When we think of inflammation, it’s usually how we describe sore muscles or joints or having a headache. But did you know you can have chronic inflammation in your body … often without any specific symptoms?
Inflammation can happen anywhere in the body in response to something harmful or foreign. You can think of it like your body’s defense system at work. It can be short lived or long-term, depending on how long your body feels threatened. The more your body is inflamed over time, the more damage that can happen to the cells which changes the way they work.
Keep reading to learn more about chronic inflammation, to figure out if you might have it and to understand what the big deal is anyway.
What is chronic inflammation?
When people use the word inflammation, they’re talking about either acute (in the moment) or chronic (over a long period of time).
Acute inflammation is how the body reacts when we get an injury – this is our natural healing system.
Inflammation in the body over a long period of time is known as chronic inflammation – this is our natural defense system. When your body feels injured or under attack, constantly over months or years, negative side effects are seen. You may not feel any specific symptoms to tell you it’s there – it can be hidden unless your doctor goes searching for it.
There are a number of different ways that chronic inflammation can come about in the body. Today we’re focusing on chronic inflammation that’s caused by oxidative stress, a process that changes how the body works and can lead to conditions like heart diseases, diabetes and arthritis.
Having said that, it’s important to know that while chronic inflammation can certainly lead to health problems like those mentioned … it doesn’t always. So why the difference? There is still a lot to learn about chronic inflammation in the body but it may come down to how at risk you are already of having these health conditions.
What causes chronic inflammation?
There is still so much unknown about inflammation and it continues to be an exciting area of research as scientists try to learn more about what exactly causes it.
When your body’s defense system is turned on too high and for too long, your body starts to pay the consequences. This is especially true if you already have risks for inflammation or have been diagnosed with conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Sometimes it’s a tricky, tangled web and it becomes hard to understand if a health problem has led to the inflammation or if the inflammation has led to a health problem. A great example of this is in Metabolic Syndrome (you can read more about it in another article, What is Metabolic Syndrome?)
How to know if you have chronic inflammation
As you may have figured out by now, this can be a tricky one. Chronic inflammation doesn’t show up noticeably since there are usually no specific symptoms like there are with acute inflammation (like fever, redness, swelling, aches, muscle and joint pain, etc). You might feel tired or have chronic fatigue, you might have headaches or poor sleep or other feelings you just can’t put your finger on. Maybe you’ve chalked it up to what it must feel like to be getting older.
Possible signs of chronic inflammation
- Body pain
- Chronic fatigue or insomnia
- Depression, anxiety or mood disorder
- Constipation, diarrhea or reflux
- Changes in weight (gain or loss)
- Frequent infections
If you’re at risk for an inflammation-related condition and/or you often eat pro-inflammatory foods, it’s quite possible there’s inflammation in your body. Even if you don’t have symptoms now, complications can occur over time. … you can think of it as your ‘check engine’ light going off.
Risk factors for chronic inflammation
When certain other factors are present, your body may be more prone to having consistent, low-levels of inflammation. These include:
- Extra body weight
- An eating pattern high in saturated or trans-fats and refined sugars, especially for people who already have extra body weight and/or diabetes
- Higher levels of stress
- Sleep disorders, including irregular sleeping schedule
One of the only ways to know for sure is to talk to your doctor about your risks and get your blood tested. The blood test, called CRP or C-reactive protein, can show the level of inflammation in your body. Working with your doctor as a first step is the way to go since the CRP test can be high in both acute and chronic inflammation.
Health concerns from chronic inflammation
The World Health Organization reports chronic inflammation as being “the greatest threat to human health” and the number of people living with a disease linked to inflammation is expected to increase persistently in the next 30 years in the US. In fact, 3 in 5 people worldwide will die from a disease related to chronic inflammation such as diabetes, heart diseases and chronic respiratory diseases like COPD.
Long-term, chronic inflammation plays a major role in most chronic diseases and can lead to heart diseases, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, Alziehmer’s, cancer, depression and more.
One consequence of chronic inflammation is a build-up of plague in your arteries (also known as atherosclerosis). When inflammatory cells hang around in your blood for too long, the artery can become injured and plague can start to build up. The catch-22 is that when there is plague on your arteries, your body sends more inflammatory cells to deal with the invaders. This is one way that arteries harden, plague builds up more and your risk of blockages, heart attack or stroke increase. It has been shown that even people who don’t have a diagnosed heart disease (including high cholesterol levels) but who do have high CRP level are at higher risk of possibly having a stroke or heart attack.
If left untreated, chronic inflammation can bring unfortunate consequences and has a poor prognosis.
The good news though is that there are lifestyle and dietary habits that you can begin working on that can really make a difference.
How can I reduce chronic inflammation?
Getting to the root of the problem is the best strategy when it comes to dealing with chronic inflammation. Rather than cover it up with supplements right away, it’s really important to understand what is causing your body to feel under attack over the long-term.
Having a balanced lifestyle is one key for reducing inflammation. Moving your body more often, managing stress, getting enough sleep, managing your weight, stopping smoking and having fewer alcoholic drinks can all have a positive effect on your inflammation levels (or risk of).
This list might sound long and overwhelming to you … but know that sometimes they can be related. For example, managing your stress can mean better sleeping, better sleep might mean feeling energized to move your body more … and more activity can help manage stress. When those things are in place, your weight might change. And more importantly, when people feel great, they naturally feel more motivated to eat better. What a positive cycle it can all form!
