Pamela Malo, MHS, RD, Arivale Coach
Inflammation is normal. Anytime our tissues get damaged or even irritated, our body sends immune cells to the area to fight whatever’s causing trouble. This creates an inflammatory response—redness, swelling, pain, etc.
Inflammation is an essential part of the healing process, and usually, because the trigger was temporary (a virus causing a sore throat or a piece of furniture that made contact with your toe), the inflammation goes away once the area is healed. Usually.
Inflammation can be caused by a wide-range of things, many of them subtler than a stubbed toe or temporary infection. From the food we eat to the toxins we touch, these seemingly small things can irritate our body and “trigger” a small immune response. And when these triggers happen constantly—when they’re part of our daily routine—inflammation can become chronic.
Chronic inflammation happens when inflammation doesn’t resolve itself properly—and through our behaviors, our environment, and even our mental and physical wellness, we might be triggering and retriggering an inflammatory response every day without noticing.
What’s the impact? No conflicting evidence here. Chronic inflammation is really bad for your body. In fact, chronic inflammation is related to pretty much every chronic disease around. For example, chronic inflammation contributes to (and is exasperated by) diseases like diabetes, cancer, dementia, depression, and obesity.1-5
A key part of fighting chronic inflammation is understanding what’s causing it. Let’s explore.
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
The standard American diet contains high amounts of highly processed foods, many of which have a pro-inflammatory effect on our bodies. Beyond ingredients, simply consuming excessive calories or sugars, salt, alcohol, and saturated or trans fats can trigger inflammation. Interestingly enough, the absence of fiber and nutrients in the diet can also trigger inflammation. Mediterranean diets, which are high in plant-based foods, omega-3 fatty acids, and healthy fats, can help fight inflammation.6-9
It should come as no surprise that overworking your body can cause inflammation, but did you know low activity can do the same? There are many theories as to why being too sedentary causes inflammation, though the specific mechanisms are still unclear. One theory that researchers discuss is that when the muscles contract, they ultimately lead to an anti-inflammatory response. So, when a person is not regularly contracting their muscles, their anti-inflammatory response is impaired and lowered. It’s also worth noting that the relationship between being sedentary and inflammation is true regardless of a person’s weight.10
A toxin is a chemical or poison known to have harmful effects on the body. They can have short and long-term implications for your health, and exposure may trigger an inflammatory response. For example, both smoking and air pollutants can impact inflammatory markers. While you likely aren’t exposed to toxic waste on the daily, many common household cleaning products contain high amounts of toxins that could trigger inflammation.11-13
As we said earlier, inflammation contributes to and can worsen many chronic diseases. Take obesity, for example. While many lifestyle factors (such as diet and exercise habits) can trigger weight gain and inflammation, simply having the extra fat tissue can cause inflammation. Additionally, inflammation can disrupt blood sugar regulation, making chronic inflammation a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes.14-15
Inflammation can also be caused by autoimmune diseases, where the immune system mistakenly fights against its own cells causing an inflammatory response. These conditions include rheumatoid arthritis, where many joints throughout the entire body are permanently inflamed, psoriasis, a chronic skin disease, and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.16-17
It’s not just your physical wellness that can impact inflammation. Your mental wellness also plays a part.
Stress leaves its mark on the body. When your body is chronically stressed, it may begin to overproduce cortisol—an important stress hormone that naturally fluctuates throughout the day. This heightened state of stress irritates the body and can elevate inflammatory markers. Studies have also linked social isolation and depression to high inflammatory markers.18
Detecting and Fighting Chronic Inflammation
Detecting chronic inflammation can be difficult without looking to your actual blood markers, as many sufferers might not yet present any physical symptoms. Several blood markers can indicate chronic inflammation, such as high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, a substance formed by the liver in response to inflammation, and IL-8, a protein involved in systemic inflammation. Furthermore, you can also be genetically predisposed to chronic inflammation.19-20
Regardless of whether or not you have high inflammation markers, the steps to fight inflammation go hand in hand with optimizing your wellness. Learn more about fighting chronic inflammation through diet and lifestyle.
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- Dregan A, Chowienczyk P, Gulliford MC. Are Inflammation and Related Therapy Associated with All-Cause Dementia in a Primary Care Population? J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;46(4):1039-47
- Maes M. Evidence for an immune response in major depression: a review and hypothesis. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 1995 Jan;19(1):11-38.
- Weisberg SP, McCann D, Desai M, Rosenbaum M, Leibel RL, Ferrante AW Jr. Obesity is associated with macrophage accumulation in adipose tissue. J Clin Invest. 2003 Dec;112(12):1796-808.
- Esmaillzadeh A, Kimiagar M, Mehrabi Y, et al. Dietary patterns and markers of systemic inflammation among Iranian women. J Nutr. 2007; 137:992–998. [PubMed: 17374666]
- Turner-McGrievy GM, Wirth MD, Shivappa N, et al. Randomization to plant-based dietary approaches leads to larger short-term improvements in dietary inflammatory index scores and macronutrient intake compared with diets that contain meat. Nutr Res. 2015;35(2):97–106. [PubMed]
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Shiels MS, Katki HA, Freedman ND, et al. Cigarette smoking and variations in systemic immune and inflammation markers. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2014 Oct 1;106(11).
- van den Hooven EH, de Kluizenaar Y, Pierik FH, et al. Chronic air pollution exposure during pregnancy and maternal and fetal C-reactive protein levels: the Generation R Study. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 May;120(5):746-51.
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Mraz M, Haluzik M. The role of adipose tissue immune cells in obesity and low-grade inflammation. J Endocrinol. 2014 Sep;222(3):R113-27
- Herbert Tilg and Alexander R Moschen. Inflammatory Mechanisms in the Regulation of Insulin Resistance. Mol Med. 2008 Mar-Apr; 14(3-4): 222–231.
Plaque Psoriasis – National Library of Medicine – PubMed Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0022696/
Ulcerative Colitis – National Library of Medicine – PubMed Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0022830/
- Bergmans RS, Malecki KM. The association of dietaryinflammatory potential with depression and mental well-being among U.S. adults. Prev Med. 2017 Jun;99:313-319. PMID: 28342730.
- Naitza S, Porcu E, Steri Mm et al. A genome-wide association scan on the levels of markers of inflammation in Sardinians reveals associations that underpin its complex regulation. PLoS Genet. 2012 Jan;8(1):e1002480. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002480. PMID:22291609
- Ferreira RC, Freitag DF, Cutler AJ, et, al. Functional IL6R 358Ala allele impairs classical IL-6 receptor signaling and influences risk of diverse inflammatory diseases. PLoS Genet. 2013 Apr;9(4):e1003444. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003444. PMID:23593036