How Chronic Inflammation Contributes to Disease and What You Can Do About It
The association between chronic inflammation and chronic disease is widely recognized. Health-care systems are buckling under the enormous cost of treating a population who is heavily burdened by chronic systemic inflammation and its related health problems.
The good news? There are simple things you can do to lower inflammation in your body and reduce your risk of developing the many diseases and adverse health conditions that accompany it.
Inflammation that Heals versus Inflammation that Damages
Inflammation is a normal part of the body's immune system that helps heal injured tissue and fights viruses or other threats. The inflammatory process begins when chemicals are released by damaged or distressed cells. In response, the immune system sends white blood cells that repair damage from an injury; kill bacteria, fungi, and viruses; and eliminate debris and damaged cells from the body. A normal inflammatory response is why your nose gets stuffy when you have a cold and the papercut on your finger swells and becomes red. Once a threat is eliminated or a wound is healed, the inflammatory process ends.1
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is long-term inflammation that lasts for several months to years. During chronic inflammation, the immune system continues to send white blood cells after the original threat no longer exists, causing damage to the surrounding healthy tissue. Sometimes the inflammatory process begins even when there is no injury. Although it's not always clear why chronic inflammation develops, researchers think it might be the result of an abnormal immune reaction, an ongoing infection, exposure to toxins, conditions such as obesity, and lifestyle habits like a poor diet.1,2
The Connection between Inflammation and Disease. It's Complicated.
Chronic inflammation progresses silently. Most people don't realize they have chronic inflammation until the symptoms of an adverse health issue become apparent.
Chronic inflammation can attack the linings of the arteries or intestines, the cells and organs throughout the body, and the tissues of muscles and joints. Research indicates that damage caused by inflammation can contribute to diabetes, cancer, dementia, heart disease, arthritis, depression, and other health conditions.1,2
The Role of Inflammation in Cardiovascular Disease
Chronic inflammation is associated with a higher risk of heart disease. A coronary artery that has been injured – by tobacco smoke, high blood pressure, or other causes – triggers an inflammatory process as the immune system tries to heal the damage. Over time, however, this can do more harm than good by triggering a cascade of negative events.3,4
Uncontrolled inflammation can damage the lining of your arteries. It also plays a role in the build-up of plaque inside arteries. Plaque is an accumulation of cholesterol, fats, calcium, and other substances. The body perceives plaque as a foreign object. In response, the immune system sends specialized cells to make repairs and "wall off" the plaque from normal blood flow. However, that plaque can rupture, and its walled-off contents can form a blood clot. This combination of plaque and blood clot causes the majority of heart attacks and certain types of stroke.3,4
Click here to view a video depicting the connection between inflammation and heart disease.
The Role of Inflammation in Type 2 Diabetes
It's commonly known that obesity is a high-risk factor for type 2 diabetes.5 Recent research indicates that inflammation also plays a role in the development of the disease.6 Researchers found that individuals who have type 2 diabetes also have higher than normal cytokine levels inside their fat tissue. Although cytokines are molecules that help your body fight off infections, too many cytokines can overwhelm the body, increase inflammation, and cause more harm than good. Excess body fat, especially in the abdomen, causes chronic inflammation that can alter insulin's ability to metabolize glucose, which can lead to diabetes.6
In addition, chronic inflammation can contribute to excess body fat, creating a vicious cycle of weight gain, inflammation, and blood sugar dysfunction – increasing the risk for type 2 diabetes.5,6
The Role of Inflammation in Cancer
The connection between inflammation and cancer is complex. Over time, chronic inflammation can damage DNA and contribute to the development of cancer. On the other hand, inflammation can stimulate immune mechanisms that limit the growth of a tumor. However, research shows that long- term low-level inflammation contributes to most types of cancer.1,7,8 A few examples include:
Colorectal cancer. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term for disorders that involve chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Types of IBD include ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. It is well recognized that patients who have IBD also have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer, primarily the result of chronic intestinal inflammation.8,9
Liver cancer. Inflammation after a viral infection is a driving force that can lead to cancer. One example is hepatitis. Viral hepatitis is an infection that causes liver inflammation and damage. There are several viruses that cause hepatitis, including hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E. Research indicates that hepatitis viruses can cause long-lasting infections and inflammation that can lead to liver cancer, cirrhosis, and liver failure.7,10
Stomach cancer. The bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is an example of how an invading bacterium can lead to chronic inflammation and increase the risk of cancer. H. pylori is known to colonize the human stomach and cause infection. This infection can irritate the stomach and cause inflammation (gastritis), damage the protective lining of the stomach and small intestine, and lead to peptic ulcers. Having an H. pylori infection is a strong risk factor for certain types of stomach cancer.1,7,11
How Do You Know if You Have Chronic Inflammation?
