How is Chronic Inflammation Affecting Us?
Inflammation has been receiving more and more attention as researchers are developing a better understanding on how it is expressed in the body. Gone are the days of the idea that inflammation is just a reaction when you get a paper cut or catch the common cold. Chronic inflammation is not a specific condition in itself, but it is an automated bodily response and, commonly, a sign of disease.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a normal reaction of the immune system, caused by activated white blood cells called leukocytes. It the body’s mechanism to identify physical and cellular damage, such as a reaction to injury or infection; and stimulate a healing response.
The five signs of inflammation are:
- Redness and heat caused by a rush of blood to the affected area
- Swelling caused by a build up of fluid brought on by leukocytes
- Pain and tenderness caused by sensitised nerve endings
- Imobility, leading to loss of function of the inflamed area
Simply put, inflammation is the body’s reaction to stress or damage. Inflammation is normal and necessary, however it can cause a wide range of problems if left unaddressed.
Acute vs Chronic Inflammation
Acute inflammation is a normal fast-reacting process and important for regular immune response and wound healing. Post-injury, it continues for a short timeframe and the symptoms last only a matter of days. Examples of acute inflammation are swelling from a scratch on the skin or sinus pain when suffering a viral infection. Acute inflammation, if uncontrolled, can become chronic.
Chronic inflammation is a long-term form of inflammation lasting for periods of months or years. This is caused by the body’s inability to properly repair from acute damage to body tissues. Common underlying causes of chronic inflammation are metabolic disease, autoimmune conditions, lifestyle choices such as overconsumption of alcohol or smoking and environmental conditions such as overexposure to chemicals, moulds or excessive pollution.
How is chronic inflammation expressed in the body?
Every body system expresses inflammation in a number of ways such as:
Cellular System: The mitochondria in the cell is responsible for energy production. When inflammation is increased, general function of the mitochondria is impacted, causing fatigue and stress intolerance.
Gastrointestinal System: Irritable bowel syndrome, expressed as bloating, abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhoea.
Nervous System: Inflammation of neuronal cells can cause depression, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Cardiovascular System: Inflammation of the arteries (also known as arterial stiffness) can cause high blood pressure, increasing risk of heart disease.
Endocrine System: Inflammation of pancreatic tissues can cause insulin resistance and in turn, Type II Diabetes.
Respiratory System: Inflammation of the lungs can cause Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Musculoskeletal: Nerve and muscle pain, joint stiffness and swelling.
Long term chronic inflammation can also increase risk of cancers such as kidney, prostate, ovarian, liver, pancreatic, colorectal and lung.
Ways to reduce inflammation
Wherever there is chronic inflammation, there is chronic disease. Making healthier diet and lifestyle choices always decreases the risk of chronic inflammation. Some of the general things you can do are:
- Eat a variety of plants like fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. These plants are packed with anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.
- Eat foods high in Omega 3 fatty acids such as red oily fish, chia seeds, linseeds or supplement with a quality fish oil.
- Reduce intake of pro-inflammatory foods including sugar, alcohol, refined/processed foods, high sodium, excessive consumption of red meat and hydrolised vegetable oils (such as margarine).
- Quit smoking.
- Drink lots of water to help the kidneys help filter harmful metabolites from the body, lubricate joints, enhance function of the mitochondria and help with weight loss.
- Get quality sleep as sleep deprivation has shown to activate immune cells, resulting in low grade inflammation. Sleeping an unbroken, deep sleep, 7-9 hours a night will help with reducing inflammation.
- Reduce stress levels as stress intolerance has shown to increase immune reactions and decrease pain intolerance. Meditation, exercise and mindfulness techniques can all be used to help improve your stress levels.
References and Further Reading
Chen, L., Deng, H., Cui, H., Fang, J., Zuo, Z., Deng, J., Li, Y., Wang, X., … Zhao, L. (2017). Inflammatory responses and inflammation-associated diseases in organs. Oncotarget, 9(6), 7204-7218. doi:10.18632/oncotarget.23208
Hannibal, K. E., & Bishop, M. D. (2014). Chronic stress, cortisol dysfunction, and pain: a psychoneuroendocrine rationale for stress management in pain rehabilitation. Physical therapy, 94(12), 1816-25.
Hunter P. (2012). The inflammation theory of disease. The growing realization that chronic inflammation is crucial in many diseases opens new avenues for treatment. EMBO reports, 13(11), 968-70.
Minihane, A. M., Vinoy, S., Russell, W. R., Baka, A., Roche, H. M., Tuohy, K. M., Teeling, J. L., Blaak, E. E., Fenech, M., Vauzour, D., McArdle, H. J., Kremer, B. H., Sterkman, L., Vafeiadou, K., Benedetti, M. M., Williams, C. M., … Calder, P. C. (2015). Low-grade inflammation, diet composition and health: current research evidence and its translation. The British journal of nutrition, 114(7), 999-1012.
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), 775-84.
Pahwa R, Jialal I. Chronic Inflammation. [Updated 2018 Oct 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/
Thornton S. N. (2016). Increased Hydration Can Be Associated with Weight Loss. Frontiers in nutrition, 3, 18. doi:10.3389/fnut.2016.00018
van Horssen, J., van Schaik, P., & Witte, M. (2017). Inflammation and mitochondrial dysfunction: A vicious circle in neurodegenerative disorders?. Neuroscience Letters. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2017.06.050
Zhang, J. M., & An, J. (2007). Cytokines, inflammation, and pain. International anesthesiology clinics, 45(2), 27-37.