The Role of Inflammation in Your Body

Inflammation. It’s a word we hear often when talking about our health, and typically in a negative context. But is it always a bad thing?

No, not always. Inflammation is simply your immune system’s response to an irritant—whether that is an infection such as a cold virus or an injury such as a sprained ankle, and just about everything in between.

“Inflammation is your body’s response to something,” says Robert Hutchins, MD, MPH, UNC Health internal medicine physician. “And sometimes that response is good, such as your immune system responding to fight off an infection, but sometimes it can be bad, such as an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, where the body’s immune system starts to recognize its own cells as a foreign pathogen and starts to attack itself.”

How Inflammation Works in Your Body

If you’re enjoying some sunshine on the deck with your family and get a splinter in your foot, you may notice the area around the splinter gets red and swollen. Or if you’re out walking your dog and roll your ankle, it may swell immediately or later that day. When you have the flu, you typically develop a fever as your body tries to kill the virus.

All these instances are examples of acute inflammation at work in your body—your inflammatory cells jumping in to fight against a potentially harmful injury or invader.

The immune system releases white blood cells to defend and repair the part of the body at risk.

“The inflammatory cells responding to something are generally what cause the symptoms people have, whether it’s a fever or redness of the skin, a headache or elevated heart rate,” Dr. Hutchins says.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Sometimes, an overactive immune system can lead to chronic inflammation, autoimmune diseases, or even a life-threatening condition called a “cytokine storm,” a term we heard a lot earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Cytokines are inflammatory molecules that are released by certain types of immune cells that help us fight things off,” Dr. Hutchins says.

A cytokine storm can occur when there are too many cytokines released at one time. That can cause difficulty breathing, low blood pressure or other extreme effects for some people fighting the COVID-19 virus.

“The inflammation starts as a good process to help fight off viruses, bacteria or whatever the pathogen might be, and then, for whatever reason, in some people, that process kind of goes haywire,” Dr. Hutchins says. “It’s like it goes out of control, and it becomes unstoppable, and it starts to build on itself and get worse.”

Other times, too much inflammation is present in the body when there’s no infection to fight. This is what happens in autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, in which inflammation causes extreme pain in the joints.

Over time, chronic inflammation may harm your health, and research shows chronic inflammation has been linked to cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Signs of Chronic Inflammation

Symptoms of chronic inflammation include:

  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Gastrointestinal complications such as constipation, diarrhea and acid reflux
  • Frequent infections

Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Chronic Inflammation

Poor diet, smoking, stress and inadequate sleep and exercise are common causes of chronic inflammation. The good news is there are lifestyle changes you can take to prevent and reduce chronic inflammation.

“There are some lifestyle things you can do to try to keep inflammation to a healthy level such as exercising regularly, which includes getting cardiovascular exercise as well as strength training, and making sure you’re eating healthy foods,” Dr. Hutchins says.

Other tips for reducing inflammation include:

  • Avoid processed foods and sugar. Eliminating candy, soda, chips and desserts can substantially reduce inflammation.
  • Skip the drive-thru. Trans fats, which are common in fast foods and fried foods, have been linked to higher inflammation in research studies.
  • Practice moderation when it comes to alcohol. Studies have linked alcohol to higher inflammation. Women should not exceed more than one drink per day, and men should not exceed more than two drinks per day.
  • Don’t smoke. Tobacco use spikes inflammation.
  • Get enough sleep—but not too much. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Too little sleep triggers inflammation, but so does too much.
  • Reduce stress. Research shows prolonged stress leads to chronic inflammation, so try to find ways to manage your stress levels. Consider mindfulness-based interventions to help your body cope with stress.

Medications for Inflammation

If you’re sick or injured, inflammation is a part of your healing process. But sometimes you may need medicine to help with symptoms of inflammation.

If you have inflammation in your joints, tendons or muscles, an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) can help.

Autoimmune inflammation doesn’t typically respond well to these over-the-counter drugs, but prescription-strength steroids (like prednisone) and immunosuppressants (adalimumab, sold as Humira), can help stop inflammation, Dr. Hutchins says.

Concerned about inflammation? Talk to your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.