Although some signs of inflammation might include body pain, gastrointestinal issues, and fatigue, chronic inflammation can only be measured by a blood test. Erythrocyte sedimentation rate, C-reactive protein (CRP), and plasma viscosity are blood tests that are commonly used to measure inflammation.
By a certain age, most people will have some degree of inflammation in their bodies. The key is to keep it from becoming excessive.1
What Can You do to Reduce Chronic Inflammation?
Research shows there are many lifestyle habits you can adopt to reduce the amount of inflammation in your body.
Exercise for 20 minutes. It's commonly known that regular exercise can reduce chronic low-grade inflammation.12 But a workout doesn't have to be intense to have anti-inflammatory effects.
A recent study showed that even a 20-minute session of moderate exercise – like fast walking – can have anti-inflammatory effects. Researchers found that 20 minutes of moderate treadmill exercise reduced tumor necrosis factor (TNF) level – a cytokine that causes inflammation in the body – by as much as five percent in participants.13
Get consistent sleep. Individuals with irregular sleep schedules are more likely to have chronic inflammation than consistent sleepers. Sleep disorders are also considered risk factors for chronic inflammation.1,2 Aim to get the recommended amount of sleep every night, which is 7-9 hours for adults.
Manage your stress. Large bodies of evidence indicate that stress can activate the body's inflammatory response.2,14 Inflammation is the body’s response to a threat, whether it's a foreign invader – such as bacteria – or a psychological or emotional stressor. When you're stressed, the immune system sends out pro-inflammatory cytokines. When stress is chronic, the cycle of stress and the inflammatory response becomes habituated in the body. That’s when inflammation becomes chronic and begins to cause harm.15
- Meditate. Research shows that meditation is remarkably effective for managing stress. Regular meditation practice literally re-wires the brain by increasing the area of the brain that regulates emotions.3 Scientists have found that meditation induces changes in the body's nervous system that helps you move from "fight-or-flight" to "rest-and-digest," a calmer state in which the heart slows and the digestive tract speeds up.16,17
- Try tai chi. Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that is practiced today as a graceful form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow and focused manner, accompanied by deep breathing. Research indicates that practicing tai chi might enhance the immune system, lower blood pressure, improve symptoms of congestive heart failure, improve quality of sleep, and decrease stress, anxiety, and depression.18-20
Don’t smoke or quit. If you don't smoke, then don't start. In addition, avoid exposure to secondhand smoke, which can also cause damage from inflammation. Nicotine activates certain white blood cells, called neutrophils, which in turn release molecules that lead to increased inflammation. Cigarette smoking is also associated with a lower production of anti-inflammatory molecules.21
Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. What you eat can affect the level of the inflammatory marker CRP in your blood. 22 Some foods, like processed sugars, stimulate the release of inflammatory chemicals that can raise the risk of chronic inflammation.23 Other foods like fruits and vegetables lower inflammation by fighting oxidative stress.24
- Eat more plants. Whole plant foods have anti-inflammatory nutrients that your body needs. Eating whole grains, legumes, and a rainbow of fruits and vegetables is the best place to start.22-24
- Focus on antioxidants. They help prevent, delay, or repair some types of cell and tissue damage. Antioxidants are found in colorful fruits and vegetables, such as berries, leafy greens, beets, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc.), and avocados, as well as beans and lentils, whole grains, and green tea.24,25
- Get your omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids play a role in regulating the body's inflammatory process and might help regulate pain from inflammation. Find these healthy fats in fish like salmon, tuna, trout, herring, sardines, anchovies, and mackerel. They're also in walnuts, pecans, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, and soybeans.26
- Eat less red meat. Red meat can be pro-inflammatory.27 If you're a steak and burger lover, then aim for a realistic goal. Try substituting beef with chicken, fish, nuts, or soy-based protein a few times a week.
- Cut the processed stuff. Sugary cereals and drinks, deep-fried food, and pastries are all pro-inflammatory. They contain unhealthy fats that are linked to inflammation.23,24
- Add turmeric. Turmeric packs a double punch as both an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. Turmeric provides a polyphenol called curcumin, which has been studied for the health benefits it provides, including the ability to suppress inflammation.28
- Use more ginger. Available in many forms, ginger root contains a substance called gingerol, which has been shown to inhibit inflammation.29
Inflammation isn't your enemy. Small flare-ups are good because it’s a sign that your immune system is working to heal your body. But chronic inflammation can be a sign of something more concerning.
If you eat poorly, are overweight, and stressed, then chances are you have a high level of chronic inflammation that can be damaging. If you eat well, are lean, don't smoke, and exercise, then you should have less inflammation.
