to chronic inflammation- smoking, alcohol use, poor diet and lack of physical exercise being the main culprits. Also lack of sleep has also recently been increasingly recognised as a major factor. Only in the news last week, we heard that those who regularly go to bed between 10-11pm have a lower risk of stroke and heart disease.

One area of medicine that is very exciting and now being shown to be hugely important is that of gut health. The bacteria that normally live in our gut/intestines is often referred to as the “gut biome”. These bacteria play a vital role in health digestion and also our overall immunity. Disrupting this biome can often lead to various issues and chronic inflammation in our bodies. Alcohol, known to cause 7 different types of cancer, can directly harm our gut health. Poor diet including a high sugar intake can also contribute to this.

Physical exercise has been shown to be critical in improving quality and quantity of life- at least in part by reducing inflammation in the body. We know from research that not exercising enough is a major risk factor for various chronic diseases. In fact, it has been shown to be a bigger risk factor than smoking, obesity, diabetes and hypertension(high blood pressure). Therefore we should all be exercising on a regular basis, reducing or stopping alcohol completely, reducing sugar in our diet and avoiding processed foods as much as we can. This will help keep our gut biome healthy and directly reduce the amount of inflammation in the body.

Some of my patients also eat foods specifically to reduce inflammation. A variety of fruits and vegetables can do this but other more specific anti-inflammatory foods include ginger, garlic and turmeric as examples.

In summary, inflammation can be a friend to us in an injury or acute setting- but chronic systemic inflammation is a major risk factor in many diseases and we would do well to avoid this through exercise and lifestyle choices that we make.

Dr Michael S.Burdon

Consultant in Sport, Exercise and Musculoskeletal Medicine



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