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Fiona Lawson | 04 Dec 2018 | Inflammation

What is chronic inflammation?

In the short term, inflammation is an essential bodily process. If you’re infected by a nasty bug or are injured in some way, the immune system ramps up inflammatory processes to halt the threat and help you heal.

Most people are familiar with this type of inflammation, and it’s typically characterised by four states:

  • Redness
  • Pain
  • Heat
  • Swelling

If you’ve ever removed a splinter, you’ll know that inflammation disappears soon enough. This is because special cells called cytokines send the message that the threat is over and the immune system can chill out once more.

Chronic inflammation is a type of inflammation that persists for months or even years. It might not be as intense as short-term (acute) inflammation, but it’s no less damaging. In fact, as you’ll discover, this type of inflammation is implicated in many chronic diseases [1].

In cases of chronic inflammation, cytokines don’t send the message that the threat is over. This may be because the immune system has learnt to become overreactive, or because the threat genuinely hasn’t gone.

What are symptoms of chronic inflammation?

The effects of chronic inflammation are generally systemic, which means they can affect any part of the body.

Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation doesn’t always manifest as pain. In fact, the symptoms can be wide-ranging and confusingly non-specific.

Some symptoms associated with chronic inflammation include:

  • General body pain
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood disorders
  • Poor digestion
  • Weight gain
  • Frequent infections

What are chronic inflammatory diseases?

Symptoms are bad enough, but what’s even more concerning is that people can have chronic inflammation for years and not really know about it. This could be because the symptoms are mild, or because they simply get used to living with them.

After a while, though, the detrimental effects of chronic inflammation reach a tipping point, and they can begin to manifest as a diagnosable disease. Many lifestyle-driven conditions have been linked to chronic inflammation, including [2]:

  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type-2 diabetes
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Irritable bowel disease
  • Depression

That’s not to say that chronic inflammation is the only driving factor behind these conditions, but that it plays a significant role.

chronic inflammation info graphic

What causes chronic inflammation?

The key thing to remember here is that the body ramps up inflammatory processes when it perceives itself to be under threat. In other words, it’s trying to protect itself.

There are many substances, agents and behaviours that can contribute to this sense of danger, and they all work via different mechanisms. Let’s take a look at a few:

Diet. A diet that’s high in trans fats and sugar, and low in phytonutrients, has been found to exacerbate inflammation. This is in part because of the hormonal and molecular response to these foods, and also because they impact the gut microbiome [3]. A person’s individual food sensitivities may also contribute to inflammation.

Infectious agents. Certain microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses or parasites, can subtly overwhelm the immune system, creating a perpetual state of inflammation. One example of this is Lyme disease, in which infection by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi can leave a person feeling permanently fatigued.

Toxic exposure. Certain toxins, such as heavy metals and cigarette smoke, can overload the body’s detoxification function and contribute to inflammation. With more than 80,000 chemicals in our atmosphere, we’re living in an age of unprecedented toxic exposure.

Obesity. Excess weight becomes a catch-22 situation. Fat tissue releases inflammatory molecules, which contribute to the accumulation of—you guessed it—more fat tissue. On a very simple level, excess weight is a threat because it puts extra strain on the body.

Lack of sleep. Insufficient sleep has been found to increase inflammation in the body. We don’t yet know the exact mechanisms behind this, but the effect is immediate and measurable [4].

Stress. A state of stress (both emotional and physical) is associated with increased release of pro-inflammatory molecules. The crucial factor here isn’t the stressful situation itself, but how the individual perceives it [5]. Something that wouldn’t faze one person—say a demanding boss—could contribute to illness in another.

How to treat chronic inflammation

As you can see, lots of factors can contribute to chronic inflammation, and the key drivers will be different in every person.

The good news is that with so many influencing elements, there are lots of points of intervention. In other words, there’s a lot you can do about it.

As your gut is the seat of your immune system, it makes sense to start with what you eat. The following foods have been found to help dial down inflammatory processes [6]:

  • Omega-3 fats, found in oily fish, flaxseeds and walnuts
  • Fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, apples and broccoli
  • Herbs and spices, especially turmeric and ginger
  • Nuts and seeds, including almonds and sesame seeds
  • Teas, particularly high-quality black and green tea

If you’re looking to lighten the load on your body, it’s best to reduce or eliminate the following:

  • Sugar and refined carbohydrates, including white bread and pasta
  • Trans fats and hydrogenated oils, found in margarine and processed foods
  • Excess alcohol
  • Excess caffeine

Common food allergens, such as wheat and dairy, can also be pro-inflammatory is some people.

The food you eat is important, but it’s just one part of the picture. To further reduce the likelihood of chronic inflammation, you may want to pay attention to the following:

Gut health. As mentioned, the majority of your immune system is clustered around your gut. If the integrity of your gut is compromised in some way, it’s likely to contribute to ongoing inflammation. You may wish to investigate leaky gut or food sensitivities, or look at the composition of your microbiome.

Sleep. This is paramount for good health, especially when it comes to minimising inflammation. Accept that high-quality kip is non-negotiable—and aim for 7–8 hours every night.

Toxic exposure. We can’t control all the toxins we come into contact with, but we can control some. For most people, stopping smoking and reducing alcohol is a good place to start.

Stress. There’s no getting away from it: modern life is stressful. You’re unlikely to be able to change the circumstances or pace of your life overnight, but you can influence how you react to things. Find a stress-reducing practice you enjoy. For some this will be walking in the countryside, while for others it will be meditation.

Exercise. This is a bit of a Goldilocks situation. Too much and too little exercise are both pro-inflammatory [7]. The right amount of exercise is also pro-inflammatory in the short term, but becomes anti-inflammatory in the long-term. The key here is to find a form of exercise that you enjoy, as you’re likely to keep doing it.

These positive lifestyle shifts can have a profound impact, in both the short and long-term. Taking ownership of your health is both empowering and necessary. However, it goes without saying that if you’re experiencing any form of unexplained pain or fatigue, it’s important you talk to your GP.

Want to delve deeper? Discover our range of tests here.

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