Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer — they all have one thing in common, and that’s chronic inflammation.
But what is this dangerous condition and, if it’s affecting you, what can you do about it?
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is a sign that the body’s immune system is working. If you cut yourself, for example, you may notice the area swells up and turns red. That’s inflammation — visible evidence the immune cells are working to remove pathogens, damaged cells and irritants so the body can begin the healing process.
Without inflammation, that wound wouldn’t heal as it should. It might fester, and infection would take over, making the wound worse gradually. The infection would spread into the rest of the body, and a simple wound would eventually turn deadly. The immune system protects you from that unhealthy outcome.
If inflammation occurs on the skin, you can see it, but inflammation can also occur inside the body where you can’t see it. If you have an infection, for example — such as a cold or the flu — the body’s immune system goes to work to kill the damaging bacteria or viruses, which creates inflammation inside you. You may notice it in a swollen, sore throat or swollen lymph glands.
Inflammation works best when it lasts only a short time. Immune cells come in, do their job healing the wound or clearing out the infection and then leave. Sometimes, however, things go wrong and the inflammation continues for a long time.
What Is Chronic Inflammation?
There are two main types of inflammation:
- Acute inflammation: This is the type we talked about above. The immune cells come in, do their job and leave, and everything calms down again and returns to normal. Examples of this type of inflammation occur after you get a cut or scrape on your skin, when you suffer from a sore throat or when you have a short-term sinus infection.
- Chronic inflammation: This type of inflammation goes on and on. Rather than healing the problem and then allowing things to return to normal, the immune system keeps working, producing a steady, low-level of inflammation throughout the body. Sometimes, this is because there is some underlying issue the immune system is trying to solve — an infection it’s struggling to clear up, for instance. Sometimes, however, it’s because the immune system perceives a threat when there isn’t one.
Scientists have discovered through many large, quality studies that chronic inflammation increases the risk of serious diseases, including heart disease, stroke, cancer and more.
Several things can cause chronic inflammation, including:
- Infection: The immune system is trying to eradicate the infection but isn’t having any luck. This may be because the pathogen is resisting efforts to heal or because the infection comes from a parasite or fungus.
- Toxins: Exposure to certain toxins over a long period of time keeps the immune system on alert. Examples include irritants or foreign materials like industrial chemicals that are inhaled in dust or chemicals that sink into the skin. Exposure to pollution is another example.
- Autoimmune disorders: These occur when the immune system gets confused over what cells to attack and kill. It may start to turn against the body’s own healthy tissues, leading to diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
- Recurrent acute inflammation: Acute inflammation occurs repeatedly, making it seem as if chronic inflammation is present.
We also have evidence that the following can contribute to chronic inflammation:
- Overweight and obesity
- High alcohol intake
- Chronic stress
- Poor diet
You’re already familiar with the outward signs of inflammation as you’ve sent those when recovering from a visible wound. They may include:
There are also signs of internal chronic inflammation that you may not be aware of. These include:
- Fatigue or low energy
- Mouth sores
- Excessive mucus production — always having to clear your throat or blow your nose
- Aches and pains
- Joint pain
- Poor digestion, including bloating, abdominal pain and constipation
Chronic Inflammation Linked With Many Diseases
Research shows that chronic inflammation might be a common factor in many of the most difficult diseases we face today, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
You’ve heard that too much fat and cholesterol in the blood can cause plaque buildup on the inside of your arteries and other blood vessels. Over time, this causes those blood vessels to become narrowed and stiff, which makes it harder for the heart to pump blood through. The result is high blood pressure and a higher risk for blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes.
We now have evidence that it’s not only cholesterol that’s to blame — inflammation plays a big part in creating that artery buildup. At high levels, LDL “bad” cholesterol, can become oxidized or degraded in such a way that the immune system sees it as a threat and goes to work to eradicate it. That causes inflammation, which increases damage inside the blood vessels.
Studies have determined that people with high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) — a sign of inflammation in the blood that can be seen in the blood test — are more likely to have a heart attack than people with low levels of CRP.
People with high levels of CRP in their blood are more likely to develop insulin resistance — where the body’s insulin doesn’t work as well to control blood sugar levels. That means those people are at a higher risk for diabetes.
