Everything you need to know about chronic inflammation
Inflammation is a normal biological response to infection and injury. However, prolonged immune responses leaves your body in a constant state of stress, called chronic inflammation. So how do we know if we have it? And more importantly, how can we reduce it?
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s natural defence mechanism to foreign invaders like pathogens, irritants, or injury. As part of our normal biological response, the immune system is activated and sends out first-line responders, such as inflammatory cells, cytokines, antibodies, and proteins. Our body responds by increasing blood flow to the damaged area, providing access to more nutrients and white blood cells. In the case of acute inflammation – like getting a cut on your knee - the healing process usually lasts for a few hours to several days. Most people are familiar with the five immediate signs of acute inflammation, such as pain, redness, swelling, warmth, and loss of function.
However, when the immune response lingers for a prolonged period of time (from several months to years), it leaves your body in a constant state of alert and high stress. This is referred to as chronic inflammation, and has been associated with a number of health conditions, including diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and depression.
What causes chronic inflammation?
- Untreated causes of acute inflammation, such as a persistent parasite or infection that is resistant to the immune system defences.
- Low-level exposure to irritants, like polluted air or industrial chemicals.
- An autoimmune disorder, where the body incorrectly perceives its own cells or tissues as harmful, and begins to attack healthy tissue.
- Reoccurring episodes of acute inflammation that persist over time, as seen in Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).
One of the biggest contributors to chronic inflammation comes from lifestyle factors, like smoking, obesity, alcohol, chronic stress, or poor diet.
What are the symptoms of chronic inflammation?
Unlike acute inflammation, the symptoms of chronic inflammation are more subtle and harder to detect. They can range from mild to very severe. Common symptoms might include:
- Aches and pains
- Depression or anxiety
- Poor concentration
- Reduced appetite
- Unintended weight changes (loss or gain)
- Persistent infections
- Gut health issues (constipation, diarrhoea, pain, blood in stool)
Can diet be used to reduce chronic inflammation?
Significant research has been undertaken to study the anti-inflammatory effects of different foods. Foods that show the greatest promise are part of the Mediterranean Diet and are high in antioxidants, polyphenols, and fibre. These foods include:
- Healthy fats, like olive oil, avocado, oily fish, nuts, and seeds
- Colourful fruit and vegetables, particularly leafy greens, tomatoes, and eggplant
- Lentils and beans
- Wholegrains, like oats, rye bread, and quinoa.
Substantial research is also focused on the anti-inflammatory role of prebiotic fibres, like onion, garlic, oats, raw banana, artichokes, and chicory root. Prebiotics are the favourite foods for your gut bacteria. Our gut bacteria ferment dietary fibres and produce a number of anti-inflammatory substances called Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).
What to do if you're worried about chronic inflammation
It is important to consult with your healthcare professional. The options explored for managing chronic inflammation for some people might include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), steroids, supplements, and other lifestyle changes.
The take-home message
- Inflammation is the body’s natural defence mechanism and is an important part of the healing process.
- Prolonged immune system responses can lead to chronic inflammation.
- Chronic inflammation is associated with a number of health conditions, including diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and depression.
- Mediterranean diet foods have anti-inflammatory properties that may reduce chronic inflammation in the body.