Throughout life, toxins, chemicals, viruses, bacteria and other potentially damaging triggers bombard the body. Inflammation is the body’s natural way of protecting itself from harm and is part of the body’s healthy immune response. The inflammatory response involves many biochemical reactions that help fight off infections, increase blood flow to wounds or tissues that need healing, and generate pain as a signal that something is wrong in the body.
Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation
It’s important to understand the difference between two types of inflammatory responses in the body: acute and chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation is the body’s immediate response to injury, physical trauma, infections, and disease. Acute inflammation helps the body heal and recover from injury or infection. Like with any process in the body, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Sometimes inflammation takes the upper hand and it won’t stop. When inflammation continues chronically it causes problems in the body—a continual secretion of pro-inflammatory chemicals that attack healthy cells, blood vessels and tissues.
Chronic Inflammation Causes Chronic Health Problems
Inflammation is often compared to fire. The right amount of fire in the body helps keep us warm, stay healthy and protected. But if the fire gets out of control and continues to burn relentlessly it can be destructive and cause long-term damage. We now know that low-grade chronic inflammation can keep the body’s tissues from properly repairing from normal wear-and-tear, and also chronic inflammation can begin to destroy healthy cells in arteries, organs, joints and other parts of the body. Chronic inflammation contributes to many chronic health problems and can itself become a disease.
Effects of Chronic Inflammation on the Body
Chronic inflammation generates a wide range of symptoms in the body that may not be that obvious at first but can slowly build up to have a severe impact such as with:
- Frequent body aches and pains
- Chronic stiffness
- Loss of joint function
- Recurrent swelling
- Intermittent infections
- Continual nasal/upper respiratory congestion
- Persistent indigestion
- Regular bouts of diarrhea
- Unrelenting skin outbreaks
Autoimmune Diseases Linked with Chronic Inflammation
Over time, chronic inflammation and the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body is like a slow deadly poison. Chronic inflammation has been studied extensively and there are a number of medical conditions that are linked with excessive inflammation. Arthritis is one of the major health conditions, with joint diseases affecting approximately 350 million people worldwide and nearly 43 million people in the United States or almost 20% of the population. Chronic inflammation will affect more than 60 million people in the US by 2020.
Chronic Autoimmune Diseases Linked with Too Much Inflammation
Some of the other diseases linked with too much inflammation include:
- Chronic obstructive lung diseases
- Congestive heart failure and other heart diseases
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Diabetes mellitus
- Crohn’s disease and other inflammatory bowel diseases
- Kidney failure
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosis
- Chronic pain
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s and Graves’)
Chronic Disease Ranked Greatest Threat to Human Health
The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks chronic disease as the greatest threat to human health. In recent estimates by the Rand Corporation in 2014, nearly 60% of Americans had at least one chronic condition, 42% had more than one and 12% of adults had 5 or more chronic conditions. Worldwide, 3 of 5 people die due to chronic inflammatory diseases such as stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes. Diseases associated with chronic inflammation will become more prevalent and increase persistently for the next 30 years.
Risk Factors Associated with Chronic Inflammation
The major risk factors associated with chronic inflammation include:
- Age: Aging increases inflammatory molecules in the body.
- Obesity: Many studies report that body mass index (BMI) impacts pro- inflammatory molecules secreted in the body.
- Diet: Diet rich in saturated fat, trans fats, or refined sugars can increase pro-inflammatory molecules in the body.
- Sleep Disorders: Stress can also cause sleep disorders. Individuals with insufficient and irregular sleep are more likely to have chronic inflammation.
- Smoking: Cigarette smoking can lower production of anti-inflammatory molecules and inducing inflammation.
- Stress: Both physical and emotional stress impacts inflammatory cytokine release in the body.
How to Know if You Have Too Much Inflammation
Unfortunately, there are no reliably valid laboratory measures to assess chronic inflammation levels in the body. Diagnosis of specific medical condition with chronic inflammation leads to further assessment. There is intense research underway to identify “inflammatory markers” of a broad spectrum of diseases.
The best test to confirm clinically chronic inflammation is serum protein electrophoresis (SPE). Another blood test that is inexpensive and is a marker of systemic inflammation in the body is the high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP). High levels of hs-CRP indicate inflammation, but it is not a specific marker for chronic inflammation since it is also elevated in acute inflammation resulting from injury or sickness. It’s important to monitor your symptoms that could be related to chronic inflammation and seek medical help if they become annoying, get progressively worse, or even become seemingly out of control. It’s best to intervene quickly to subdue inflammation and get it under control before it causes long term permanent damage in the body.
Conventional Prescription Treatments for Chronic Inflammation
Since chronic inflammation affects specific areas of the body and may be associated with a wide variety of specific diseases, treatment approaches vary considerably. For decades, physicians relied on corticosteroids (e.g. Prednisone) to suppress immune response as a first option to bring inflammation down. While they are an important and effective option, corticosteroids come with serious side effects that can be permanent and even carry some risk for death (e.g. from severe infection). (Corticosteroids are called “catabolic” steroids because they can break down muscle mass with chronic use. In contrast, “anabolic” steroids, which are not anti-inflammatory, build up muscle mass, and are the steroids that have been abused by body builders and professional athletes, and carry major side effects, such as bipolar disorder and rage attacks.)
In the past twenty years there are new classes of targeted therapies for chronic inflammation. Unfortunately, many of these newer therapies are broad immunosuppressive treatments that come with serious side effects, such as lowering the body’s natural immune response and the body’s ability to fight off infection.
Statins are cholesterol-lowering medications that help reduce inflammation in the management of cardiovascular disease.
