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Inflammation is an innate biological process that, like stress, is good for you in small amounts … and detrimental if it becomes chronic. Typical healthy inflammation is the type of reaction that occurs when you, say, sprain your ankle.
The area becomes inflamed, which basically means you’re probably experiencing heat, pain, redness and swelling in the area. If you could take a microscope and see beneath your skin, you’d also notice your immune system being called into action.
During the normal process of acute inflammation, blood vessels become dilated and permeability increases to improve blood flow to the injured area. Immune cells, including neutrophils, are called to the area as well, to engulf or kill invading organisms. They also release cytokines that help trigger a systemic inflammatory response (if necessary) such as fever or an increase in white blood cells. [i]
In some cases, however, this call for immune action doesn’t get turned off as it should after the illness or injury goes away. Instead, your body remains in a state of chronic inflammation in which your immune cells continue to release pro-inflammatory chemicals and free radicals. You may not know that your body is silently simmering … but eventually inflammatory diseases or other inflammation-related damage can result. As explained by the Linus Pauling Institute: [ii]
“If the stimulus persists, inflammation can last days, months, and even years. Chronic inflammation is primarily mediated by monocytes and long-lived macrophages … Macrophages and other leukocytes [immune system cells] release ROS [reactive oxygen species] and proteases that destroy the source of inflammation; however, damage to the body’s own tissues often results.
In fact, tissue damage is a hallmark of chronic inflammation. Another characteristic of chronic inflammation is repair of the damaged tissue by replacement with cells of the same type or with fibrous connective tissue.
An important part of the inflammatory process involves local angiogenesis—the development of new blood vessels. In some instances, the body is unable to repair tissue damage, and the inflammatory cascade continues. Chronic inflammation is abnormal and does not benefit the body; in fact, chronic inflammation is involved in a number of disease states.”
Many factors can trigger chronic inflammation. Obesity, for instance, makes you prone to chronic inflammation, as does suffering from frequent infections. If you smoke, are extremely stressed or eat a primarily processed food diet, chronic inflammation is likely, too.
Exposure to environmental pollution is another common chronic inflammation trigger … even lack of sleep can trigger inflammatory processes. Once chronic inflammation begins, it can persist for weeks, months or years, leading to the following health issues.
11 Ways Inflammation Harms You
11. Digestive Issues
The definition of inflammatory bowel disease is a chronic inflammation of your digestive tract. This can manifest as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and more, with symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping, and blood in your stool.
Gastritis, which can lead to upper abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting (or no symptoms at all), is caused by an inflammation of the lining of your stomach.
10. Joint Pain
Joint pain is a common result of inflammation in your joints. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, it is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in your joints. With anklylosing spondylitis, another rheumatic disease, inflammation occurs at the site where certain ligaments or tendons attach to bone (enthesis). Some erosion of bone at the site of the attachment (enthesopathy) follows this.
As the inflammation subsides, a healing process takes place and new bone develops. Movement becomes restricted where bone replaces the elastic tissue of ligaments or tendons. Repetition of this inflammatory process leads to further bone formation causing backbones and vertebrae to fuse together.
Even in the case of osteoarthritis, which is characterized by degeneration of the joints and has long been described as “non-inflammatory arthritis,” inflammation is now thought to play a strong role. [iii]
9. Heart Disease
Elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation in your body, are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. [iv] One study found that, out of 12 heart-disease risk markers measured, high CRP was the strongest predictor of the risk of cardiovascular events. Even among women with low LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, elevated CRP was still a significant predictor of heart risks. [v]
Cytokines are chemical messengers that signal cells of your immune system, helping your body to heal from injury. However, cytokines can be either anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory, and when your body is in an inflammatory state, production of pro-inflammatory cytokines is increased.
High levels of cytokines, in turn, may contribute to depression. One study found, for instance, that people with depression had significantly higher levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine TNF-alpha, and lower levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines, than people without depression. [vi]
As reported in the journal Neuroscience, inflammatory cytokines play an important role in brain function, but when exposure becomes chronic it can negatively influence your mental health: [vii]
“Mounting evidence indicates that inflammatory cytokines contribute to the development of depression in both medically ill and medically healthy individuals. Cytokines are important for development and normal brain function, and have the ability to influence neurocircuitry and neurotransmitter systems to produce behavioral alterations.
