The human body has a number of natural responses that it uses to protect itself against harm. At the most fundamental level, inflammation is a defence mechanism that occurs when the body recognises problems and attempts to heal them. While this biological response lies at the core of self-protection, it can easily get out of control and cause more harm than good.
When inflammation persists for longer than necessary, chronic and painful conditions can develop. In order to combat systemic inflammation, it's important to identify the warning signs of chronic inflammation, the causes of chronic inflammation, and learn how to fight back by making changes to your diet.
Contents:Why Does the Body Produce Inflammation? Acute vs Chronic Inflammation Signs of Chronic Inflammation
- Poor Gut Health
- Unhealthy Skin
- Affected Sleep Patterns
- Stubborn Inability to Lose Weight
- Poor Respiratory Function
- Auto-immune Disease
- Poor Joint Function
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Poor Bone Health
- Gum and Oral Damage
- Mental Health Problems
- Chronic Allergies
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Cancer Links/Risks
- Poor Nutrition and Dietary Choices
- Leaky Gut Syndrome
- Elevated Levels of Stress
- Prolonged Illness or Disease
Why does the body produce inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural self-protective process against infection from foreign organisms such as bacteria and viruses. During this process, white blood cells and related substances are produced by your immune system, resulting in irritation, discharge, granulation, and the formation of new tissue.
The healing of surface wounds is the most obvious example of inflammation, with this acute process also working under the surface if you have an infection such as the flu or pneumonia. Inflammation is natural, necessary, and helps to combat stress - but sometimes things go wrong.
Acute vs Chronic Inflammation
The acute inflammatory response produced by your immune system is fundamental to healing. Not only does it help you to fight off foreign invaders and other short-term threats, it also allows your body to protect itself while down and heal as quickly as possible. Acute inflammation starts quickly and becomes severe over a short period of time, typically days or weeks depending on the cause of the problem.
The five signs of acute inflammation are pain, redness, immobility, swelling, and heat. While all of these signs are easy to recognise in surface skin conditions, internal problems such as acute bronchitis or a sore throat can cause different symptoms. Chronic inflammation is another story, with this long-term condition possibly lasting for months or even years. The symptoms of chronic inflammation can be mysterious and are often dependent on the specific condition in question.
Typical symptoms include fever, chest pain, fatigue, and joint pain among others. While acute inflammation attempts to heal the body quickly, chronic conditions can cause tissue death and scarring if they are not treated properly or if treatment is unsuccessful. Unlike acute inflammation, which is always used as a form of self-protection, chronic inflammation can occur in three different ways.
- a failed attempt to eliminate the root cause of acute inflammation
- an autoimmune disorder that attacks the body by mistake
- long-term exposure to dietary or environmental stresses
Signs of Chronic Inflammation
1. Poor Gut Health
An unhealthy gut can cause a range of physical and mental health problems, including chronic pain, depression, and autoimmune disorders just to name a few. Because our immune systems are largely housed in the gut, there are a number of complex and important links between gut health and chronic inflammation.
While the intestinal tract of the gut seems deeply internal and self-contained, this large mucosal surface actually acts as a selective barrier between your body and the external environment. Inflammation of the intestinal lining can cause intestinal permeability and associated gut health problems, which can manifest in both acute and chronic health problems.
2. Unhealthy Skin:Chronic inflammation has been associated with a range of skin conditions, including acne, wrinkles, eczema, redness, and psoriasis just to name a few. Inflamed skin is often the result of internal stress, with these conditions often short-term and normally indicating an underlying issue. However, while acute inflammation can be a powerful way to remove toxic materials during the healing process, this can easily lead to chronic inflammation when the underlying cause of the problem is not addressed. In order to improve skin health, it's important to look at underlying health issues and environmental conditions.
3. Affected Sleep PatternsSleep disorders and fatigue have been linked to chronic inflammation, with insomnia and other sleep disorders both affected by inflammation and found to increase inflammation in the body. Inflammatory messengers, known as cytokines, are increased when people are not sleeping well. In turn, elevated cytokine levels that result from arthritis, sinusitis, and other diseases related to chronic inflammation can cause sleep loss.
