In the last several decades, the very important role that inflammation plays in health and disease has been identified.

Let’s start off with a definition: inflammation is a process in the human body that serves to help us to heal injured body tissues.  

Most of us are familiar with the inflammation that occurs when we injure our skin either by experiencing a cut or a scrape, or when a skin infection develops. Redness and swelling can occur which signifies that the body is sending increased blood flow to the injured part of the skin in order to help it to heal.  

In addition, the increased blood flow to the injured tissue sends certain types of white blood cells to the site of injury, which also participate in the inflammation and healing process. Inflammation can be classified as either acute or chronic depending on how long the inflammation lasts. Inflammation that goes on for more than a few weeks or months is generally referred to as chronic inflammation.

Chronic inflammation can contribute to many chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease and stroke, colitis, arthritis, dermatitis, diabetes, mental illness and dementia. There is a significant amount of medical research occurring that is trying to help us better understand how inflammation contributes to chronic diseases as well as how to combat inflammation in order to improve health outcomes.

In the case of coronary heart disease, it is now known that inflammation contributes to the formation of plaques which may form in our arteries, as well as the tendency of those plaques to rupture which can lead to heart attacks. This is extremely important because it is known that about half of the heart attacks that occur, occur in arteries that were not seriously narrowed the day before the heart attack.  

The opposite is also true, that many people who have large plaques in their arteries do not ultimately have heart attacks. It appears then, that the most crucial factor inside of coronary arteries is whether the plaques that are present are what we call unstable plaques. Unstable plaques are created by inflammation and tend to be filled with white blood cells. Another interesting observation is that about half of all people who have heart attacks do not have high cholesterol.

Earlier this year, researchers from a Boston hospital published results which showed that reducing inflammation can help to prevent heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular deaths. These medical scientists gave a medication, which was a human monoclonal antibody, to a study population in order to reduce inflammation. The results of the research showed that by administering this medication, inflammation was significantly reduced and the risk of serious cardiovascular disease was significantly lowered.

In addition, earlier this year research was published from another Boston hospital which demonstrated a link between inflammation and brain function/mental illness in systemic lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease.

Not all of us need to be on medication to lower our inflammation levels. Let’s talk about some non-medicinal approaches to lowering inflammation in our bodies. Avoiding red meat, high-fat dairy, refined grains, processed meat, sweets, desserts sugar-sweetened soft drinks and tobacco products, can reduce our inflammation levels.  

Conversely, food intake high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and rich in fiber and low in fat and sugar can lead to lower systematic inflammation. Certain spices such as ginger and turmeric can also lower inflammation. 

To summarize, chronic inflammation contributes to many of the degenerative illnesses and chronic conditions that are associated with aging. We are hopeful that medical research will continue to identify opportunities to mitigate inflammation and chronic diseases.


 Dr. Mark Roth writes about internal medicine for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an internal medicine physician with University Hospitals. 

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