A Word from Thorne
If you would like to learn more about inflammation and how it can affect your body, then you can explore these additional blogs and podcasts:
- C-Reactive Protein and Inflammation
- From Mayo: How Excess Body Fat and Inflammation Can Increase the Risk for Serious Complications from COVID
- Podcast: Breaking Down Your Body’s Inflammatory Response
- Pahwa R, Goyal A, Bansa P, Jialal I. Chronic Inflammation. [Updated 2021 Sep 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022.
- Furman D, Campisi J, Verdin E, et al. Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life span. Nat Med 2019;25(12):1822-1832.
- Morya J. Critical roles of inflammation in atherosclerosis. J Cardiol 2019;73(1):22-27.
- American Heart Association. Inflammation and heart disease. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease/inflammation-and-heart-disease. [Accessed January 10, 2022]
- Ellulu MS, Patimah I, Khaza'ai H, et al. Obesity and inflammation: the linking mechanism and the complications. Arch Med Sci 2017;13(4):851-863.
- Tsalamandris S, Antonopoulos AS, Oikonomou E, et al. The role of inflammation in diabetes: current concepts and future perspectives. Eur Cardiol 2019;14(1):50-59.
- Singh N, Baby D, Rajguru JP, et al. Inflammation and cancer. Ann Afr Med 2019;18(3):121-126.
- National Cancer Institute. Chronic inflammation. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/chronic-inflammation. [Accessed January 10, 2022]
- Axelrad JE, Lichtiger S, Yajnik V. Inflammatory bowel disease and cancer: the role of inflammation, immunosuppression, and cancer treatment. World J Gastroenterol 2016;22(20):4794-4801.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/liver-disease/viral-hepatitis/what-is-viral-hepatitis. [Accessed January 11, 2022]
- Mayo Clinic. Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/h-pylori/symptoms-causes/syc-20356171. [Accessed January 11, 2022]
- Duggal NA, Niemiro G, Harridge SDR, et al. Can physical activity ameliorate immunosenescence and thereby reduce age-related multi-morbidity? Nat Rev Immunol 2019;19:563-572.
- Dimitrov S, Hulteng E, Hong S. Inflammation and exercise: inhibition of monocytic intracellular TNF production by acute exercise via β2-adrenergic activation. Brain Behav Immun 2017;61:60-68.
- Wang YX, Jiang CL. Inflammation: the common pathway of stress-related diseases. Front Hum Neurosci 2017;11:316.
- Slavich GM, Irwin MR. From stress to inflammation and major depressive disorder: a social signal transduction theory of depression. Psychol Bull 2014;140(3):774-815.
- Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, et al. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J 2017;16:1057-1072.
- Bauer B, Kermott C, Millman M. Mind-body medicine. In: Mayo Clinic: The Integrative Guide to Good Health. Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House; 2017.
- Bystritsky A. Complementary and alternative treatments for anxiety symptoms and disorders: Physical, cognitive, and spiritual interventions. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. [Accessed January 12, 2022]
- Ma C, Zhou W, Tang Q, Huang S. The impact of group-based Tai chi on health-status outcomes among community-dwelling older adults with hypertension. Heart Lung 2018;47(4):337-344.
- Haija A, Kolasinski S. Complementary and alternative therapies. In: Current Diagnosis & Treatment: Rheumatology. 3rd ed. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Education; 2013. https://accessmedicine.mhmedical.com. [Accessed January 11, 2022]
- Hosseinzadeh A, Thompson PR, Segal BH, Urban CF. Nicotine induces neutrophil extracellular traps. J Leukoc Biol 2016 Nov;100(5):1105-1112.
- More fiber, less inflammation? Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/arthritis-diet/anti-inflammatory/fiber-inflammation.php. [Accessed January 11, 2022]
- Anti-inflammatory diet. Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/arthritis-diet/anti-inflammatory/anti-inflammatory-diet.php. [Accessed January 11, 2022.]
- Minihane AM, Vinoy S, Russell WR, et al. Low-grade inflammation, diet composition and health: current research evidence and its translation. Br J Nutr 2015;114(7):999-1012.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 9000 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20892. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants-in-depth. [Accessed January 10, 2022]
- Zivkovic A, Telis N, German J, Hammock B. Dietary omega-3 fatty acids in the modulation of inflammation and metabolic health. Calif Agric 2011;65:106-111.
- Chai W, Morimoto Y, Cooney RV, et al. Dietary red and processed meat intake and markers of adiposity and inflammation: the multiethnic cohort study. J Am Coll Nutr 2017;36(5):378-385.
- Hewlings S, Kalman D. Curcumin: a review of its effects on human health. Foods 2017;6:92.
- Mashhadi N, Ghiasvand R, Askari G, et al. Anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects of ginger in health and physical activity: Review of current evidence. Int J Prev Med 2013;4:S36-S42.