What is chronic inflammation? Inflammation is a natural process in the body. It is our body’s immune system working to protect us from something that is recognized as harmful or irritating. For example, when you cut your finger the body responds quickly by releasing cells and chemicals to stop bleeding, prevent infection by triggering inflammation and start the healing process. Inflammation is essential because without it even small injuries or simple infections could be deadly. So why do we hear so much today about the dangers of inflammation and that we should reduce it?
Acute vs chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation may last for a few hours or a few days. Chronic inflammation is a prolonged inflammatory response lasting for several months or even years, leaving your body in a constant state of alert. According to Harvard, “Chronic inflammation often begins with the same cellular response [as acute inflammation], but morphs into a lingering state that persists for months or years when the immune system response fails to eliminate the problem. Alternatively, the inflammation may stay active even after the initial threat has been eliminated. In other cases, low-level inflammation becomes activated even when there is no apparent injury or disease. Unchecked, the immune system prompts white blood cells to attack nearby healthy tissues and organs, setting up a chronic inflammatory process…”
What is your risk? There are several risk factors for developing chronic inflammation— some modifiable and some not—including:
• Advancing age
• Diets rich in saturated fat, trans-fats, or refined sugar
• Excessive use of alcohol
• Low testosterone or estrogen
• Chronic stress
• Sleep disorders
What are the signs? Acute inflammation may include pain, swelling, redness, and heat. The symptoms of chronic inflammation are sometimes a little more subtle and difficult to recognize. They range from mild to severe and may include fatigue, joint pain, insomnia, fever, mouth sores, rashes, frequent infections, weight gain, abdominal pain, gastrointestinal issues like constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux, chest pain, and depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.
What are the effects? With chronic inflammation, the body’s inflammatory response can eventually damage healthy cells, tissues, and organs. The effects of chronic inflammation are linked to several diseases, including cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, obesity, asthma, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. In recent estimates by Rand Corporation, in 2014 nearly 60% of Americans had at least one chronic condition, 42% had more than one and 12% of adults had 5 or more chronic conditions.
Testing and diagnosis of chronic inflammation. Talk with your medical provider about blood tests that can be done in the office to confirm clinically chronic inflammation. These may include serum protein electrophoresis (SPE), high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) and fibrinogen. Depending on your symptoms, your medical provider may recommend additional testing for diagnosis of related medical conditions.How you can reduce inflammation.
• Regardless of your weight or BMI, excessive belly fat is strongly correlated with inflammation. Ideally, a man’s waist should be 40 inches or less, and a woman’s 35 inches or less.
• Maintain healthy oral hygiene by brushing for two to three minutes, at least twice a day, with fluoridated toothpaste and flossing daily.
• Don’t skimp on sleep. An expert panel convened by the National Sleep Foundation recommended seven to nine hours a night for adults ages 26 to 64 and seven to eight hours for those ages 65 and older.
• Monitor your sugar intake. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day are ( 7 ): Men: 150 calories per day (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons) Women: 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons).
• Use anti-inflammatory medications, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, sparingly. Long-term use should only be under the direction of your medical provider. Corticosteroids may be prescribed by your medical provider.
• Herbal supplements that may be beneficial include harpagophytum procumbens (also known as devil's claw, wood spider, or grapple plant), hyssop, ginger, turmeric, or cannabis. Herbal supplements should be used with caution, and always consult a knowledgable medical provider before including them in your routine.
• Adopt an anti-inflammatory diet. Include lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant based proteins (like beans and nuts), fatty fish, and fresh herbs and spices in your diet, while avoiding highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugary drinks, red meat, fried foods and margarine or lard.
• Stay active. Current recommendations are at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of both preferably spread throughout the week.
So the bottom line is, although acute inflammation is the body’s natural defense mechanism, chronic inflammation can lead to a variety of symptoms, disease, and dysfunction. Many of the risk factors for developing chronic inflammation are modifiable. Talk to your medical provider and seek the help of a qualified professional or team of professionals to guide you in making small daily changes that will lead to a lifetime of improved health and wellness.
~Nicole Hutchison is a Physical Therapist, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Certified TRX Instructor, ACE Health Coach, and Integrative Nutrition Coach who works with clients to optimize health mind, body, spirit.
1. Understanding Inflammation. Harvard Health Publishing. [health.Harvard.edu]
2. Roma Pahwa; Anand Singh; Ishwarlal Jialal. Chronic Inflammation. [StatPearls] December 13, 2019.
3. Five Ways to Tell if You Have Chronic Inflammation. Cleveland HeartLab, Inc. April 22, 2015. [clevelandheartlab.com]
4. Everything You Need to Know About Inflammation. Medical News Today. [medicalnewstoday.com]
5. Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Road to Good Health? WebMD. [webmd.com]