What Does Inflammation Mean? Understanding the Link Between Inflammation and Disease

The word anti-inflammatory has practically become a household word. From herbs like turmeric and oregano to foods like berries and cruciferous vegetables, there is a myriad of products that have anti-inflammatory properties.

Following an anti-inflammatory diet or supplementing with anti-inflammatory substances has become more popular than ever. But what does inflammation mean in the first place? And is fighting inflammation really that important? Here, we address those important questions.


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Inflammation is a normal part of the immune response.

Inflammation is a normal part of the immune response. Think of the last time you scraped your skin, got a bug bite, or had a splinter you couldn’t get out. Chances are, the affected area got swollen and red, and even hot or painful. This is inflammation at work, and in cases of acute injury, it’s a good thing.

The inflammatory response is basically your immune system gathering defenses to the injured tissue, helping to protect and heal it; the goal of inflammation is to remove harmful substances from the injury, such as bacteria, damaged cells, a splinter, or other debris, and then to promote the healing process. This is done by increasing blood flow to the area, gathering immune cells, causing pain to stop you from using the injured tissue, and protecting the tissue in other ways.

Inflammation is a double-edged sword.

Inflammation is not all bad. In many cases, it is vital in keeping us safe; inflammation is necessary to heal from traumas, infections, burns, allergies, cuts, and more. But how, then, has inflammation gotten such a bad rap?

It may take a few days or even weeks, but after an acute injury, redness and swelling eventually subside as the inflammatory response turns off. This is the normal, healthy functioning of the immune system. It is not this acute inflammation that is a problem; issues arise when inflammation doesn’t go away, but becomes chronic and systemic.

Chronic, low-grade inflammation will slowly but surely cause damage in your body, and it can lead to long-term health issues. It is associated with a number of conditions and diseases; heart disease, dementia, arthritis, irritable bowel disease, fatigue, obesity, depression, and more all seem to have an inflammatory component.[1-3]

What contributes to chronic inflammation?

A variety of factors can promote chronic inflammation in the body. Diet is one of the major factors; some foods are pro-inflammatory, while others are anti-inflammatory and protective.

High sugar and high fat are two pro-inflammatory dietary components, while polyunsaturated fatty acids like omega-3s are anti-inflammatory.

Researchers believe that by changing your diet to a healthy pattern, you’ll be able to reduce chronic inflammation in your body.[1] Lack of sleep, not enough physical activity, and chronic stress are also believed to largely affect the level of inflammation in the body.[2]

Best defense: Living an “anti-inflammatory” lifestyle.

If you want to protect yourself against a wide range of diseases, from heart disease to Alzheimer’s, keeping your body out of an inflamed state is key. You won’t notice low-grade inflammation now, but it will take a toll in the long run, so taking a proactive approach is important.

The following steps are an excellent start:

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and avoid refined carbohydrates. Eat more kale and other cruciferous vegetables, whole grains, dark chocolate, and fish.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Use techniques like meditation or cognitive behavioral therapy to manage stress.
  • Take anti-inflammatory supplements, like turmeric or fish oil.

Share your experience

What anti-inflammatory tools do you use to avoid chronic inflammation in the body? What are your favorite anti-inflammatory foods? What about herbs, supplements, and lifestyle strategies? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

[1] Br J Nutr. 2015 Jul 31:1-14. [Epub ahead of print]

[2] BMC Med. 2013 Sep 12;11:200.

[3] Arch Pharm Res. 2015 Aug 21. [Epub ahead of print]

Originally published in 2015 and updated.

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