Inflammation seems to be public health enemy number one these days. In fact, three out of five deaths today are attributed to chronic inflammatory diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s—and a whopping 60 percent of Americans live with a chronic illness.
As much as many of us worry about inflammation, though, it can be a murky, hard-to-grasp issue. This guide will help clear up what inflammation actually is—and how to tell if it’s an issue for you.
What Is Inflammation, Really?
Put simply, inflammation is the immune system’s response to anything it interprets as irritating or harmful to the body. Inflammation helps our body do everything from heal damaged skin to spur muscle growth after exercise.
Acute Inflammation vS. Chronic Inflammation
Thing is, not all inflammation is created equal; in fact, there are two very distinct types.
The first: acute inflammation. Acute inflammation is a quick punch of an inflammatory response in which the body reacts to some sort of notable bodily threat. (Think banging your shin or catching the flu.) In these circumstances, inflammation is warranted and necessary, because it supports our healing process. Once its services are no longer needed, the inflammation dies down.
The second: chronic inflammation. Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation occurs when the body continually senses a threat and keeps its inflammatory response active for long periods of time. (We’re talking weeks, months—even years.) Often caused by ongoing stress, food allergies, poor diet and gut health, pollution, and being overweight or obese, chronic inflammation keeps us in a constant, dangerous state of high-alert, which can eventually damage our heart, brain and other organs.
Signs Of Inflammation
If you’re dealing with a chronic disease like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and even allergies, chronic inflammation is likely a significant problem for you.
However, you don’t have to have a chronic disease diagnosis to be inflamed. Here are six common signs that you’re dealing with chronic inflammation.
1. Persistent Pain
While acute inflammation can result in temporary pain, lasting recurring pain throughout the body—especially in your joints—is a common sign of acute inflammation.
In what eventually becomes inflammatory arthritis, for example, the immune system releases inflammatory chemicals that attack joint tissue.
In other cases, chronic inflammation can contribute to stubborn, recurring headaches, or neck and/or back pain.
Another issue that often crops up when someone has persistently high levels of inflammation: fatigue.
People with inflammatory conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, experience lethargy most often. However, people with low-grade inflammation (who have higher markers of inflammation but no specific disease diagnosis) may experience it, too.
Experts believe that chronic inflammation not only impacts our brain and nervous system function, but also affects our mitochondria, the powerhouses in our cells responsible for producing energy. It’s an all-around recipe for exhaustion.
3. Frequent Illness
When chronic inflammation compromises your immune system, you’ll also likely find you get sick pretty often.
Research out of Carnegie Mellon suggests it works like this: When we’re consistently inflamed, the function of hormones involved in regulating our inflammatory response—like cortisol—goes haywire. When that happens, we often experience greater inflammatory responses to viruses (such as the common cold) and are more likely to experience symptoms.
So, not only can out-of-control inflammation likely leave you more prone to getting sick, but it may make the symptoms of the illness that much worse, too.
4. Digestive Issues
One of chronic inflammation’s more frustrating tell-tale signs: an unruly digestive system. Because inflammation damages the lining of the gastrointestinal tract over time, anything from acid reflux to diarrhea to constipation can crop up.
In the long-run, chronic inflammation can lead to serious irritable bowel diseases, like Crohn’s disease, which is characterized by chronic inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract.
5. Low Mood
Research has linked depression with higher levels of inflammatory markers, like C-reactive protein (CRP). On average, people diagnosed with major depression generally show increased activity of the inflammatory system.
However, it’s worth noting that not all people with depression show elevated inflammatory markers, and this research is still developing.
6. Weight Gain
Can’t seem to nix that stubborn belly fat? Studies have shown that being overweight not only means carrying around extra pounds, but also involves being in a state of low-grade systemic inflammation.
Though it’s a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ situation, research suggests that inflammation and weight issues go hand-in-hand. Elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines have been shown to predict future weight gain, while being obese appears to predispose someone to being in an inflamed state.
Not to mention, inflammation has also been implicated in causing us to carry around excess water weight.
How To Fight Chronic Inflammation
Luckily, you can do a lot to help squash chronic inflammation and get your body back to a more balanced state.
First things first: Address your diet. Cut out processed and fast foods, and limit sugar, refined carbohydrates, gluten, and conventional dairy. All of these foods tend to promote inflammation.
From there, focus on eating a diet based in whole foods. Prioritize foods with anti-inflammatory properties, like wild-caught fish, bone broth, leafy green vegetables, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts.
You may also want to consider using herbs and spices known for their inflammation-fighting properties, like turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon. Perhaps one of the most well-known of these is turmeric root, which contains a powerful antioxidant called curcumin. Research shows curcumin can bolster immune function and ease symptoms those with inflammation often experience.
Regular exercise, quality sleep, and stress-reduction practices like meditation can all also help keep chronic inflammation out of your life.
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Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, author, and member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council. Dr. Axe operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites, sharing healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, and information on essential oils and natural supplements. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world, in Nashville, TN, and has served as a physician for many professional athletes.