When most people think of inflammation, they imagine something acute that can be seen or felt – like swelling when you get a cut or a sore, itchy throat during a cold. But what about hidden inflammation? Inflammation that we can’t always see or feel—also known as chronic inflammation—is significant because it can have a number of different impacts on your long-term health.
Acute vs. chronic inflammation
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to defend itself against harmful stimuli. In acute situations, the immune system recognizes something detrimental and sets off a response rapidly to begin healing. For example, someone who contracts the flu may become quite ill but will generally feel better within a week a two.
Sometimes, however, the immune response can go awry and become prolonged, lasting months to years. Although damaged tissue cannot be healed without inflammation, chronic inflammation can eventually cause several diseases. So, even though you can’t live without inflammation, it can also be hazardous to your health.
What causes chronic inflammation?
Our bodies can enter a state of chronic inflammation for several reasons, including:
- Chronic exposure to an irritant that cannot be eliminated by the immune system
- Infection with an agent that fails to produce an immune response, as seen in certain bacterial, fungal and parasitic species
- Autoimmune disorders where the immune system inappropriately responds to normal tissue
Over time, this can manifest in various symptoms of chronic inflammation, which includes body aches, fatigue, insomnia, depression, digestive issues, weight gain and frequent infections due to the body being constantly on overdrive.
6 ways chronic inflammation can impact your health
- Chronic inflammation and your heart – Risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure can “injure” your heart thereby setting off the inflammatory response, which can further promote dangerous plaque buildup, narrowing the arteries. Many studies demonstrate a strong relationship between inflammatory markers and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and stroke.
- Chronic inflammation and cancer – Prolonged, low-level inflammation appears to play a role in many types of cancer as well, including lung, kidney, prostate, ovarian, liver, pancreatic and colon cancer.
- Chronic inflammation and your brain – Inflammation in the brain may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease. In older adults, it is linked to cognitive impairment and dementia.
- Chronic inflammation and gut health – Inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, is a group of chronic inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders. These can lead to inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract anywhere from mouth to anus and ulcers of the large intestine.
- Chronic inflammation and diabetes – Diabetes is a chronic inflammatory disease that can lead to long-term complications affecting many organs including your heart, eyes, kidneys and peripheral nerves.
- Chronic inflammation and joints – Inflammation in your joints can manifest in autoimmune diseases such as Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
What can you do about it?
Fortunately, lifestyle changes can help to reduce your risk of chronic inflammation. Smoking, excessive alcohol intake, obesity and chronic stress are all contributors, so managing your weight, exercising, sleeping more and practicing effective stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation, are all beneficial.
Important dietary changes include avoiding simple sugars, refined carbs, processed food and trans fats; instead, opt for natural foods, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Specifically, anti-inflammatory foods, such as avocados, kale and fatty fish like salmon, can help reduce your risk.
Fat tissue in overweight individuals can also promote low-grade inflammation. Regular exercise is a good way to both promote weight loss and strengthen your heart, muscles and bones. Be wary of miracle diets, as many simply don’t work and can even be harmful to your body.
Although NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), antibiotics and steroids are treatments for acute inflammatory flares, these medications should be avoided long-term in order to promote gut health, further preventing risk of chronic inflammation.
Although standardized testing for chronic inflammation doesn’t yet exist, if you feel you may have symptoms, talk to your doctor about your risk factors. Remember, prevention is always the best approach.