People who develop diabetes also have high levels of inflammatory molecules in their blood, including TNF-a, which is a molecule produced by the immune system’s fighter cells. TNF-a also seems to interfere with insulin’s ability to process blood sugar.
These effects against insulin take away one of the body’s warriors against inflammation. Insulin works as an anti-inflammatory, so the more inflammation interferes with its function, the more chronic inflammation can set in, laying the groundwork for diabetes.
Cancerous tumors have long been known to contain a lot of inflammatory cells. That has created some speculation that cancer begins in those locations where chronic inflammation has taken hold.
Other evidence that supports this idea includes:
- Cigarette smoke is a cause of cancer — it contains inflammatory substances and creates inflammation in the lungs, where cancer is later likely to take hold.
- Cancer of the cervix is caused by an infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) — the immune system responds to the infection, potentially playing a part in the development of cancer.
- Chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage, leading to some forms of cancer.
It seems when immune cells begin to produce inflammation, the immune system loses some of its ability to operate as it should, which can create the perfect environment for cancer. In one 2014 Harvard University study, researchers found that obese teenagers with high levels of inflammation had a 63 percent increased risk of developing colorectal cancer during their adulthood.
Sometimes, otherwise healthy people may suffer from chronic inflammation because of an immune system disorder. The immune system attacks healthy cells and tissues in the body, causing chronic inflammation and difficult symptoms.
Examples of these types of disorders include rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, celiac disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Addison’s disease, Grave’s disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and more.
There is also evidence that those who suffer from autoimmune disorders and the corresponding chronic inflammation have a higher risk of heart disease, regardless of their weight or eating habits — a possible sign of inflammatory damage.
Recent research has shown a strong link between chronic inflammation and Alzheimer’s. One study published in Neurology, for example, involving more than 12,000 people, found that those with high levels of chronic inflammation at midlife were more likely to suffer memory loss and problems with thinking in subsequent decades.
Another recent study found a clear link between the amyloid plaques that are the hallmark sign of Alzheimer’s in the brain and chronic inflammation. Reports also indicate that both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease may be the result of chronic neuroinflammation — inflammation of nervous tissue in the brain.
These are only a few of the diseases connected with inflammation. Evidence at this point indicates that chronic inflammation is something most all diseases have in common and that finding a way to ease that inflammation may hold the key to long-term human health.
How to Protect Yourself Against Chronic Inflammation
Though anyone can fall victim to chronic inflammation, there are things you can do to increase your odds of staying healthy:
- Eat more anti-inflammatory foods: Many foods can protect you against inflammation. These include fruits and vegetables, fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, grapes, berries, garlic, olive oil, tea, and some spices. The Mediterranean diet is the best-researched anti-inflammatory diet.
- Eliminate inflammatory foods: Some foods are known to increase inflammation. These include fast foods, fried foods, margarine, red meat, processed meat, and most heavily processed foods.
- Exercise regularly: Regular exercise is a known way to prevent inflammation. Make time to exercise 30 to 45 minutes each day.
- Control blood sugar: High blood sugar levels help promote inflammation. Control yours with medication if necessary and choose a diet that promotes healthy blood sugar. Limit simple carbohydrates like white flour, white rice, white pasta, refined sugar and anything with high fructose corn syrup. Choose lean proteins and foods high in fiber.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Overweight and obesity promote inflammation—those extra fat cells are inflammation powerhouses.
- Manage stress: Chronic stress creates reactions in the body that increase inflammation. Practice a stress-relieving activity each day, such as meditation, yoga, biofeedback, exercise, time with good friends or a pet, art therapy, guided imagery and more.
- Try anti-inflammatory herbs and spices: Some herbs are known anti-inflammatories. Try ginger, turmeric, hyssop, devil’s claw, cinnamon, garlic, cayenne, black pepper, white willow bark, pycnogenol (maritime pine bark), frankincense and resveratrol.
- Habits: Quit smoking and consume alcohol in moderate amounts.
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Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, September 25). Inflammation: A unifying theory of disease. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Inflammation_A_unifying_theory_of_disease
Harvard University. (2018, June 26). Overweight teens may have increased risk for colorectal cancer. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/overweight-teens-may-have-increased-risk-for-colorectal-cancer/
Howard, B. (2019, February 13). Study Links Chronic Inflammation to Alzheimer’s. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-2019/chronic-inflammation-memory-loss.html
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