While it doesn't exactly make you feel warm and fuzzy, inflammation is the body's totally healthy response to injury and infection, a way of defending ourselves by sending immune cells and key nutrients to the areas that need them most.
How do those fighter cells get there? Via increased blood flow, which in turn creates the redness, warmth, swelling and pain you likely associate with the word "inflammation." Say you cut your finger, and notice it turns a little red. "That's inflammation," says Dee Sandquist, RD, CDE, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson. "It helps to heal your finger."
But a small red cut that heals over time is entirely different from a state of chronic inflammation. This can be quite dangerous, in fact. When inflammation as an immune response is never "shut off," so to speak, the constant production of immune cells can do permanent damage, leading to cancer, heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer's, among other health concerns. "When we don't see the inflammation system switch off, we end up in a detrimental state," says Julie Daniluk R.H.N., author of Meals That Heal Inflammation.
The causes of chronic inflammation can vary person to person, but include being overweight, experiencing lots of stress and even breathing polluted air, Women's Health reported. Lifestyle choices, like smoking or lack of exercise, also play a role. "Sedentary lifestyle, lack of sleep -- we have these repetitive insults that increase longer-term inflammation," says Jessica Black, N.D., author of The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Recipe Book.
The foods we choose to eat -- or not to eat -- can also affect inflammation. Getting your fair share of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat and omega-3 fatty acids -- similar, yes, to the Mediterranean diet -- has been suggested to have anti-inflammatory effects. "Diet can serve as a protective function," says Sandquist. "When our bodies are best nourished, we're able to heal quicker if we do cut our finger and maybe even prevent chronic inflammation." It's likely that no one food is to blame for causing inflammation, she says, but that your overall diet could contribute.
For now, anti-inflammatory diet guidelines are simply suggestions. More research is needed to truly understand the relationship between diet and inflammation and, in turn, disease, WebMD reported.
Still, there are some general ideas about what foods to avoid to keep inflammation and illness at bay. "There are foods that exaggerate inflammation because they themselves are irritants," says Daniluk. Here are some of the worst offenders you might want to avoid. Let us know what we forgot in the comments.