Inflammation is a term that gets tossed out a lot these days, but what does it actually mean? And how does it impact your blood sugar? Here's everything you need to know about inflammation when you have diabetes.

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You may have heard about inflammation but not be quite sure what it is or how it may impact you, particularly if you have diabetes. Plus, what you eat can play a role in helping quell inflammation. Some foods and nutrients are anti-inflammatory (luckily, they're usually also good for blood sugar). Read on to find out more about inflammation and how it impacts your health, what you need to know about inflammation and diabetes and foods and nutrients to eat more of.

Roasted Salmon with Smoky Chickpeas & Greens with a designed background
Credit: Jennifer Peterson

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation happens when our immune system responds to damage done to our cells. This normal immune response can protect and heal our body, but when there is too much inflammation it can damage our tissues and harm our health.

If you've ever had a cut or bruise, you have likely seen inflammation at work. The swelling, burning, and redness that appears around a wound are all signs of inflammation. This is part of the body's process of repairing damage done to its tissues, and it eventually subsides when the wound is healed. But not all inflammation is visible. Just as it can happen on the surface of our skin, inflammation can also happen deep within our body tissues. If a tissue or organ is damaged, inflammation occurs as the body works to heal itself.

How Inflammation Impacts Your Health

Inflammation that happens for a short time in response to an injury or illness is normal, and not a cause for concern. It's inflammation that happens on an ongoing basis, called chronic inflammation, that may have an impact on your health. Chronic inflammation means that tissue damage occurs on an ongoing basis. Over time, this may lead to increased risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes, as well as some autoimmune conditions, neurological diseases, and cancer.

When the body is in a chronic inflammatory state, we can experience lowered immunity. Chronic inflammation can also cause tissue damage that makes us more susceptible to the development of certain diseases. Chronic inflammation is like the match that lights the fire to "turn on" the genes that are responsible for disease.

Chronic inflammation can also contribute to some pretty uncomfortable everyday symptoms like brain fog, indigestion, difficulty losing weight, and fatigue. Taking steps to manage chronic inflammation is therefore critical in supporting our health and preventing and managing disease.

Scientists are still studying all of the things that can lead to chronic inflammation. Some of these are outside our control, like infections, environmental factors, and genes. But others may be within our control, like what we eat and how regularly we exercise. Research also suggests that making certain changes, like getting regular physical activity, managing stress, and eating more fruits and vegetables may help manage chronic inflammation.

How Chronic Inflammation Impacts Your Blood Sugar

So what's the connection between chronic inflammation and diabetes? It's a bit complicated. Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, but it can also be a complication of diabetes.

In the case of type 1 diabetes, inflammation is part of the autoimmune response that causes the disease. Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition in which the body cannot make enough insulin. Chronic inflammation from the body's autoimmune response causes damage to the insulin producing cells in the pancreas, which leads to even more inflammation. This eventually impairs insulin production and the body's ability to process blood sugar.

Although more research needs to be done, studies have found that inflammation in response to environmental factors, including inflammation from exposure to infections, may influence the development of type 1 diabetes.

Inflammation also plays a major role in the formation and progression of type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is chronic condition in which the body has difficulty processing glucose (aka blood sugar) from carbohydrates in food. This causes chronically high levels of blood sugar, which eventually triggers the body's inflammatory response. Over time, type 2 diabetes causes ongoing inflammation in the body.

Inflammation is also a factor in developing type 2 diabetes. Studies have found that pro-inflammatory compounds can disrupt the insulin-signaling pathways involved in metabolizing glucose, thus contributing to type 2 diabetes.

Research has also found that excess body fat increases the risk for developing inflammation and chronic diseases that promote inflammation, such as type 2 diabetes. Chronic inflammation can also contribute to excess body fat, creating a vicious cycle of weight gain, inflammation, blood sugar dysfunction, and subsequent risk for increased risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Anti-Inflammatory Nutrients that Can Help with Chronic Inflammation

Nutrition plays a key role in managing chronic inflammation as it can help minimize damage done from inflammation through the power of antioxidants. Antioxidants are anti-inflammatory compounds that help neutralize inflammatory compounds like free radicals. They're found in a variety of foods including fatty fish, fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs. Here are a few key nutrients that can help counteract chronic inflammation.

Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to fight inflammation, making them an important part of the diet. Getting enough omega-3s is essential for everyone, but especially important for people who have a higher inflammatory load and need an extra boost of antioxidants. Some of the best sources of omega-3s include fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel. You can also get omega-3s from plant-based sources like walnuts and flaxseeds.

Curcumin

Curcumin is a type of antioxidant found in the popular spice turmeric. Turmeric root, which is in the same plant family as ginger, can be enjoyed fresh or dried as a spice and has been used for centuries as a medicinal food in Ayurvedic and Eastern medicine. Preliminary research suggests curcumin may help decrease blood glucose and improve insulin resistance in people with diabetes. You can use turmeric as a spice in a variety of savory dishes including curries and chicken salad. You can also make turmeric latte or add turmeric to your smoothies to get an extra boost of turmeric in your beverages.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is another antioxidant that helps drive down oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. Although more research needs to be done, a recent study found that vitamin C may decrease oxidative stress from inflammation in people with type 2 diabetes. You can get a healthy dose of vitamin C in your diet by regularly eating citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers and kiwi.

Polyphenols

Polyphenols are a group of phytonutrients, or compounds, that occur in plant foods. Examples of polyphenols include flavonols, quercetin, catechins, anthocyanins, and resveratrol. Polyphenols fight inflammation by quelling free radicals and regulating the activity of pro-inflammatory compounds. Polyphenols can be found in a variety of foods and spices, including berries, cinnamon, dark chocolate, red onions and purple cabbage.

The Bottom Line

Nutrition and diet play a big role in helping decrease inflammation through antioxidants found in foods. Taking in plenty of nutrients that help counter chronic inflammation can play a part in managing diabetes. The easiest way to take in more key nutrients like omega-3 fats, curcumin, vitamin c and polyphenols is to eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables every day as well as fatty fish a few times a week. The good news? This can not only help counter chronic inflammation but also help you manage your blood sugar.