We’ve all gotten an infection or hurt ourselves at one point or another. When a wound occurs, your body’s natural defense mechanisms are activated, sending white blood cells to the area to heal it.
This process is called inflammation, and like all things in the body, it is perfectly healthy for you—in moderation. It is when this “danger response” becomes chronic and doesn’t go away that there are problems for your health.
Essentially, inflammation is your body’s way of responding to threats like infections or wounds. The immune system controls inflammation, sending out proteins and white blood cells that are intended to protect your body. Swelling, redness, heat or fevers and, sometimes, pain are all signs that the body is hard at work to keep you safe. Once the infection or virus is dealt with, inflammation will usually go away. In these situations, inflammation is perfectly normal, safe and beneficial to the body.
Unfortunately, sometimes the immune system doesn’t stop the inflammatory response, or it starts overreacting to your own body, causing inflammation when it isn’t necessary. This can result in chronic inflammation, which can have long-term effects on your wellbeing.
Chronic inflammation may occur when there is a virus or pathogen in your body that is not able to be defeated by the immune system. Thus, normal, acute inflammation will transition into chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation may also be triggered by an autoimmune disease, in which your immune system starts to target and attack “normal” parts of your body like healthy tissues and organs. Sometimes, though, chronic inflammation does not have any clear cause at all.
Bad lifestyle habits including smoking, obesity, alcohol abuse and chronic stress have also been shown to influence inflammation.
There are a few tell-tale signs of chronic inflammation that differ from acute inflammation:
- Joint pain
- Mouth sores
Chronic inflammation usually begins slowly but can last for months to even years at a time.
The impact of chronic inflammation on your health
Chronic inflammation can begin to have serious, long-term consequences on your body over time. This is because your immune system will continue to attack healthy cells and tissues, affecting various systems your body needs to function. Here are just a few of the health impacts of chronic inflammation.
- Extreme fatigue: When your immune system is constantly on high alert, your body isn’t able to function as well as it normally does. This means that you’ll start to feel more and more fatigued, just like you do when you’re sick.
- Heart disease: Chronic inflammation has been closely linked to heart disease. As cholesterol builds up in the arteries, immune cells may begin to attack and wall it off from the blood supply. This puts you at an increased risk for blood clots or blockages in the arteries.
- Lung problems: Inflammation in the lungs can lead to the narrowing of your airways and fluid buildup. These issues may cause lung infections and asthma, or even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Digestive problems: Most of your immune system is stored in the intestines, which is why many people with inflammation issues experience digestive problems, as well. Immune cells may begin to attack the tissue and healthy bacteria in the gut, leading to food intolerances, as well as conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
- Joint pain: People with inflammation may develop rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy joints. This condition makes movement extremely difficult, as the inflammation that comes with the disease makes joints stiff and painful.
- Mental disorders: Inflammation can not only affect your body, but also your brain. Studies have shown that there is a link between chronic inflammation and Alzheimer’s. Additionally, it may cause symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Living with chronic inflammation
Because of the many risks associated with chronic inflammation, you will want to find a way to minimize inflammation in your body as much as possible to stay healthy. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are not a good option for people with chronic inflammation. While these drugs are designed to reduce inflammation, they have negative side effects if used long-term.
Instead, lifestyle changes provide an easy and natural way to cope with and relieve symptoms of chronic inflammation and/or autoimmune disorders.
Diet, in particular, can play a major role in chronic inflammation—either making it worse or helping to ease it. Omega-3 fatty acids are known anti-inflammatories; you can either take a supplement or add them to your diet by eating lots of nuts, fatty fish, leafy greens and olive oil. Stay away from refined sugars, fried foods and lots of red meat to help minimize inflammation.
Certain herbs and supplements are also known to help minimize inflammation. Ginger, garlic and cayenne have been shown to help reduce inflammation, as well as aid in other digestive issues.
Getting control of your chronic inflammation doesn’t have to be difficult, and the many risks associated with the condition don’t have to be your reality. Making simple changes to your diet, cutting back on bad habits like smoking and taking good care of your body will help it heal from the inside out.