You may have heard the buzz about eating an anti-inflammatory diet and how combating inflammation can help you lose weight, ease joint pain, fight fatigue, and be overall healthier. But what exactly is chronic inflammation?
Since chronic inflammation isn't exactly something you can see or even experience specific symptoms of, it's hard to pinpoint. Although it's talked about a lot in wellness and naturopathic circles, many Western doctors agree that chronic inflammation can be an underlying condition for other ailments including eczema, Crohn's disease, migraines, and possibly even obesity.
We spoke to doctors, who gave us the scoop on what it actually means to have chronic inflammation, how it impacts other aspects of your health, and how to prevent it.
What Is Chronic Inflammation Exactly?
Since the word "inflammation" is thrown around a lot, what chronic inflammation — and, in turn, anti-inflammatory — actually mean may be confusing. To understand what chronic inflammation means, it's important to know how it compares to acute inflammation. Acute inflammation is your body's response to fight off infection or heal itself after trauma. Chronic inflammation, however, is much more nuanced.
"Acute inflammation is good, fast, and resolves completely in a way that it solves a problem for the host," Raymond J. Tesi, MD, CEO and cofounder of INmune Bio, told POPSUGAR. "Chronic inflammation refers to the sustained presence of an elevated but low-level response where immune cells or immune-related cytokines are active, but do not have an adaptive purpose of resolving the problem; they become the problem because they start to kill normal cells and cause abnormalities in the function of both the tissue and the immune system." In other words, the body is slowly attacking itself.
Chronic inflammation is a general term, and it can refer to a specific organ or system in the body, explained allergist and internist Tania Elliott, MD, chief medical officer at EHE. People with eczema or psoriasis have chronic inflammation of the skin; people with inflammatory bowel disease have inflammation of the digestive tract; and people with arthritis have chronic inflammation of the joints. It could be triggered by a bacterial infection, allergy, or food.
It also varies from person to person, said Niket Sonpal, MD, adjunct assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine based in New York. "[Chronic inflammation] may manifest as heart disease in one person and then obesity or irritable bowel, migraines, and other ailments in another," he said. "When it's chronic, it means there is ongoing inflammation in the body that is just lingering there unnoticed, silently eating away at tissue. Over time, there's a decline in health."
What Are the Symptoms and How Do You Test For It?
Since chronic inflammation varies so much depending on the person, the symptoms are broad and can encompass a wide range of conditions and ailments. Dr. Sonpal said some signs of chronic inflammation include weight gain, especially around the midsection; brain fog, lack of focus, and forgetfulness; high blood sugar; bleeding gums; colds that never seem to go away; sluggishness and lethargy; lingering dull pains that don't go away; skin issues such as acne, psoriasis, or eczema; and allergy-like symptoms.
Inflammation is generally tested with a blood test to check for C-reactive protein (CRP), erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), or plasma viscosity (PV) markers.
What Can Chronic Inflammation Lead To?
Aside from the unfortunate symptoms listed above, chronic inflammation has been tied to such serious diseases as rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and Alzheimer's.
How Do You Treat and Prevent It?
"Prevention is worth 10 pounds of cure," Dr. Tesi said. The best way to prevent it is through diet by loading up on anti-inflammatory foods (vegetables, leafy greens, berries, oats, salmon, etc.) and avoiding sugar and processed food. It's also important to exercise, not smoke, get enough sleep (seven to eight hours a night), and reduce stress.
Since stress makes inflammation worse, practice de-stressing techniques such as meditation, exercise, reading, taking a bath, or another form of self-care that will lighten your mood and help you feel better.