What you Need to Know About Chronic Inflammation

There are two types of inflammation. Acute inflammation is your body’s response to infection, injury (such as a strained ankle), illness, or a response to things that don’t belong in your body (think of a bug bite or a splinter) and is usually painful, swollen, hot, and red. Acute inflammation happens suddenly and is temporary. Our bodies send antibodies to the injured area, producing more blood flow to accelerate healing. If you do not have any significant problems with your immune system, acute inflammation will go away as the body heals. It is treatable with rest, ice, compression, elevation (RICE), and sometimes short-term medication use (such as ibuprofen or antibiotics). Sometimes acute inflammation becomes chronic, but usually it does not.  

Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is often misunderstood. Chronic inflammation lasts for months or even years and is often not accompanied by the same pain, redness, or swelling associated with acute inflammation. Sometimes, it often goes unnoticed, even though its effects are seen in other ways in your body. Basically, the opposite reaction happens in your body during chronic inflammation than during acute inflammation. During acute inflammation, innate immune cells form the first line of immune defense and regulate the activation of your immune system response. But, during chronic inflammation, these roles can be reversed — your immune response can cause ongoing and excessive activation of innate immune cells. Your body continues to send inflammatory cells even though there is no longer any danger, and these inflammatory cells can cause damage to your body (vs. acute inflammation, which can aid in healing). Chronic inflammation is linked to various diseases, food sensitivities, age, and lifestyle.

Recognizing chronic inflammation is crucial. You can’t treat what you aren’t aware of! Symptoms of chronic inflammation vary depending on the cause. Symptoms of chronic inflammation include abdominal pain, chest pain, fatigue and/or inability to sleep, fever, joint pain/stiffness, skin rashes, mouth sores, GI problems (like diarrhea, constipation, or acid reflux), frequent infections, weight loss or gain. They can affect your mental health (depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders). Some symptoms are associated with inflammatory disease, and some are your body’s response to other internal or environmental factors. Some inflammatory diseases are autoimmune diseases (like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriasis, and ankylosing spondylitis), cardiovascular diseases (such as heart disease or high blood pressure), certain cancers, gastrointestinal diseases (like Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease), lung diseases (like asthma and COPD), metabolic diseases (such as type 2 diabetes), neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease), and mental health conditions (anxiety and depression). Chronic inflammation also puts you at a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome. That’s a long list, and all of these diseases present differently, with inflammation present in different parts of the body. These are all diseases that require a diagnosis by a medical professional who will recommend lifestyle and diet changes and possibly medication. According to the Cleveland Clinic, inflammatory diseases, when combined, account for half of deaths worldwide, so if you think you may be suffering from an inflammatory disease, it is important to talk with your healthcare provider.

Another contributing factor to chronic inflammation is age. As we age, low-grade chronic inflammation, termed “inflammaging”, is more common. In fact, chronic inflammation might accelerate the aging process- the two may affect each other. As we age, mitochondria in the immune cells (macrophages) lose their ability to signal and uptake calcium with age. This leads to chronic inflammation, responsible for many ailments that afflict us later in life. Much like reducing inflammation due to environmental and lifestyle choices, age-related inflammation can be mitigated by reducing stress, losing weight if you are overweight, increasing physical activity, and quitting smoking and quitting or reducing drinking alcohol. You can prevent some age-related inflammation by having a healthy diet and maintaining a good exercise routine! Reducing chronic inflammation becomes more crucial the older we get, and preventing this type of inflammation through exercise, such as aerobic exercise, strength training, and resistance training, can help prevent “inflammaging” and the toll it takes on your body. 

That said, most chronic inflammation is caused by environmental and lifestyle choices. Some things that can cause non-disease-related chronic inflammation are inadequate physical activity, obesity, chronic stress, an imbalance in your gut microbiome, certain foods or food sensitivities, poor sleep, exposure to air pollution (or other chemicals), smoking tobacco, and drinking. Regardless of the cause of inflammation, all of these factors can cause or worsen chronic inflammation. Some of these factors are easy to pinpoint, such as smoking tobacco (easier said than done, we know. The Illinois Quit Line can help for free- Illinois Tobacco Quitline) and cutting back on alcohol (if you are struggling with cutting back on drinking, SAMHSA has some free resources- SAMHSA’s National Helpline). Some factors contributing to inflammation may go unnoticed for years. One of these contributing factors is diet.

Diet can play a large part in inflammation, even if you do not have a food intolerance. Foods like fried food, most fast food, foods high in trans fat, cured meats high in nitrates (such as hotdogs and some deli meats), refined carbs (like white bread and food high in sugar), and foods high in salt. It’s best to avoid eating these foods as a part of your regular diet. They increase inflammation in the body and contribute to weight gain (which also increases inflammation), imbalance in your gut microbiome (again, causing inflammation), and other health problems. On the other hand, an extensive list of foods can help reduce inflammation. These include leafy greens, healthy fats (like those found in salmon), fruits, ginger, and garlic. For an extensive list of foods that can help reduce inflammation, check out the Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Further complicating the relationship between food and inflammation is the possibility of a sensitivity to certain foods. Food intolerance (not the same as a food allergy) may go unnoticed for years. While no two people are the same, some common food intolerances are intolerance to dairy, gluten, and foods containing histamine (like red wine, certain cheeses, bananas, and chocolate). You may have an uncommon food intolerance. For example, I’ve known people who do not tolerate corn or eggs, which are not on the list of “common” foods that can cause inflammation or other symptoms. Food intolerance symptoms include inflammation, bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea, gas, headaches, heartburn, and upset stomach. Allergy tests administered by a doctor cannot detect food intolerance. Instead, they will likely ask you to keep a food diary and log what you eat and your symptoms. They may also ask you to adhere to an elimination diet for a few weeks and slowly add foods back. Reducing or eliminating foods from your diet that you are sensitive to can help control inflammation and reduce other symptoms, so if you think that you may have a sensitivity for food, start a food journal with what you ate, how it made you feel, and any symptoms you might have is a great way to start trying to nail down what you might be intolerant to. 

Last but not least- exercise helps reduce and prevent inflammation! Regardless of why you are experiencing chronic inflammation, exercise is one of the best tools in your tool kit to reduce it. Regular exercise also acts as a great defense against developing chronic inflammation, even age-associated inflammation. Everyone’s ability to exercise is different (especially if you are already struggling with arthritis or other inflammatory diseases that limit mobility), but no matter what, more movement is always better! 150 minutes a week of vigorous exercise is recommended, including strength training. Lifting weights and resistance training is particularly helpful (as long as you get adequate rest- listen to your body!). Strength training increases the body’s daily energy expenditure (metabolism) and insulin sensitivity (key to preventing diabetes), which not only helps with inflammation but contributes to weight loss, has mental health benefits, and reduces your risk for other illnesses. Aerobic exercise is also important (such as running, HIIT, or other cardio exercise), so make sure you balance your week to include both! 

As always, a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise are important to your overall health and wellness!