Acutely, inflammatory cytokine administration or activation of the innate immune system produces adaptive behavioral responses that promote conservation of energy to combat infection or recovery from injury. However, chronic exposure to elevated inflammatory cytokines and persistent alterations in neurotransmitter systems can lead to neuropsychiatric disorders and depression.”
It’s thought that cytokines may activate inflammatory signaling pathways in your brain and decrease growth factors, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which may play a role in helping damaged nerve cells regenerate.
7. Oral Health
Inflammation of your gums is known as periodontitis, or gum disease. If not treated, it can damage the soft tissue and bone that supports your teeth, and this inflammatory infection is linked to damage elsewhere in your body as well, including heart disease and dementia. According to research in Dentistry iQ: [viii]
“It is increasingly evident that chronic inflammatory conditions in one organ or tissue of the body may produce systemic effects with deleterious consequences. For example, an increased level of C-reactive protein is a risk factor for atherosclerosis, and is correlated with levels of periodontal inflammation.17 Some evidence now points to a contributory or causative role for periodontitis in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis.”
6. Bone Loss and Damage
Chronic inflammation interferes with bone growth and often leads to bone loss when it occurs in areas close to bone (such as in rheumatoid arthritis and periodontitis). According to a study in the journal Immunological Investigations: [ix]
“This [bone loss due to chronic inflammation] is mainly due to local formation of bone resorbing osteoclasts which degrade bone without any subsequent coupling to new bone formation.”
5. Chronic Obstructive Plumonary Disease (COPD)
If you or someone you love has COPD, you should know that inflammation plays a primary role (hence the common use of anti-inflammatory medications). As reported in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: [x]
“Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive syndrome of expiratory airflow limitation caused by chronic inflammation of the airways and lung parenchyma.
The airway inflammatory response in COPD is initiated by smoking in the overwhelming majority of cases, and chronic exposure to cigarette smoke initiates a series of events that causes damage to central airways, peripheral airways, and terminal airspaces, leading to physiologic and clinical abnormalities.”
Many different types of cancer, including breast, lung, esophagus, cervix and digestive tract, have been linked to inflammation. Research presented at a meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research found that teens with high levels of inflammation had a 63 percent increased risk of developing colorectal cancer, compared with those with low levels of inflammation. [xi] Mansour Mohamadzadeh, PhD, director of the Center for Inflammation and Mucosal Immunology at the University of Florida told Health: [xii]
“When immune cells begin to produce inflammation, immune regulation becomes deteriorated and it creates an optimal environment for cancer cells to grow.”
Dementia including Alzheimer’s disease is also thought to be worsened or triggered by chronic inflammation, which is known to increase the generation of amyloid-beta protein. [xiii] Clumps of beta-amyloid protein are thought to damage and destroy brain cells.
2. Accelerated Aging
Chronic inflammation is known to trigger the release of powerful free radicals that accelerate the aging process. In one study, researchers were able induce premature aging by triggering low-grade chronic inflammation. [xiv]
Chronic inflammation is at the root of many painful conditions, and it also can trigger pain directly. As explained by Medical News Today: [xv]
“Inflammation primarily causes pain because the swelling pushes against the sensitive nerve endings, which send pain signals to the brain.
Nerve endings send pain signals to the brain all day long; however, it learns to ignore most of them, unless pressure against the nerve endings increases. Other biochemical processes also occur during inflammation, which affect how nerves behave, and cause pain.”
Because of the inflammation component, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often given as a first-line treatment for pain. However, there are natural techniques to lessen inflammation in your body. Try limiting refined foods and sugar, which are pro-inflammatory, and focus instead on eating an anti-inflammatory diet. You should also embrace relaxation strategies, as stress can cause and exacerbate inflammation.
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- Linus Pauling Institute Spring/Summer 2007
- Linus Pauling Institute Spring/Summer 2007
- Therapeutic Advances in Musculoskeletal Disease. 2013;5(2):77-94.
- N Engl J Med. 2004 Dec 16;351(25):2599-610.
- N Engl J Med. 2000 Mar 23;342(12):836-43.
- Psychology Today November 1, 2011
- Neuroscience. 2013 Aug 29;246:199-229.
- Dentistry iQ Chronic Inflammation in Periodontal Diseases
- Immunological Investigations 2013, Vol. 42, No 7, Pages 555-622
- J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2003 Nov;112(5):819-27; quiz 828.
- Health September 29, 2014
- Journal of Neuroinflammation 2014, 11:25
- Nature Communications November 20, 2013
- Medical News Today February 12, 2015