What's The Difference Between Good & Bad Inflammation? An Expert Breaks It Down

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There's been a lot of hullabaloo about inflammation in the past few years, specifically about how to reduce inflammation in your body. However, the idea that all inflammatory responses are bad is a huge myth — there's actually a lot of good inflammation happening in your body to keep you healthy. But what's the difference between good and bad inflammation?

When inflammation is working to heal your body, it's pretty much invisible, kind of like an invaluable assistant who is always anticipating your needs. In fact, a lot of people aren't even aware that inflammation is a thing until it starts attacking the body.

"You often hear about the bad and the ugly of inflammation. But it should be [referred to as] the good, the bad, and the ugly because, usually, inflammation is good for you," Dr. Mahmoud Ghannoum, PhD, an expert on the gut microbiome and mycobiome, a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and author of the forthcoming book Total Gut Balance, tells Bustle. "When you cut yourself, or have an infection, your immune system goes into high gear to try and protect you." This is called acute inflammation.

When you have an injury or illness, your body has an acute inflammatory response. Even though you might experience some pain and discomfort — like a fever, redness, or swelling — inflammation is helping your body heal itself. The inflamed lymph nodes and fever you get when you have the flu, or the swelling around a sprained ankle, are all examples of acute inflammation.

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On the flip side, chronic inflammation is what happens when your body starts an acute inflammatory response that doesn't go away, or comes back over and over again, Dr. Ghannoum says. Chronic inflammation is linked to disorders like arthritis, cancer, and diabetes, the Vanderbilt School of Medicine notes. It's particularly common in people with autoimmune diseases, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, and it's characterized by body pain, constant fatigue or insomnia, gastrointestinal disorders, and frequent infections.

Chronic inflammation can be very serious. The World Health Organization reported that noncommunicable inflammatory diseases like heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes are responsible for almost 70% of all deaths worldwide. These conditions are largely preventable and are generally the result of tobacco use, physical inactivity, overuse of alcohol, and diets high in processed foods. While some processed food is unavoidable, especially for people on limited food budgets, making an extra effort to incorporate fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other foods high in fiber can help limit the inflammatory response caused by processed food.

"Diet plays an important role in controlling inflammation," Dr. Ghannoum says, citing the effects whole foods can have on your body's internal microbiome and mycobiome, or the system of fungi that helps us carry out bodily processes.

Stress can also contribute to chronic inflammation, with one 2019 study finding that psychological stress can contribute to the kind of inflammation that leads to depression, for example. Dr. Ghannoum recommends making sure you get plenty of sleep, moderate exercise, and practice relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation to keep stress, and thereby chronic inflammation, at bay.

Inflammation, like stress, isn't always a bad thing, and there isn't always one single cause. It's important to recognize that acute inflammation has a real and necessary purpose in your body, and despite what you read on the internet, isn't the enemy.

Studies Referenced:

Maydych, V. (2019). The Interplay Between Stress, Inflammation, and Emotional Attention: Relevance for Depression. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2019.00384

Experts:

Dr. Mahmoud A. Ghannoum, PhD, Director of the Center for Medical Mycology at Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.