Inflammation: What Is This Health Buzzword and Why Should You Care About It?

On a classic episode of The Office, Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott burns his foot on a George Foreman grill. Later in the episode, a doctor says to him: “For a burn, you really just need to look at the outside of the foot…does the skin look red and swollen?” Although one of the other characters responds to this question with a common punch line on the show, what the doctor was really probing for is whether there were traditional signs of inflammation on Michael’s foot.

Inflammation is one of the body’s first lines of defense against infection or injury. So whether you’ve burned your foot like Michael, given yourself a paper cut, or been infected by bacteria, your body initiates the inflammatory response to help you deal with the damage and heal.

Locally, at the site of the infection or injury, inflammation is typically marked by certain symptoms, such as those that the doctor on The Office was asking about: redness, swelling, heat, and pain. These cardinal signs of inflammation reflect biological processes that are helping get rid of the infection and/or repair injured tissue. The inflammatory response can also have effects throughout the body to promote recovery, such as the fever you may get when you have a flu.

Importantly, this inflammatory response is self-limiting, meaning that once it’s no longer needed, it ends. This kind of short-term or acute inflammation in response to burning our feet or getting sick protects us from injury and infection and is crucial for our survival.

But if inflammation is so helpful, then why did TIME magazine run a cover story calling inflammation “the secret killer”? Why do The Huffington Post, Health magazine, Self magazine, and ABC News all have articles listing which “inflammation-fighting” foods you should eat?

When people refer to the damaging nature of inflammation, they’re usually talking about chronic or long-term inflammation. This kind of persistent inflammation typically occurs at low levels throughout the body and doesn’t resolve itself the way that acute inflammation does. When the inflammatory response doesn’t end, it can lead to damage to your tissues, and this tissue damage can lead to further inflammation, leaving you in a dangerous cycle of chronic inflammation.

Chronic inflammation has been linked with many physical health issues, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer. So when articles are discussing which foods have anti-inflammatory properties and calling inflammation “the secret killer,” they’re usually referring to these kinds of chronic diseases where systemic inflammation has been found to play a central role.

Interestingly, the impact of inflammation isn’t limited to physical health issues. Inflammatory processes may also be contributing to several mental health disorders. For example, there is evidence supporting the idea that inflammation could potentially be leading to depression, at least for some patients. In addition to depression, there may also be an inflammatory component involved in other psychological and cognitive disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, your level of chronic inflammation may even be linked to your longevity. Several studies have shown that measuring people’s levels of systemic inflammation can predict their risk of dying.

From helping you heal your burned foot to potentially contributing to a vast array of physical and mental health disorders, inflammation is a health buzzword for a reason. Inflammation in an acute setting is a protective response to help you fight off injury and infection, but when it becomes excessive and/or chronic, it can also cause damage in many ways.

While it’s clear that a whole host of disorders have been linked with inflammation, the specifics of the role of inflammation in many of these disorders is less clear, making the study of inflammation and its relationship to chronic disease a hot topic of research and suggesting that inflammation will likely keep its buzzword status in the medical world for a while. In the meantime, if you burn your foot on a George Foreman grill and you see your skin turn red and swollen, you know what to blame.