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What is Chronic Inflammation & How do we Identify It?

Updated: Jul 13

Signs of inflammation are like a car's dashboard engine light. It tells us that something is wrong. But our response is not to take out the bulb, because that's not the problem. Instead, we need to look at what caused the light to turn on.


Inflammation and the resulting pain associated with it is our body telling us that something bigger is going on that requires attention - and just like our car's check engine light, the problems get worse the longer we ignore them.

Acute vs Chronic Inflammation

There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. People are most familiar with acute inflammation. This is the redness, warmth, swelling, and pain around tissues and joints that occurs in response to an injury, like when you cut yourself. When the body is injured, your immune system releases white blood cells to surround and protect the area.


Acute inflammation is how your body fights infections and helps speed up the healing process. In this way, inflammation is good because it protects the body. This process works the same if you have a virus like a cold or the flu.


In contrast, when inflammation gets turned up too high and lingers for a long time, and the immune system continues to pump out white blood cells and chemical messengers that prolong the process, that's known as chronic inflammation. From the body's perspective, it's under constant attack, so the immune system keeps fighting indefinitely.


When this happens, white blood cells may end up attacking nearby healthy tissues and organs. For example, if you are overweight and have more visceral fat cells — the deep type of fat that surrounds your organs — the immune system may see those cells as a threat and attack them with white blood cells. The longer you are overweight, the longer your body can remain in a state of inflammation.


Research has shown that chronic inflammation is associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.


Should We Worry?

Most of the time, you don't need to worry too much about acute inflammation. You can take an over-the-counter pain reliever to help relieve symptoms, or apply cold compresses to reduce swelling. Otherwise, it is usually best to let the inflammation do its work to help with healing.


Of course, the cause of acute inflammation may need treatment. For example, a bacterial infection may require antibiotics, so if you have a fever or significant symptoms - see your doctor.


Chronic inflammation is a bit trickier. The problem is that chronic inflammation is often "invisible," since it does not show telltale physical signs the way acute inflammation does.


So how can you prevent or reduce inflammation you cannot necessarily see or feel? Let's examine some of the common side-effects of chronic inflammation in this article to better identify it for you.


Chronic Inflammation and its Effects

Although intermittent increases in inflammation are critical for survival due to physical injury and infection, recent research has revealed that certain social, environmental and lifestyle factors can promote systemic chronic inflammation ("SCI") that can, in turn, lead to several diseases that collectively represent the leading causes of disability and mortality worldwide.


Let's look at how inflammation can have several consequences and symptoms before issues become more severe and/or fatal.

Amplified Pain and Symptoms

Having elevated levels of inflammation in our body due to certain social, psychological, environmental and biological factors reduces the effectiveness of our immune system to respond to infection and disease often resulting in a greater expression of symptoms when you get sick compared to other healthier individuals.


Increases in general body pain, arthritis pain and myalgia (i.e. muscle aches and muscle pain/soreness) are common when dealing with chronic inflammation.


Reduced Immune Response & Frequent Infections

When the inflammatory response mechanisms in our body shift from short-lived to chronic that can cause a breakdown of our immune tolerance & responses and lead to major alterations in all our tissues and organs.


This change can increase the risk for various non-communicable diseases in both young and older individuals. It can further reduce the effectiveness of certain vaccinations and cures as the immune system will lose the ability to tolerate and adapt to changes. Having recurring bouts of inflections would be a side-effect of chronic inflammation.

Fatigue and Insomnia

Inflammation can affect the sleep centers in your brain making it very difficult for you to sleep at night. Those with inflammation tend to spend less time in REM sleep, and suffer from a lack of deep sleep.


REM sleep is extremely important for many of your body’s functions, and this restorative sleep is critical for encoding new memories into long term memories. It is also during REM sleep that endorphins for pain relief and growth hormone for healing are released, so you’ll have a lot of negative side effects from not sleeping, and your body will struggle to get well. When you fail to get enough REM sleep, you’ll wake up feeling tired and groggy, even if you’ve gotten a full night's rest.


To read another article on 5 ways to improve your sleep habits, click this link.


Gastrointestinal Complications

Like other areas of the body, the gastrointestinal tract can suffer the effects of chronic inflammation. The same persistent activation of the immune system that can occur in your joints (causing inflammatory arthritis) can also take place in the gastrointestinal tract, inflaming or damaging the lining of the intestines and other parts of the digestive system.


You may experience flare-ups of diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fatigue, gas, bloating, bloody stools, loss of appetite, or weight loss. In some cases, inflammation may develop in other organs, such as the skin, eyes, joints, liver, heart, or lungs.

Depression, Anxiety and Mood Disorders

Research is revealing that inflammation might be a contributing factor in a number of mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.


Lack of motivation often goes hand in hand with depression. Those with major depressive disorder may find it hard to feel motivated to do anything at all. Because biomarkers of inflammation are reliably elevated in depressed patients, one study administered inflammatory stimuli in healthy subjects to see how it affected neural activity and dopamine release in the reward-related regions of the brain. The results showed reduced neural activity (low motivation) is associated with inflammatory biomarkers.


So What triggers Chronic Inflammation?

Now that you know some of the effects of chronic inflammation, you may start to wonder what causes inflammation to become systemic and chronic. Because, looking at what often triggers SCI can help us to identify if we may be suffering from it.


The most common triggers of SCI include:

  • chronic infections

  • physical inactivity

  • obesity

  • intestinal dysbiosis (an imbalance of microorganisms in the intestines)

  • diet

  • social isolation

  • psychological stress

  • disturbed sleep and disrupted circadian rhythm

  • exposure to air pollutants, hazardous waste products, industrial chemicals

  • tobacco smoking.

Experiencing one or several of these triggers is a good indication you may suffer from SCI without knowing it. Being overweight, suffering from recurring bouts of viral infections, and sleeping poorly can all have effect on how we feel on their own - but couple these issues together and we will likely start to notice signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation.

See Your Doctor

If you're worried you might suffer from symptoms of chronic inflammation and/or you may be dealing with several triggers for it - preventing exposure to the triggers for chronic inflammation is the first step.


If you want to know 4 simple ways to reduce chronic inflammation, click this link.

And another logical step is to see your primary care provider. They can run tests and figure out the best course of action to help you.


I hope you found this article helpful and thanks for reading!

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