4. Stubborn Inability to Lose WeightChronic inflammation can cause weight gain over time and make efforts at weight loss more difficult. While inflammation is an essential part of your body's healing system, it can also affect long-term fat storage and short-term bloating or water-weight gain. Chronic low-grade inflammation can easily arise when you eat unhealthy foods and fail to do regular exercise, as histamine and cortisol levels rise and affect your metabolism. While diet and exercise are the foundations of weight loss, unless you deal with the underlying causes of your inflammation, you'll always be one step behind.
5. Poor Respiratory FunctionLong-term inflammation is not good for the lungs and can cause lung cancer and interstitial lung disease over time. Interstitial lung disease is a general category that includes many different lung conditions, including pneumonia, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and sarcoidosis. Smoking and other environmental risk factors often cause chronic airway inflammation, with genetic and epigenetic modulations possibly leading to chronic tissue injury and the development of abnormal tumours.
6. Autoimmune disease ConnectionAutoimmune diseases occur when the body mistakes its own tissues for foreign invaders, ultimately attacking itself as a form of misguided self-protection. Common autoimmune diseases include lupus, type 1 diabetes, and Crohn's disease. In many ways, the autoimmune response is the ultimate example of chronic inflammation, which creates an overproduction of cytokines and chemokines in an attempt to heal the body. Even if there is an original infection by a virus or other micro-organism, when the healing process becomes chronic, it is automatically problematic and often results in disease.
7. Poor Joint FunctionWhile most episodes of inflammation resolve spontaneously, some chronic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis can accumulate in the joints and lead to long-term discomfort and pain. Joint inflammation is often accompanied by warmth and swelling, with articular sources of pain originating within the joint, and periarticular sources of pain originating in the structures surrounding the joint. While systemic inflammation does not always cause joint problems, it is a common cause of acute polyarticular arthritis.
8. Cardiovascular disease:Chronic inflammation has been linked to cardiovascular disease, with evidence pointing towards pro-inflammatory cytokines as the root cause. Most risk markers for cardiovascular disease include a pro-inflammatory component, including things such as stress, unhealthy diet, hypertension, diabetes, and smoking. Doctors are increasingly using inflammatory markers to identify people at risk for cardiovascular events, including imaging techniques, the identification of temperature or pH heterogeneity, and the measurement of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein.
9. Issues Associated with Your Bones:Inflammatory diseases of the bones and joints can result from chronic inflammation and related systemic disease. Osteomyelitis is a specific bone disease that involves an inflammation of the bone marrow and surrounding bone due to an infection. If bone infections resulting from inflammation are not treated appropriately, they can become chronic and lead to pain and swelling.
10. Gum and Oral Damage:Gum inflammation includes gingivitis and periodontitis, with inflamed gum tissue typically characterised by redness and swelling. Systemic inflammation can create chronic gum and mouth problems, including bleeding, swelling, and pain. While cleaning your teeth and gums through brushing and flossing is the best way to improve your oral health, long-term inflammation also needs to be treated through dietary and environmental changes.
11. Mental Health ProblemsWe are only now learning of the intricate connections between chronic inflammation and mental health. Brain inflammation and gut inflammation have both been linked to a range of mood disorders, including depression disorder and anxiety disorder. More serious mental health conditions such as autism, dementia, and schizophrenia have also been linked to brain inflammation, with long-term inflammation known to damage brain tissue and compromise gut health.
12. Chronic allergiesMost people who suffer from allergies experience some form of chronic inflammation, which has different names when it appears in different parts of the body. For example, inflammation of the airways is known as asthma, inflammation of the nose is known as rhinitis, and inflammation of the sinuses is known as sinusitis. While an acute allergic response can be appropriate to protect the body, chronic allergies are often the result of the body's over-reaction to a normally harmless substance.
13. Chronic Fatigue SyndromeChronic fatigue is a mysterious and controversial disease that may arise as a result of systemic inflammation. A recent study has linked this disease to cytokines, the immune system molecules that react to infections and inflammation. While there is no cure for this disease, the identification of pro-inflammatory cytokines may play a crucial role is helping people make the nutritional and lifestyle changes needed to improve their condition.
