It is normal for your body to experience an inflamed sensation when you have an injury, but it should be a cause for concern when it lasts for a long time.
“Inflammation is a normal reaction of the body upon injury or infection,” says Jan Martel, a research associate at the Research and Development Centre of Chang Gung Biotechnology and the Centre for Molecular and Clinical Immunology of Chang Gung University, Taiwan.
“It is usually characterised by redness, heat, pain, and swelling in a specific part of the body. Where the skin has been breached, the immune system will be activated, and some cells called macrophages will engulf bacteria and cell debris to prevent infection and clean the wound,” he says.
Inflammation is a localised reaction of the immune system to injury or infection. A typical acute inflammation is rapid, intense and self-limiting, while a chronic inflammation is low intensity and may be delayed or long-lasting.
“Chronic inflammation is a reaction of the immune system that propagates to the whole body through blood and other body fluids,” says Martel.
A common cause of chronic inflammation is food allergy – causing pain, redness and swelling in the knees, hands or other parts of the body – that may occur hours after the food has been consumed.
“Chronic inflammation has been called a deadly killer because it may lead to many chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis,” Martel says.
Chronic inflammation has also been observed in normal ageing, over-eaters and obese individuals. “In the long term, chronic inflammation may affect metabolism by reducing sensitivity to insulin,” he adds.
“Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas in response to consumption of carbohydrates in foods. When the body becomes insulin resistant, it is unable to get the energy needed rapidly, and this may lead to fatigue and other health conditions including type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease and cardiovascular disease.”
The best way to treat chronic inflammation is to reduce or eliminate exposure to the triggers that cause it in the first place. “Various foods contain anti-inflammatory molecules, such as fish, flax seeds and walnuts, which contain high omega-3 fatty acids,” says Martel.
“Regular exercise, intermittent fasting, reducing stress, and improving sleep quantity and quality are other good strategies to reduce chronic inflammation,” he adds.
Besides adopting a healthy lifestyle, inflammation is usually treated with corticosteroids, such as cortisone and dexamethasone. But while it may be effective at reducing symptoms, it comes with negative side effects after prolonged use and should be considered only in cases of acute inflammation, or as a last resort.
Other than pharmaceutical treatments, those with inflammation often seek alternative treatments such as cordyceps.
“Cordyceps is a medicinal fungus with a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to fortify the lungs and kidneys, as well as to boost energy and libido,” says Martel.
Research done by the group at Chang Gung Biotechnology and Chang Gung University have found that cordyceps produces other benefits that have not been described earlier as part of TCM, such as reducing the activation of human immune cells in culture, according to published reports.
Similarly, cordyceps reduced signs of inflammation in animal models of lung inflammation, diabetes and obesity, by inducing the growth of the “good bacteria” in the gut which protects the intestinal lining, preventing bacterial molecules from entering the blood and causing inflammation, the report states.
“These beneficial effects are consistent with the changes observed in people who regularly consume cordyceps as a dietary supplement,” says Martel.