A quick perusal of the Web or the health and diet section of any bookstore will turn up a number of articles and books with the word “inflammation” in the title. Authors blame the insidious condition for everything from hay fever and depression to crow’s feet; many assure readers that adherence to their specialized, anti-inflammation diet plan will help them shed pounds, banish pain, and reverse the clock. The types of foods common to many of these diets include whole grains, dry beans and legumes, oily fish, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and certain herbs and spices. These sound like nutritious foods, but is inflammation really the cause of so many ills? And will following a particular diet cure it?
We do know that there is an association between chronic inflammation and obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. What’s less clear is how the association works, how concerned you should be about it, and what, if anything, you can do about it. But first, a little background on inflammation is needed.
What is inflammation?
We’re all familiar with acute inflammation, which you can feel and often see quite distinctly. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury and the first step in healing; in its acute form, it can be quite dramatic. Whether you have a virus or a cut, the body sends white blood cells to the site of infection or injury, where they release chemicals to protect you. The most obvious sign of acute inflammation is pain, such as when you have a sore throat; you may also experience fever in the case of an infection, or swelling as your body deals with a traumatic injury.
Chronic inflammation is not so easy to identify. “What we’re talking about here is low-grade inflammation that you don’t see or feel easily,” says Vivian Fonseca, MD, Professor of Medicine, Tullis Tulane Alumni Chair in Diabetes, and Chief of the Section of Endocrinology at Tulane University Medical Center in New Orleans. “The whole body is essentially inflamed, particularly the blood vessels.”
This inflammation may lead to further biochemical changes that could be detrimental. “Say you get a virus in your throat. You kill the virus, you have some irritation for a few days, and then you’re OK,” says Dr. Fonseca. “But just imagine if it went on in a very low-grade way for many years; things will never be right. And this seems to be going on in the blood vessels, in some tissues like the liver, and in the heart, and lead to problems in the long term.”
Unfortunately, if you have chronic, low-level inflammation, you probably can’t tell. It isn’t something that you can feel, like swelling or pain. There is a test that may be helpful in detecting it, but it may only be useful under certain conditions. The C-reactive protein (CRP) test measures markers present when inflammation is high and is often ordered if a person is at risk for infection, such as after surgery. High levels of CRP will indicate infection; falling levels indicate the infection is subsiding. For the average person who is not sick or recovering from surgery, however, CRP testing is rarely indicated.