14. Cancer Links/Risks
Chronic inflammation has been linked to a higher risk of developing cancer, with invasive tumour growth increasingly understood as wound healing gone wrong. Many cancers arise from sites of infection, chronic irritation, and inflammation, with tumour cells also known to co-opt innate immune system molecules.
Along with trying to "cure" cancer by fighting it outright, researchers are also looking into the biological infrastructure that supports tumour growth. It's already been proven that some chronic inflammatory diseases, including pancreatitis and Crohn’s disease, can increase a person’s risk of cancer. New research goes even further, with inflammatory cells possibly feeding rogue cells with free radicals and helping to enable tumour growth.
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
1. Poor Nutrition and dietary choices
Sugar:Consuming too much sugar has been linked to a range of chronic inflammation markers, including those known to cause obesity, and gut permeability. Chronic, low-grade inflammation from excessive sugar can lead to oxidative stress, high levels of bad cholesterol, and unhealthy gut symptoms.
Saturated Fats:Foods with a high saturated fat content have been found to increase adipose inflammation, with the inflammation of fat tissue linked to heart disease, cardiovascular problems, and arthritis. While saturated fats are needed for healthy gut conditions, too much red meat or dairy can increase systemic inflammation.
Trans Fats:Unlike saturated fats, which should be consumed in moderation, trans fats are almost entirely problematic. These fats are commonly found in fast foods and processed food products, with the worst offenders including partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list. Trans fatty acids have been found to increase the risk of coronary heart disease, sudden death, heart failure, and possibly diabetes.
Excessive use of Omega 6 fatty acids:While omega 6 fatty acids are mostly safe to consume, a high intake of these fats may increase the risk of several chronic diseases by promoting low-grade inflammation. The reasoning behind this speculation is that linoleic acid is converted into arachidonic acid in the human body, which in turn is converted into a number of inflammatory compounds.
Refined carbohydrates:Refined carbohydrates include simple or processed carbs such as sugars, white wheat flour, and other refined grains. Because these grains have been stripped of pretty much all of their fibre, vitamins, and minerals, they can lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and systemic inflammation.
MSG:Monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, has been found to cause liver inflammation and other forms of chronic inflammation that are common to many disease pathways. The MSG treatment of mice has been found to induce obesity and diabetes, with one study suggesting that MSG should be re-examined and potentially withdrawn from the food chain.
Gluten and Casein:Gluten is a composite of proteins typically found in wheat, with similar ‘glutinous’ proteins found in related grains such as rye, corn, and barley. Casein is the name for a family of related proteins found in cow milk and other mammalian milk. While the jury is still out, both of these substances may lead to or advance chronic inflammation by activating the immune system and compromising gut health.
Aspartame:Research suggests links between aspartame and inflammation, with artificial sweeteners containing this ingredient possibly breaking down in the gut and disrupting the natural processes that are vital for neutralising harmful toxins. If the gut lining is irritated for long enough, gut leakage is likely and low-level inflammation is possible.
AlcoholAlcohol use has been linked to chronic inflammation in numerous studies, with excessive drinking found to increase the translocation of gut microflora-derived lipopolysaccharide (LPS). While healthy individuals can deal with this through the anti-inflammatory regulation of their central nervous system, chronic alcohol use can lead to compromised liver health and persistent systemic inflammation.
2. Leaky Gut Syndrome
Leaky gut syndrome has been linked to low-grade inflammation and the increased likelihood of numerous diseases. The bi-directional relationship between inflammation and gut health can be witnessed in people with a permeable or leaking gut, which is often the result of immune system secretions travelling throughout the body and causing oxidating stress to biological tissues. Possible signs of a leaky gut include irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, gastric ulcers, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and acute and chronic inflammation conditions.
A leaking or permeable gut is also likely to trigger additional inflammatory immune system and central neuroinflammatory responses, with the feedback loop between chronic inflammation and gut leakage possibly resulting in neuro autoimmunity. An unhealthy negative feedback loop between poor gut health and chronic inflammation may be partly responsible for the proliferation of many modern diseases. Leaky gut syndrome and unhealthy gut flora can be caused or worsened by genetic factors, poor nutrition, and unhealthy lifestyle choices.
