We all know it as what happens when we cut a finger, are bitten by a bug or sprain an ankle. The area starts to swell or turn red or both. Inflammation, defined as “a localized protective reaction of tissue to irritation, injury or infection, characterized by pain, redness, swelling, and sometimes loss of function,” happens to everyone.

But we don’t often think of the inflammation that happens inside our bodies. It’s common to everyone at some point, but even more to those who eat a “highly processed, calorie-dense, nutrient-depleted” diet.

An article published in 2008 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology discussed the effects of such a diet.1 It noted that sugar (glucose) and fat (lipids) spike in the blood after eating a highly processed, high-fat, high-sugar meal, leading to a state called “post-prandial dysmetabolism.”

We all know what dys-function is, a problem with normal functioning. Dysmetabolism is a problem with normal food metabolism. It appears that when we eat “nutrient-depleted” foods that are also high in fat and sugar. Our bodies treat these foods like an injury.

According to the article, the greater the dysfunction, that is, the more sugar and fats we eat, the more these foods trigger the inflammation, among other negative changes within the body. And that inflammation “is an independent predictor of future cardiovascular events even in nondiabetic individuals.”

Translation? The more junk we eat, the more we trigger inflammation and other problems in our bodies, and the more we can predict our risk of heart disease. This is the case even if we don’t already have an increased risk due to some other factor, like diabetes. We just can’t see the results right away.

It’s kind of like banging your shin on the table. It hurts a little when you first do it, but then you forget about it until a day or two later when you see a big bruise. Similarly, if you eat a low-nutrient, high-fat meal, you may suffer a little indigestion but then you forget about it until you start experiencing disease symptoms. By then, most of us can’t see the connection.

However, that perspective is changing in medicine. For example, the July 2017 issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter highlights inflammation’s role in disease, noting that heart disease is just the tip of the iceberg. In the online edition of the newsletter, Brent Bauer, M.D., explains.

First, he differentiates the good from the bad. He says acute inflammation is good. It is “the kind that protects and heals the body after an injury or infection.” He then contrasts acute inflammation to low-grade or systemic inflammation, which is also known as chronic inflammation, saying it “can play a more puzzling and long-lasting role in the body.”

Bauer goes on to list the diseases and conditions in which inflammation may or does play a part. These include: rheumatoid arthritis; lupus; polymyalgia rheumatica; asthma; inflammatory bowel diseases including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease; and cancer.

The role of inflammation in various diseases and conditions is a huge area of interest among medical practitioners and researchers.

Although treatment options for this type of inflammation vary, the research indicates one thing we can all do to decrease our disease burdent. In Part II I’ll talk more about this research and what it means to those suffering from inflammation-related conditions.

1. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2008 Jan 22;51(3):249-55