Key ways to lower chronic inflammation
For people who are really struggling with their weight and who have signs of chronic inflammation, one way to lower inflammation is through weight loss. Again, scientists don’t know many of the exact reasons for inflammation, but it has been shown that extra body weight can act like a separate body organ that sends out pro-inflammatory signals to the rest of the body.
Physical activity has also been shown to lower the amount of pro-inflammatory responses in the blood in addition to strengthening the cardiovascular system. Even 20 minutes of moderate intensity activity, such as using a treadmill, can help lower inflammation. So we’re not talking huge commitments or signing up for the gym here!
Sleep and Stress
While easier said than done, stressing less and sleeping longer has been shown to lower chronic inflammation and help increase longevity. Stress management can come in many forms and is quite individual – finding something that not just distracts, but also lets you unwind can leave you feeling more ontop of life’s demands. For sleep, try aiming for 7-8 hours each night in order to help your body rebuild and heal itself.
Small changes in your diet can also help – keep reading to find out a little more about it (and consider signing up to find out more in an upcoming free workshop!).
Diet is linked to chronic inflammation
Many studies are showing a strong relationship between our food choices and chronic inflammation. This might come as a relief, knowing we may have the ability to control our health by the foods we eat, or don’t eat.
Certain foods trigger our bodies to react as if its under attack. Over time, the more of these foods we eat, the more risk of inflammation due to oxidative stress.
The main groups of foods that can cause this inflammatory response are those high in saturated, trans fat and refined grains / sugars.
High fat foods enter into our blood and can build up, causing an inflammatory response. More importantly than the fat content though is the type of fat.
- Saturated fat can come from both animal products and plant-sources. Heavy hitters in this category can include meats (beef, chicken, pork) but it’s also important to watch for ingredients on food labels like coconut oil and palm oils (often found in crackers and other packaged snacks).
- Trans fats are found in commercially baked and fried foods that have vegetable shortening, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils such as muffins, pastries, croissants, fries and donuts. While Canada has worked toward cutting these fats out of our food system, they can still be found.
Refined grains and sugar can have a number of effects that promote inflammation, such as adding extra body weight, worsening insulin resistance and causing oxidative stress. As you may be able to guess, foods in this group include white flours (breads, pastas, baked goods), white rice, pop, candy and packaged snacks like cookies and granola bars.
Now that the bad news is out of the way, let’s dive into the good. There are many foods you probably already eat that can lower your inflammation. These include the anti-inflammatory you might have heard about in the media.
So what exactly are they?
The most anti-inflammatory foods tend to be from plant-based sources, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts and seeds. However, there are other sources as well that can help prevent or lower inflammation.
Let’s break it down and look more specifically at fibre, omega-3 unsaturated fats and antioxidants.
Fibre works in a number of ways to help decrease inflammation. It helps to slow down how quickly sugar enters into our blood stream so our body can use it more efficiently. It helps to keep us fuller longer when eaten as part of our balanced plate. And it keeps things moving along in our digestive system.
Fibre is found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.
Snacking on veggies and hummus, choosing whole grain pasta over white or adding chia seeds to smoothies are all ideas for increasing fibre. Read more about the health benefits of dietary fibre and learn ways to get more of it (and enjoy it at the same time).
Omega-3 unsaturated fats work directly on the inflammation and help reduce the damage that occurs. These fats are found commonly in walnuts, flax seed, chia seeds and cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel and herring.
To increase your omega-3 fat intake, try adding walnuts and seeds to baked foods, use ground flax or flaxseed oil in smoothies or choose fish as your protein source more often than meat.
Remember what we’ve talked about so far about oxidative stress? Antioxidants are the main key to handling oxidative stress in our bodies. They go around in the blood and neutralize the damage, or oxidation, that has happened.
Also known as phytonutrients, antioxidants are found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Have you heard the words beta-carotene. lycopene or chlorophyll before? These are examples of antioxidants. So are vitamins such as vitamin C and E.
To increase your antioxidants, aim for at least one brightly coloured fruit or vegetable at every meal and snack.
While it may feel easier to just grab a vitamin pill or supplement, it’s important to know that the antioxidants that come in whole or real foods may be more effective. There can also be some safety concerns when it comes to over-supplementing. If you’re unsure about how to get enough antioxidants in your diet, consider talking with your dietitian.
Having said all of this, yes diet is important … but it doesn’t have to be perfect all the time! Complications from inflammation happen over many years. Eating mostly anti-inflammatory foods is a good bet for overall health and to combat any inflammation you may have. So don’t stress out about enjoying something that may cause inflammation here and there!
Steps you can take now
If you’re living with any type of inflammatory condition like arthritis or diabetes or have less-specific symptoms like fatigue and joint pain, know you can take back control. Take steps to be proactive in finding out if you have (or if you’re at risk of having) chronic inflammation!
Because chronic inflammation is often invisible, it’s important that you talk with your healthcare team to find out if you are at risk and to find out if your bloodwork shows inflammation. Chronic inflammation itself isn’t a specific disease so once you understand why might be causing it in your body, you can go about making a customized plan to treat it.
For the majority of people with chronic inflammation, making one small change with the ideas discussed in this article can at least begin to help you begin managing your inflammation.
If this feels really overwhelming to you, start with simple steps today to begin stopping the effects of inflammation or even reversing it. Some people find it helps to focus on making food and lifestyle choices with a goal of preventing a specific health problem. Instead of thinking of it in terms of lowering chronic inflammation (that’s a big thought!), you might think about eating to lower blood sugars or to improve heart health. When you have a more specific focus, it might be easier to make those everyday food choices … and ultimately improve your inflammation at the same time.
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on helping people take back control of their health & weight … before it feels like their health controls their life. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.