Healing Requires Inflammation

When tissue is damaged by trauma or exercise, it heals by using your immune system, which is the same biological mechanism that you use to kill germs. Inflammation plays an important role in healing and occurs when your body sends cells and proteins to the damaged tissue to promote healing, namely the inflammatory cells. The inflammatory cells (macrophages) releases a hormone — Insulin Growth Factor (IGF-1) into the affected area to kickstart the healing process. A common practice of applying ice to reduce swelling actually delays healing by preventing the body from releasing IGF-1.

Anything that reduces inflammation will also delay muscle healing. This includes almost all pain relieving medications (anti-inflammatory drugs), immunosuppressants, and ice/cold packs to name a few. Applying ice causes blood vessels to constrict the blood flow that are important for bringing healing cells via inflammation. Since the blood vessels will dilate over several hours after the application of ice, the decreased flow can cause the tissue to die and increases the risk of causing permanent nerve damage.

Instead, a short duration of ice application for pain management can be used, but there is less reason to apply ice after the initial duration of the minor injury. With minor injuries, you can typically begin rehabilitation as soon as the next day. The basic idea of rehabilitation is to move and use the injured part in a controlled manner as long as the movement itself does not increase pain and discomfort. Get back to your life and chosen activities as soon as you can do so without pain.

Acute vs Chronic Inflammation

Inflammation is essential to the body’s healing system, but only if it is the right kind. Acute and chronic are the two types of inflammation. Acute is an inflammation that starts quickly and lasts for a relatively short time (a few days to a few weeks). This type of inflammation is easy to feel and recognize as the individual may experience pain, swelling or immobility to some level.

Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation can be a serious problem and can last for several months to years. It typically occurs from persistent exposure to irritation of the damaged area. If it does not remedy itself, the bodily chemicals sent to repair damaged areas may begin to damage healthy cells and tissues. It may also be an autoimmune response to some allergens which means that the immune system cannot shut off and fight against the inflammation.

The symptoms associated with it can appear to be harmless on a daily basis, it may even just be an episode and not consistent symptoms. However, with enough time the symptoms will deteriorate and diseases may begin to set in.

How Your Diet and Environment Affects the Healing Process

A few things can promote inflammation—

  • Diet/nutrition- High-sugar, high-processed carb, high-industrial fat, high-gluten, high-CAFO meat is a common staple of the modern Western diet.
  • Omega 3&6- Poor Omega-3 status means insufficient production of anti-inflammatory cells and an unequal inflammatory response to heal efficiently. High Omega-6 intake (especially when combined with poor Omega-3 intake) means excessive production of inflammatory cells and again an unequal inflammatory response.
  • Environment- Lack of time spent in nature and too much time in artificial environments.
  • Sleep- Poor sleep is linked to elevated inflammatory markers. Poor sleep is a chronic problem in many countries. Going to bed too late, waking up too early, and/or using too many electronics late at night (exposure to blue light) that disrupts the quality of sleep.
  • Stress- Modern life stressors which adds up. When stressors from your daily life be it work or personal, physical or mental becomes too much, your body will have a physiological, inflammatory response to emotional stress. Humans generally respond better to acute stressors than repeated sustained stress – even if it is of a lower intensity.
  • Overtraining- Some people move too much with too little rest and recovery. Overtraining can be a form of chronic inflammation.
  • When you are always on the go. Even in a stationary state, you are still not relaxing.
  • The gut is the house of the majority of the human immune system. If your gut is unhealthy, so will your inflammatory regulation be.

So the next time you sprain your ankle or encounter soft-tissue injuries, remember that inflammation is aiding the healing process. We would not advise using ice on the affected area, instead, eat well, get lots of sleep and keep stress levels at a minimum. Applying these tips can help speed up the healing process and get you back to your daily function sooner!

*Disclaimer: For informational purposes only. It is advised to seek professional attention before beginning any exercise or nutritional program.