Patients often come to me worried about inflammation. There are a number of questions to answer before determining if inflammation is of real concern, and how to avoid it in the future.

But first, we need to understand what inflammation is:

Inflammation is a defense mechanism that allows the body to either (1) protect itself from attack, such as from infection or a virus; or (2) repair itself if injured, such as from a broken arm.

There are two types of inflammation – acute and chronic. Doctors can tell these apart by understanding the history of the inflammation, and by looking at the inflammation under a microscope.

Acute inflammation is good inflammation and protects your body. This inflammation triggers a burst of intense activity that settles down once the body has healed. For example, when you break a bone, acute inflammation triggers swelling to protect the injured area; new bone cells are recruited and scar tissue is created to close up the area. Once the bone has healed, the inflammation is gone.

This is in sharp contrast to chronic inflammation. This inflammation does not protect your body. For example, patients who suffer from a chronic inflammatory disorder like rheumatoid arthritis (inflammation in the joints) – there is no attack (injury) on the body and the inflammation doesn’t go away with healing. Something is obviously stimulating the immune system – but what could be stimulating my body to attack and destroy my joints in rheumatoid arthritis? My brain in Alzheimer’s disease? My nervous system in Multiple Sclerosis? My liver in auto immune hepatitis? Or my gut in Crohn’s disease?

That’s the million dollar question. And I suspect that the answer is a combination of genetics, lifestyle and diet.

With identical twins, if one person has Crohn’s, the likelihood that the other twin will develop Crohn’s is around 50 percent,” saysJosh Korzenik, MD, co-director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. This means that two people who share the same genetic code have a 50/50 chance of developing this disease. The other 50 percent comes from external forces, things such as whether or not we smoke, drink alcohol, exercise or eat properly.

When to seek help
Chronic inflammation damages and alters the function of affected tissue. That tissue will have an effect on your overall health, and ultimately, your life. That may sound extreme, chronic inflammation can impact your ability physically, which may then result in limiting your mental or social abilities as well.

But there is hope! Chronic inflammation can usually be treated by a medical physician and medication.

I also suggest the following:

1) Get the right diagnosis. I’m not saying you should doubt everything you hear. What I am saying is you need to get the best diagnosis possible that fits your symptoms. Compare your symptoms to your diagnosis and make sure the two match.

Consider also who has made the diagnosis. A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis made by a family physician is not the same as one made by a neorologist specialized in this field.

2) Understand your triggers. Step back and try to figure out what has caused the inflammation. Common triggers might include stress, emotional stress, physical fatigue, smoking or drinking alcohol.

3) Eat right. Your diet should include the most nutrient dense foods possible. Avoid foods high in sugar, starch and calories. When you have a choice, choose mother earth.

4) Take supplements that have been shown to help your condition.