What is Chronic Inflammation and How Do We Stop It?
Inflammation is the body’s response to stress, infection, or foreign substances and is a normal, healthy part of your everyday life. In a normal situation, inflammation is our friend. When your immune system senses foreign pathogens or particles, it sends in the SWAT team – proteins that protect the body and cause inflammation. However, if inflammation goes on for too long or
your body is inappropriately getting inflamed, it can have some long term and serious effects for our health.
So, what is inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s first line of defense against toxins, infections and injuries. When your cells are in distress, they release chemicals to alert your immune system that something is wrong. Your immune system responds by sending in inflammatory cells to trap the foreign substances and heal the tissues. One of the side effects of this inflammatory response is that blood vessels leak fluid into the site of injury, causing the swelling and redness that we so typically see. This swelling is a critical part of the healing process and is actually a good thing. The swelling, redness, and warmth are signs that your immune system is sending white blood cells, immune cell-stimulating growth factors, and nutrients to the affected areas. Even though it is healthy, this inflammation should only be temporary. When the toxin or infection goes away, the inflammation should subside.
Another type of inflammation is stress-induced. Instead of inflammatory cells rushing to one site on the body, they instead are released in the bloodstream and travel throughout the entire body. This is called your “fight or flight” response and is the feeling of adrenaline coursing through
your body when you are in a scary or dangerous situation. However, constant stress over a long period of time causes the inflammatory protein levels in our blood to be constantly elevated – leading to many chronic health conditions. When immune cells start to overreact, our bodies
stay in a state of inflammation for too long and that inflammation can be directed against us. This is known as chronic inflammation and it can be caused from many things like a virus or bacteria, an autoimmune disorder, an improper diet, or the way you handle stress.
What is the difference between acute and chronic inflammation?
Acute inflammation is the healthy inflammation that is the response to trauma, bacteria, or foreign compounds. It starts rapidly, becomes severe in a short amount of time, and goes away in a couple of days. When it lasts longer than a couple of days, it turns into chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is the slow, long-term inflammation lasting for prolonged periods of several months to years. The extent and effects of chronic inflammation vary with the cause of the injury and the ability of the body to repair and overcome the damage.
What causes chronic inflammation?
- An infection that’s hard to kill – a chronic infection like Lyme’s disease stays in your body forever so your body is constantly responding with inflammation. The chronic inflammation is actually the cause of many of the symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself.
- Recurrent episodes of acute inflammation – for some reason you are constantly responding with inflammation (i.e. you get sick or injured a lot, you are constantly stressed).
- An autoimmune disorder – you have a disease like Crohn’s where your body is constantly responding to your own body as a foreign pathogen so you are in a constant state of inflammation.
- Failure to eliminate the cause of inflammation – You have an infection or parasite that can resist host defenses and remain in the tissue for a long time.
- Environment – pollution, air and water quality, environmental allergies and a host of other environmental factors can trigger and sustain inflammation.
- Lifestyle – obesity, unregulated stress, tobacco use, drinking too much, lack of physical activity, lousy sleep and, of course, poor diet are all linked to chronic inflammation.
- Genetics – diabetes and cancer are two genetically related diseases that can be triggered by inflammation.
Why is chronic inflammation so bad?
Over time, inflammation actually starts to damage our healthy cells. If the damage is too great for normal inflammatory proteins like white blood cells to handle, then they call in for back up. The back up, neutrophils, come in and blow up everything in sight, healthy or not. Each neutrophil only has a short lifespan but in chronic inflammation, neutrophils continue to be sent in long after the source of inflammation is gone. This means that the inflammation starts to damage the linings of your arteries and intestines, the tissues of your muscles and joints, the cells in your brain, and much more. This cellular damage can trigger diseases like cancer, diabetes, dementia, depression, and heart disease. This prolonged state of emergency can cause lasting damage to your organs. For example, if inflammatory cells are in your blood vessels for too long they start the buildup of dangerous plaque (which your body sees as foreign and sends more inflammatory cells). As plaque builds, the arteries thicken, making it much more likely for you to have a stroke or heart attack.
When chronic inflammation occurs in the joints, it can cause rheumatoid arthritis. Chronic inflammation has also been linked to many types of cancer, including lung, esophagus, digestive tract and cervix. When immune cells begin to produce inflammation, immune
regulation becomes deteriorated and it creates an optimal environment for cancer cells to grow. When inflammation occurs in the lungs, it can cause fluid accumulation and narrowing of the airways, making it difficult to breathe. Inflammation in the lungs, from smoking, air pollution, or
being overweight, can lead to asthma or COPD. Inflammation can occur in your mouth in the form of periodontitis, or chronic inflammation from bacteria accumulation in the gums. This causes your gums to recede and the skeletal structure around your teeth to become weakened. It also is linked to heart disease and dementia, since increased bacteria in the mouth also triggers inflammation elsewhere in the body. Chronic inflammation can even cause bone loss as inflammatory markers in the blood stop bone remodeling – the process of replacing old damaged bone with new bone.
How do we stop chronic inflammation?
We know chronic inflammation can cause serious long-term health effects. So what can we do in our everyday lives to lower our risk for chronic inflammation?
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet – The most important way to decrease your chronic inflammation is to stop eating inflammatory foods. Pro-inflammatory foods include simple sugars, processed foods, sugar, and anything high in fat. Try to eat as many
anti-inflammatory foods and foods high in fiber as you can. Anti-inflammatory foods have antioxidants that help mitigate the cellular damage caused by inflammation. Fibrous foods feed the good microbes in your gut and can help create a balanced gut microbiome environment, therefore downregulating inflammation. Other things to consider are a low-glycemic diet, reduction of saturated and trans fats, taking anti-inflammatory micronutrients like magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc and selenium, eating more fruits and vegetables, fish oil, fiber, nuts, and green and black tea polyphenols.
You can learn more about eating an anti-inflammatory diet here.
- Reduce stress- Chronic psychological stress is linked to greater risk for depression, heart disease and the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response and normal defense. Yoga and meditation are helpful in alleviating stress-induced inflammation and its harmful effects on the body.
- Reduce weight – It is largely known that adipose tissue, also known as fat, in obese or overweight individuals induces low-grade systemic inflammation. Decreasing the amount you weight will decrease your amount of chronic inflammation.
- Exercise – Just 20 minutes of moderate exercise per day can suppress the inflammatory response. One reason is that exercise can positively affect your gut health. Energy expenditure through exercise lowers multiple inflammatory molecules and cytokines independently of weight loss. Regular exercise is helpful not only in controlling weight
but also decreasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and strengthening the heart, muscles, and bones.
- Sleep more – Overnight sleep (ideally at least 7 to 8 hours) helps stimulating human growth hormones and testosterone in the body to rebuild itself.
Chronic inflammation can cause serious health problems, like heart disease and cancer, but thankfully, it is easier to decrease our chronic inflammation. Changing these five simple lifestyle factors can greatly decrease the amount of inflammation in your body and decrease your chance for getting cancer, diabetes, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease. Not only does eating an anti-inflammatory diet decrease chronic inflammation, it also will you help you lose weight and stay healthy in other ways. Food is the most important thing we put in our bodies and what we eat can so drastically change our health.
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