Inflammation is a natural part of the body’s own self-healing mechanism, but is widely misunderstood and misrepresented in the popular press. First, many people confuse the term inflammation with infection—the two are not the same, although the latter often causes the former. Inflammation is the body’s reaction to the presence of harmful stimuli such as injury, damaged cells, pathogens, or irritants. It manifests as pain, heat, redness, swelling, and loss of function in the inflamed area, but these symptoms are actually part of the body’s own healing process, and an attempt to throw off or expel the harmful stimuli.

Inflammation is classified as either acute or chronic. Acute inflammation describes the body’s initial response to harmful stimuli. It is created by the movement of white blood cells to the injured tissues. This part of the healing process involves the local vascular system, the immune system, and other cells in the affected area.

When the inflammatory response becomes prolonged or chronic, however, the same process can become destructive and has been linked to a number of diseases. Chronic inflammation can result from a failure to eliminate the cause of the initial acute inflammation, an abnormal autoimmune response in which the body mistakes healthy tissue for a pathogen and attacks it, or a chronic, low-intensity irritant that continues to cause the acute inflammation response. Diseases that have been associated with chronic inflammation include asthma, tuberculosis, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic peptic ulcer, periodontitis, ulcerous colitis, Crohn’s disease, sinusitis, and hepatitis. Recent research has linked chronic inflammation with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and even heart failure.

Researchers have identified many factors that seem to contribute to chronic inflammation, thus increasing the risk of all the diseases associated with it. These include sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality, obesity, and eating an inflammatory diet (including fast and processed foods, trans fats, hydrogenated oils, sugar, aspartame, high-fructose corn syrup, and salt). Stress is also seen as a major cause of chronic inflammation because the stress response sends signals to the adrenal glands to release cortisol, which keeps the body at “high alert,” thinking it has to constantly fight off danger and infection, and thus causing the acute inflammation response more often than is necessary.

Both acute and chronic inflammation can be treated medically using anti-inflammatory medications such as naproxen, ibuprofen, and aspirin. As an alternative to using more serious drugs such as corticosteroids, a diet rich in antioxidants can help to fight chronic inflammation. Also, many herbs have anti-inflammatory properties, such as hyssop, devil’s claw, ginger, turmeric, and even cannabis. Some studies have indicated that diets high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as those commonly found in fish oils) can help to treat or prevent chronic inflammation. Green tea and tart cherries have also been found to be effective anti-inflammatories.