01 Feb Chronic Inflammation, Part One: Is Inflammation a Disease?
Turn on your TV or computer and you’ll be inundated with any number of pills, supplements, diets, and exercise programs touted as inflammation’s cure-all. It’s almost as if there’s a newly discovered disease by the name of inflammation.
What role does inflammation play in your health? Is chronic inflammation the root of disease or just misunderstood?
In Part 1 of Chronic Inflammation:
Signs and symptoms
Acute vs. chronic inflammation
Health consequences of chronic inflammation
Supplemental Reading: Acute Inflammation: Health Friend or Foe?
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to something that compromises your health. When your immune system senses a physical threat (viruses, toxins, allergens, trauma, etc.), an inflammatory response is triggered to defend, protect, and heal what ails you.
In an event of an injury or illness, inflammation is part of the process that repairs damaged tissue and rids you of infection. If you fall and scrape a knee, inflammatory activity immediately escalates. White blood (immune) cells and fluid rush to your wound, protecting nearby tissue and fighting infection.
Signs + Symptoms of Acute Inflammation
Temperature/warm to touch
Loss of function/mobility
Generally, the effects of inflammation are relative to the severity of your injury. If you’ve experienced a fever from the flu or seen an ankle quadruple in size after a sprain, you’ve benefited from inflammation’s response to heal and protect.
Inflammation certainly has its qualities. Without it, we wouldn’t be alive. On the other hand, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation starts the same way as acute does. It begins with something injured or irritating your body and stimulating your immune system. But instead of a quick, intense reaction to a health emergency, chronic inflammation comes on slowly as a result of a low-grade stressor or health malady.
Acute inflammation functions to heal and protect your body. Its onset and duration are relatively short; it gets in, gets the job done, and gets out.
Because of its severity, when inflammation is acute, it’s easy to monitor the situation. You can see and feel its effects. If symptoms get worse or drag on, you quickly know it. When your health crisis is averted, inflammation dissipates, and you’ll feel noticeably better.
The problem with chronic inflammation is that it’s often hard to diagnose and manage until it’s resulted in other health consequences. Chronic inflammation can result from any number of reasons. Remember, anything your immune system perceives as an attack elicits an inflammatory response.
Signs + Symptoms of Chronic Inflammation
Fatigue, low energy, despite plenty of sleep
Body aches, joint pains, lingering and unexplained pain points
Mood disorders – anxiety, depression, brain fog
Gastrointestinal issues – IBS, IBD, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation
Allergies – food/seasonal, excessive mucus production
Skin problems – acne, psoriasis, eczema, rashes
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
High blood sugar
Weight gain (especially belly fat), can’t lose excess weight
Puffiness – face, hands, etc.
What Causes Chronic Inflammation?
Of course, there is rarely a simple answer to a complicated health situation. Since any attack on your body induces inflammation, even small attacks on a regular basis cause harm to your health. What else going on in your body that contributes to chronic inflammation?
Acute inflammation can eventually manifest into chronic inflammation if your illness or injury is extensive. Serious infections and resistant bacteria create chronic inflammation when the ailment or injury is beyond your body’s ability to repair or eradicate. Inflammatory immune activity remains until your health status is restored – indefinitely.
Just as an unresolved illness contributes to chronic inflammation, frequently stressing your immune system with virus after virus or injury after injury will eventually lead to the same condition. Acute inflammation followed by acute inflammation equals chronic inflammation.
What you come in contact with every day will have the most significant impact on your health. Look at your daily environment and habits to pinpoint potential inflammation sources. For example, if you’re breathing in toxic chemicals all day at work, you are exposing your body to attack – every single day. What you eat can be an even bigger factor when you consider the list of food and chemical ingredients on packages.
Here’s another situation where just by suffering from an ailment or condition, your body is in a state of chronic inflammation. Autoimmune diseases are when your immune system starts attacking your own body’s healthy cells and tissues. When this happens, your body is relentlessly under attack and consequently inflamed.
Although we often study and discuss components of health and your body separately, everything in our bodies is very much connected. Imbalances somewhere else in your body can cause chronic inflammation when they get out of whack. Dysfunctions in hormones, digestion, and your other biological systems can stimulate inflammation just by being out of optimal range.
Inflammation is a Wrecking Ball
Inflammation running amok is problematic when it leads to more and more health conditions. Until the source of your inflammation is addressed, immune cells stay active and on the attack. Eventually, white blood cells go after healthy cells and tissue, resulting in a further diseased state.
Every cell in your body is affected by chronic inflammation. Compromised cellular function results in oxidative stress, DNA damage, and toxic overload. Over time, chronic inflammation also opens you up to cancer and compromised health. Because your immune system is under constant duress, its ability to fight illness becomes diminished.
Conditions Caused by Chronic Inflammation
How chronic inflammation affects your body will depend on where and how your immune cells strike. The list of diseases and conditions associated with chronic inflammation is (almost) endless. Here’s the short list in no particular order:
Cardiovascular (heart) disease
Neurodegenerative (brain) diseases
Periodontal (dental) disease
Because getting older isn’t hard enough, chronic inflammation can age you faster. The concept of “inflammaging” describes low-level chronic inflammation that doesn’t originate from illness or infection. This kind of inflammation is particularly dangerous when coupled with other age-related diseases. It’s always worse when you can’t pinpoint the problem to treat it properly.
Next: Everything you can do to lower inflammation
However overwhelming inflammation may seem, you have control over your own health.
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Coming up in Part 2 of Chronic Inflammation:
Testing for inflammation
Medicine and treatment options
Strategies to manage and reduce inflammation
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- Pahwa R, Jialal I. Chronic Inflammation. [Updated 2018 Oct 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2018 Jan-. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/
- Rea IM, Gibson DS, McGilligan V, McNerlan SE, Alexander HD, Ross OA. Age and Age-Related Diseases: Role of Inflammation Triggers and Cytokines. Front Immunol. 2018;9:586. Published 2018 Apr 9. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2018.00586
- Informed Health Online [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. What is an inflammation? 2010 Nov 23 [Updated 2018 Feb 22]. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279298/
- “National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 Nov. 2018. Retrieved from: www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/about/index.htm.
- Claudio Franceschi, Judith Campisi; Chronic Inflammation (Inflammaging) and Its Potential Contribution to Age-Associated Diseases, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Volume 69, Issue Suppl_1, 1 June 2014, Pages S4–S9, Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glu057