3. Elevated levels of stressStress is often called the "silent killer", wreaking havoc on body and mind and influencing every aspect of health and well-being. Psychological stress has been associated with a greater risk for depression, heart disease, and infectious diseases, seemingly unrelated conditions that may involve a single common factor - chronic inflammation. According to new research, long-term psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the hormone cortisol and its associated inflammatory response.
4. Prolonged illness or diseaseLong-term illness or disease can increase the likelihood of developing chronic inflammation. In fact, the bi-directional feedback loop that exists between disease and inflammation may be at the heart of many long-term health problems. The persistent, low-grade attacks that characterise chronic inflammation are more likely when people are suffering from illness, with a compromised immune system in turn leading to more pronounced inflammatory responses. While this may seem paradoxical, modern researchers continue to reconsider the classical concept of inflammation in the light of new research.
Chronic Inflammation Treatment
1. Dietary changes
While fighting chronic inflammation requires a multi-pronged attack, making nutritional changes is probably the most powerful weapon we have at our disposal. Eating plenty of natural and unprocessed foods is crucial if you want to promote healthy gut flora and avoid inflammation, including cruciferous vegetables and foods high in antioxidants.
Cruciferous vegetables offer a number of anti-inflammatory benefits, with popular vegetables including broccoli sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, kale, and cauliflower. These foods have been found to reduce total mortality and cardiovascular disease mortality associated with an increase in chronic inflammation markers. Among other things, cruciferous vegetables offer a source of a highly available calcium and iron. Antioxidants have also been associated with a decrease in inflammation markers, including coenzyme Q10, glutathione, alpha-lipoic acid, curcumin, and a range of vitamins and minerals.
Antioxidants help the body to fight oxidation, a normal chemical process that can be accelerated by environmental and psychological stresses. Disruptions in the natural oxidation process cause highly unstable and potentially damaging molecules called free radicals. Other than cruciferous vegetables, there are many other anti-inflammatory foods that are high in antioxidants, including blueberries, flaxseed oil, green tea, garlic, ginger, onions, extra virgin olive oil, seaweed, and turmeric.
2. Regular physical exercise
Along with dietary changes, regular physical activity is central to fighting systemic inflammation. While bouts of physical exercise tend to trigger acute inflammation, regular exercise has been found to decrease chronic or systemic inflammation when applied on a long-term basis.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) offers the biggest anti-inflammatory benefits, including exercises that involve intense bursts of high-intensity activity followed by periods of low-intensity rest. These exercises allow your body to release anti-inflammatory myokines, which regulates glucose levels, free fats from your adipose cells and burn fats within the skeletal muscle. Acting as chemical messengers, myokines also inhibit the release of inflammatory cytokines produced by body fat.
3. Practising MindfulnessMindfulness and meditation can be very effective in reducing chronic inflammation, especially when combined with healthy nutrition and regular exercise. While mindfulness is unlikely to reduce long-term inflammation by itself, it can help to reduce psychological stress and the ability of the body to regulate cortisol levels and associated inflammatory responses. New research suggests that mind-body interventions might help to reduce the risk for inflammation-related disorders, even physical ones such as asthma and arthritis.
4. Nutritional Supplementation
Nutritional supplements can play a crucial role in decreasing and managing chronic inflammation. While it's always better to get what you need from whole natural foods, supplements can also be an effective and efficient nutritional vehicle. Some vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are particularly useful in our fight against inflammation, including zinc, quercetin, vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin K, and magnesium. Powerful food-based supplements, sometimes known as superfoods, can also be used to help fight inflammation.
For example, broccoli sprouts allow you to unlock the anti-inflammatory benefits of sulforaphane, turmeric contains powerful levels of curcumin, and spirulina offers a number of great antioxidant effects. Other foods that fight against inflammation include probiotics, bone broth, collagen, diatomaceous earth, and matcha. Any foods or supplements that help to heal the gut and promote healthy gut flora can help you to avoid the chronic inflammation that is responsible for so many diseases.