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Inflammation: Definition, Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Inflammation is a term often mentioned in healthcare, especially in relation to chronic diseases like diabetes. But what exactly is inflammation and why is it a concern for those living with diabetes? Read on to find out.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is a vital part of our immune system’s response to injury or infection. When our body detects harmful stimuli, such as pathogens, damaged cells, or irritants, it launches a biological response aimed at protecting our health (1). This process involves blood vessels dilating to increase blood flow, attracting immune cells to the affected area to help initiate healing.

Types of inflammation

Inflammation is typically categorised into two types: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the body’s immediate response to an injury or infection. It manifests rapidly and often includes symptoms like redness, heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function at the affected site. This form of inflammation usually resolves once the underlying issue is addressed (2).

Examples of conditions that cause acute inflammation include:

  • Acute bronchitis, which causes inflammation of the airways that carry air to the lungs1
  • A sore throat related to the flu
  • Physical trauma
  • Skin cuts and scratches

Chronic inflammation is a long-term, persistent inflammatory response that can last for several months or even years. It occurs when the body cannot eliminate the causative factor or when there’s an ongoing low-level response even without a harmful agent (2).

Chronic inflammatory conditions include:

  • Inflammatory arthritis, which covers a group of conditions distinguished by inflammation of joints and tissues (including rheumatoid arthritislupus, and psoriatic arthritis)
  • Asthma, which causes inflammation in the air passages that carry oxygen to the lungs. Inflammation causes these airways to become narrow and breathing to become difficult.
  • Periodontitis, which causes inflammation of gums and other supporting teeth structures. It is caused by bacteria triggered by local inflammation.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which, like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, causes signs of inflammation in the gut (gastrointestinal tract)
  • Eczema is from chronic skin inflammation that causes red, itchy inflamed rashes in areas where the skin flexes (such as inside the elbows and behind the knees)

What causes inflammation?

Various factors can lead to inflammation, ranging from external injuries and infections to internal issues such as autoimmune diseases. Chronic inflammation often results from lifestyle factors like poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and high levels of stress. Persistent low-grade inflammation can also stem from obesity, an increasingly common health issue (3).

How to spot inflammation


Hazards of long-term inflammation

While acute inflammation is beneficial, chronic inflammation is linked to numerous health problems. Over time, chronic inflammation can damage healthy cells, tissues, and organs, potentially leading to DNA damage and internal scarring. This prolonged inflammatory state is associated with many chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases (4).

Inflammation and its relationship with diabetes

Chronic inflammation plays a critical role in the development of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, an inflammatory response is involved in the autoimmune destruction of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. In type 2 diabetes, chronic low-grade inflammation, often related to obesity can lead to insulin resistance, a key characteristic of type 2 diabetes (5). Further, inflammation may exacerbate the complications of diabetes. For instance, diabetic retinopathy and nephropathy are both linked to increased inflammatory response (6).

Minimising inflammation

Managing inflammation is particularly important for individuals with diabetes. Here are some strategies:

  • Have a low sugar, healthy diet: Consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains can help reduce inflammation as they contain anti-inflammatory nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and fibre (7).
  • Get regular exercise: Regular physical activity can help lower inflammation. It’s advised to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (8).
  • Try and minimise stress: Chronic stress can promote inflammation. Practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga can help manage stress levels (9).
  • Get enough sleep: Poor sleep patterns are linked to increased inflammation. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night (10).
  • Avoid smoking and too much alcohol: Both smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can increase inflammation (11).

By adopting lifestyle habits that minimise chronic inflammation, people with diabetes can help manage their condition and improve their overall health. **References** 1. Medzhitov R. (2008). Origin and physiological roles of inflammation. Nature, 454(7203), 428-435. 2. Ferrero-Miliani L., et al. (2007). Chronic inflammation: importance of NOD2 and NALP3 in interleukin-1β generation. Clinical & Experimental Immunology, 147(2), 227–235. 3. Hotamisligil G.S. (2006). Inflammation and metabolic disorders. Nature, 444(7121), 860–867. 4. Coussens L.M., Werb Z. (2002). Inflammation and cancer. Nature, 420(6917), 860–867. 5. Donath M.Y., Shoelson S.E. (2011). Type 2 diabetes as an inflammatory disease. Nature Reviews Immunology, 11(2), 98–107. 6. Devaraj S., et al. (2006). Increased monocytic activity and biomarkers of inflammation in patients with type 1 diabetes. Diabetes, 55(3), 774–779. 7. Giugliano D., et al. (2006). The effects of diet on inflammation: emphasis on the metabolic syndrome. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 48(4), 677-685. 8. Gleeson M., et al. (2011). The anti-inflammatory effects of exercise: mechanisms and implications for the prevention and treatment of disease. Nature Reviews Immunology, 11(9), 607-615. 9. Black D.S., Slavich G.M. (2016). Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1373(1), 13–24. 10. Irwin M.R., et al. (2006). Sleep loss and inflammation. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 24(5), 775–784. 11. Imhof A., et al. (2001). Effect of alcohol consumption on systemic markers of inflammation. The Lancet, 357(9258), 763–767.

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