It’s your body’s first line of defence for fighting off bacteria and viruses, yet inflammation has been linked to major age-related health issues.

Chances are, you’ve heard of the term inflammation. It’s become a buzzword in the world of health and wellness, with studies suggesting it plays a role in a host of major diseases and ailments. Keeping inflammation in check can have positive ramifications for your health. The good news is that chronic inflammation doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of growing older.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is the body’s method of signalling to the immune system to heal and repair damaged tissue, as well as defend itself against foreign invaders. This response could be prompted by an injury, infection, eating a food you’re allergic to or overloading fat cells.

“Inflammation is the way your body fights against danger,” explains Professor Dan Davis, immunologist at the University of Manchester and author of The Beautiful Cure. “The familiarity of the symptoms it produces — redness, tenderness and swelling — belies the wonders that are taking place beneath the skin, where swarms of different cells move in to fight off germs as well as repair the damage and deal with the debris. Far from a conscious action, this is a reflex essential to our survival.”

In can be severe and is often painful, but this type of acute inflammation works precisely where the problem occurs, such as at the site of a cut knee, sprained ankle or sore throat. Blood vessels dilate, blood flow increases and white blood cells flood the injured area to promote healing.

The damaged cells release histamines, which cause the cell walls to dilate. This is what creates the redness, pain and swelling of inflammation as your body limits the effects of the threat. Once the problem has been dealt with, the symptoms soon subside.

Too much of a good thing

However, if the process of inflammation carries on for too long or occurs where it is not needed, problems can arise. This is called chronic inflammation, also known as persistent low-grade inflammation, also known as persistent low-grade inflammation throughout the body. It occurs when there is a perceived threat, even when there isn’t an injury to heal or an infection to fight. With no external threat to fight off, the immune system’s fighter cells can eventually start attacking healthy cells, tissue, organs and systems throughout the body with often-serious consequences.

Chronic inflammation can increase with age, so-called “inflamm-ageing”, and is linked to major age-related health issues. These include heart disease, stroke. diabetes and certain types of cancer. It can also trigger autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, affecting many different areas of the body. From the nervous system and insulin production to the tissue surrounding our joints.

What causes chronic inflammation?

Certain lifestyle factors such as poor diet, little physical activity, smoking, high stress levels and insufficient sleep, as well as environmental toxins, can all contribute to chronic inflammation. It can also occur with a lingering infection or injury which your immune system is unable to heal. Too much bad bacteria in your gut is also a big driver of inflammation.

How do you know if you have it?

Chronic low-grade inflammation can result in joint pain or stiffness, digestive problems, numbness and balance problems and fatigue, but can also develop without any symptoms at all. Doctors can test for an increase in C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation in the blood. High levels of CRP can indicate an increased risk of heart disease or problems such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.

What’s the best way to treat inflammation?

Treatment of inflammation will depend on the cause and severity. Always consult your doctor, who may need to run tests, before taking any action.

When it comes to medication, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are usually the first line of defence in treating inflammation, pain and other symptoms. Some are sold over the counter, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, but others need a prescription from your GP. They treat the symptoms rather than the cause and if used long-term can cause stomach problems, like ulcers or bleeding.

Corticosteroids, available as pills, injections, an inhaler, creams or ointments are a type of steroid also commonly treat swelling and inflammation as well as allergic reaction. Your GP will advise on your best course of action.

Future treatments

“There are many medicines being developed to boost or dampen immune responses in certain situations where this can help alleviate disease,” says Professor Dan Davis. “In cancer, for example, you may want to boost immune responses against cancer cells. Whereas for rheumatoid arthritis, you may want to tune down troublesome immune responses. Different medicines work best in certain groups of people, but we don’t yet completely understand why.”