Conventional Non-Prescription Treatments for Chronic Inflammation
Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) can help alleviate the pain caused by inflammation. Examples of these NSAIDs include ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen. Long term use of NSAIDS comes with serious side effects. It’s important to avoid long term use of NSAIDs unless advised by a doctor due to severe, and potentially life-threatening side effects caused by kidney damage, liver damage, and risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
Herbal supplements such as turmeric, which is part of the ginger family has been shown to have potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Lifestyle Choices to Manage Inflammation
Research points more and more to inflammation as an underlying factor in many diseases and chronic conditions. There are many chronic inflammatory disorders with as yet no cure. Chronic inflammatory patients are at greater risk of developing another inflammatory related condition. Inflammation is a key underlying factor in almost all chronic degenerative diseases. It’s important to control inflammatory trigger factors and modify lifestyle choices to best manage inflammation-based chronic conditions or diseases. Since aging is a risk factor, manage inflammation effectively over the long term in order to optimally manage your health as you age.
Follow Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle Model
A simple model to follow is the Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle. Similar to ancient Ayurvedic medicine, this approach focuses on healing the body, mind, heart and spirit as a whole, and not just treating inflammatory flare-ups with short term therapies that treat symptoms. It’s a long-term approach that takes a sustained commitment. But by making gradual changes people can gain more capacity and confidence to then keep making changes over the long haul, which continue to improve their health and overall well-being.
Listed below are the key Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle choices that have been identified as the most effective ways to manage or prevent chronic inflammation:
Increase Intake of Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Increase the intake of anti-inflammatory foods: Consuming whole grains, natural (i.e. non-processed) foods, including plenty of brightly colored vegetables and fruits such as avocados, cherries, kale, and fatty fish like salmon is helpful in managing inflammation. Avoid eating simple sugars, refined carbohydrates, high glycemic foods, trans fats and hydrogenated oils. Decrease foods or ingredients that may trigger intolerance in some people such as alcohol or artificial flavors and colors, artificial sweeteners. Increase consuming a diet rich in these 4 types of anti-inflammatory foods:
1. Fish and Fatty Acids
Fish and Fatty Acids: Omega-3s are some of the most anti-inflammatory substances. In fact, research reveals that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna all have great sources of omega-3s. And if you don’t love fish, then olive oil and walnuts provide a hefty value of omega-3s as well.
2. Whole Grains and Fibrous Vegetables
Whole Grains and Fibrous Vegetables: Foods high in fiber found in whole grains and many vegetables help decrease inflammation. Eat a high fiber diet to decrease inflammation in the body. Whole foods rich in fiber contain phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory effects. Fiber encourages the good bacteria in the intestines that positively affect inflammatory pathways
3. Dark Green Vegetables
Dark Green Vegetables: In addition to being fiber-rich, dark green vegetables like spinach, swiss chard, kale, and broccoli are all rich in vitamin E. They protect the body against cytokines – proinflammatory molecules. And dark green vegetables are much more effective than lighter vegetables because they have higher concentrations of disease-fighting flavonoids.
4. Colorful Fruits and Vegetables
Colorful Fruits and Vegetables: Colorful fruits and vegetables like beets, berries, and tart cherries all have very high counts of antioxidants. Antioxidants are crucial to reducing inflammation because they help fight the oxidation of cells. Berries are especially great anti-inflammatories because they have antioxidant flavonoids that give berries their rich color.
Minimize Intake of Antibiotics and NSAIDS
Minimize intake of antibiotics and NSAIDS: Avoid long term use of antibiotics, antacids, and NSAIDs unless advised by a doctor, as they could harm the microbiome in the gut causing inflammation in the intestinal wall known as leaky gut which in turn releases toxins and triggers resulting in chronic body-wide inflammation. Long-term use of NSAIDs may also cause kidney damage and increase the risk of having a stroke or heart attack or stroke.
Exercise regularly to maintain an optimum weight: It is largely known that adipose tissue in obese or overweight individuals induces low-grade systemic inflammation in the body. Regular exercise is helpful not only in controlling weight but also in decreasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and strengthening the heart, muscles and bones. Creating your own regular routine of physical activity can prevent systemic inflammation from building up and can help keep it getting out of control or returning.
Sleep 7 to 8 Hours
Sleep longer: Overnight sleep ideally 7 to 8 hours helps in stimulating Human Growth Hormone (HGH) that promotes the body to rebuild itself. Aim for at least 7 hours per night. The goal is to feel well-rested upon arising in the morning.
Lessen stress: Chronic psychological and physiological stress is linked to greater risk for depression, heart disease and for body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response and its normal defense system. Yoga and meditation, with deep breathing is helpful in alleviating stress-induced inflammation and its harmful effects on the body. Take time for yourself every day. Find your own best way to reduce stress and feel more relaxed with an enhanced sense of well-being.
Don’t smoke: Smoking cigarettes induces inflammation in the body. Just don’t smoke period. There are a number of effective smoking cessation programs.
Make Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle Choices to Heal and Live Well
For most of us, keeping inflammation in check comes down to common sense basics: eat well, don’ smoke, get moving, get more sleep and rest, and see your health care practitioners for regular physicals which could help you stop chronic inflammation before it becomes rampant. Making anti-inflammatory lifestyle choices is the best way to help prevent an inflammation “fire” from getting out of control in your body in the first place. An active lifestyle fueled by fresh, anti-inflammatory foods can set you up for freedom from debilitating inflammation- based chronic health conditions. And what is most important is that you feel happy and empowered and motivated to keep it up so you can live well with zest!
I hope you try some or many of these anti-inflammatory lifestyle tips and see what works for you! What helps one person may not be that effective to another person, so pay attention to your anti-inflammatory lifestyle changes and monitor any symptoms and stick with what works best for you!
Enjoy and live Well with Zest!
Written By Bev Hope
Reviewed by Board Certified MD