Updated: 21 hours ago
Inflammation is a common buzz word used in health and nutrition. You must have heard about anti-inflammatory foods and anti-inflammatory diets, but the truth is, most people do not know what inflammation actually is and how it affects our health.
Although acute (immediate/short term) inflammation is a healthy response that serves to protect and repair the body from damage, whether that be an infection in a cut or a strained muscle. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, which is the ongoing, day-to-day inflammation in the body is actually the larger issue.
This article will explore all about chronic inflammation, what it is, potential causes, the most common signs of chronic inflammation and how we can reduce/manage it.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is part of the body's defense mechanism. It is the process by which the immune system recognises and removes harmful stimuli and begins the healing process. There are generally two types of inflammation: acute and chronic inflammation.
When you scrape your knee it will become inflamed, swollen and red in an effort to heal and protect itself. Acute inflammation is a brief inflammatory response by the immune system lasting a few days or only long enough to respond to the injury of illness.
Chronic inflammation is also referred to as slow, long-term inflammation lasting for prolonged periods of several months to years. Chronic inflammation occurs when your immune system gets set permanently to “on”, and remains a constant low-level physiological response. Chronic inflammation becomes problematic because the body struggles to turn off the inflammatory response and it can start damaging healthy tissues as well.
Recent research suggests that chronic inflammation is associated with many chronic diseases including:
Heart disease (1)
Gut issues (5)
Arthritis and joint diseases (6)
As our systems become overtaxed through diet, environmental factors, lifestyle factors, and stress, it simply becomes too much for our bodies to bear.
What Are The Common Causes Of Inflammation?
There are several problems with the ‘modern’ diet. It is high in foods that provoke inflammation, such as refined flour, excess sugar, unhealthy fats, and a wide range of chemicals and preservatives. And it is low in foods that reduce inflammation, like healthy fats, fermented foods, and fibre.
One of the most harmful consequences of the modern diet has been the dramatic increase in obesity. Obesity is an inflammatory state. Studies have shown higher levels of inflammatory cytokines in obese people, and weight loss is associated with a decrease in those cytokines (7).
3. Gut Health
Disruptions in the gut bacteria (microbiome) and intestinal permeability (sometimes known as leaky gut) have both been shown to contribute to inflammation. For example, a leaky gut permits endotoxins called lipopolysaccharide (LPS) to escape the gut and enter the bloodstream, where they provoke the release of inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-α, IL-1, and COX-2 (5).
Research has shown that psychosocial stress stimulates the pro-inflammatory cytokine network, including increases in TNF-α and IL-1 which triggers inflammatory activity (8,9).
5. Sleep Deprivation
Chronic sleep loss has been shown to increase inflammatory markers even in people that are otherwise healthy (10).
How Chronic Inflammation Affects Our Health?
Chronic inflammation can reveal itself in many different ways depending on the individual, however, here are 6 commonly overlooked signs of chronic inflammation.
1. Skin issues such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis
The health of our skin is a representation of the health of our bodies. Many people with internal inflammation suffer from eczema, acne breakouts, and dry skin, among other issues. Although most people will work to treat it topically with creams and ointments, addressing diet and gut health in order to reduce inflammation can help to improve common skin issues.
2. Chronic fatigue
Fatigue can be both a cause and a sign of chronic inflammation. Not getting enough sleep can cause the body to respond with an inflammatory response, while fatigue can also be a side effect of chronic inflammation. Inflamed cells are cannot produce the energy you need throughout the day.
3. Excess Abdominal Fat
There are several lines of evidence that inflammation directly causes obesity and diabetes. A diet high in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, vegetable oils, lack of exercise, lack of sleep and chronic stress are all triggers for inflammation in your body.
For people who suffer from chronic headaches or migraines, chronic inflammation is often at the root. Given the intricate connection between our gut and our brain, issues that present in the brain are commonly linked to inflammation in the gut from inflammatory foods, food intolerances or gut issues.
5. Joint pain
If you suffer from chronic ongoing back pain or knee pain, you are likely suffering from chronic deep-rooted inflammation.
6. Bloating & gas
Although digestive issues like bloating and gas are common, they are in fact not normal. Frequent bloating, gas or digestive issues are signs of inflammation in the gut. It is easy to think of gas and bloating as no big deal, but these are in way of your body telling you that something in the digestive system is not working optimally, or a food you are eating is causing inflammation.
How To Reduce or Manage Chronic Inflammation?
Many dietary and lifestyle changes may be helpful in removing inflammation triggers and reducing chronic inflammation as listed below.
1. Eat a Nutrient-Dense & Unprocessed Diet
A nutrient-dense, unprocessed diet that contains a wide colourful variety of both animal and plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, meats, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and whole grains. Each contains different nutrients that our bodies need. It also provides the substrates that your gut bacteria need to thrive. Avoid refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and industrial seed oils.
2. Address underlying causes of inflammation
Food sensitivities, gut imbalances, and chronic infections put the body in a state of low-grade long term chronic inflammation, so identifying these issues is critical for restoring health. It’s important to explore other possible underlying causes of inflammation to eliminate the root causes.
3. Manage Stress
Chronic stress can really ruin your overall health, so managing your stress is crucial for reducing inflammation. Meditation regulates the stress response, helping to maintain a healthy gut barrier function and inflammatory balance. A consistent exercise routine and healthy sleep habits are also crucial for managing stress and supporting gut health.
Although the solution for many chronic inflammation issues is to simply take a pill, which may help you in the short term, it is not addressing the root cause of inflammation in the first place. Addressing diet, digestion, stress, and sleep are a couple of ways to begin to address chronic inflammation.
1) Chamorro A, Hallenbeck J. The Harms and Benefits of Inflammatory and Immune Responses in Vascular Disease. Stroke. 2006 Feb; 37(2): 291–293.
2) Dowlati Y, Herrmann N, Swardfager W, Liu H, Sham L, Reim EK, Lanctôt KL. (2010). A meta-analysis of cytokines in major depression. Biol Psychiatry. 1;67(5):446-57.
3) Gunnar Engström, Bo Hedblad, Lars Stavenow, Peter Lind, Lars Janzon, Folke Lindgärde. (2003). Inflammation-Sensitive Plasma Proteins Are Associated With Future Weight Gain. Diabetes Aug 2003, 52 (8) 2097-2101.
4) Kathryn E. Wellen, Gökhan S. Hotamisligil. Inflammation, stress, and diabetes (2005). J Clin Invest. 2005;115(5):1111-1119
5) Sturgeon, C., & Fasano, A. (2016). Zonulin, a regulator of epithelial and endothelial barrier functions, and its involvement in chronic inflammatory diseases. Tissue barriers, 4(4), e1251384.
6) Khanna, S., Jaiswal, K. S., & Gupta, B. (2017). Managing Rheumatoid Arthritis with Dietary Interventions. Frontiers in nutrition, 4, 52.
7) de Heredia FP1, Gómez-Martínez S, Marcos A. (2012). Obesity, inflammation and the immune system. Proc Nutr Soc. 2012 May;71(2):332-8.
8) Liu, Y. Z., Wang, Y. X., & Jiang, C. L. (2017). Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 11, 316.
9) Maydych V. (2019). The Interplay Between Stress, Inflammation, and Emotional Attention: Relevance for Depression. Frontiers in neuroscience, 13, 384. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.00384
10) Mullington, J. M., Simpson, N. S., Meier-Ewert, H. K., & Haack, M. (2010). Sleep loss and inflammation. Best practice & research. Clinical endocrinology & metabolism, 24(5), 775–784. doi:10.1016/j.beem.2010.08.014