Inflammation is a natural part of the body’s immune response. Acute inflammation is the redness, warmth and swelling around tissues and joints that occur in response to infection or an injury. That redness and swelling you get after cutting your finger on a piece of glass are visible signs that the body is repairing itself. When the injury is healed, the body turns off this inflammatory response.
But not all inflammation gets switched off.
Sometimes, low-grade inflammation persists, unchecked, for months or even years. This is called chronic inflammation. Unlike acute inflammation that helps your body heal and then turns off, chronic inflammation does not switch off, which can damage the body’s tissues. This affects just about every part of the body and is a precursor to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and more.
Here’s what you need to know about chronic inflammation and how you can help manage it with diet and lifestyle habits.
Chronic inflammation: A look at its causes and symptoms
It’s not easy to pinpoint the cause of chronic inflammation. Some experts think that it occurs when the immune system goes awry. Sometimes, an ongoing infection or exposure to environmental triggers such as pollution can cause it. Obesity, eating a diet that isn’t healthy, smoking, sleep problems and high stress levels likely play a part.
Chronic inflammation often progresses silently. When symptoms do occur, they can include:
- Persistent fatigue.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Joint or muscle pains.
- Mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.
- Constipation, diarrhea or acid reflux.
- Weight loss or weight gain.
- Repeated infections.
Still, symptoms aren’t a surefire way to tell if you’re experiencing chronic inflammation. If your healthcare professional suspects that inflammation is causing your symptoms, a blood test such as erythrocyte sedimentation rate or C-reactive protein may be recommended. These tests can identify inflammation in the body, but they don’t determine the cause of it.
The many health complications of chronic inflammation
Chronic inflammation contributes to diseases that together represent the leading causes of death around the world, such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. It’s also been linked to imbalances in the gut microbiome — a collection of microorganisms living in the gut that help maintain good digestive and overall health.
Heart disease. When tobacco smoke or high blood pressure injures a coronary artery, the damage triggers an inflammatory process as the immune system tries to heal the injury. However, this inflammation can continue beyond the healing process and damage the lining of the arteries. Inflammation also influences the buildup of plaque in the arteries and blood clot formation, two factors behind heart attacks and certain types of stroke.
Type 2 diabetes. Researchers have found that people who have type 2 diabetes also have fat tissue containing elevated levels of cytokines. Cytokines are molecules that help your body fight off infections. But having too many of them and having the wrong type can overwhelm the body and increase inflammation. In addition, chronic inflammation can contribute to excess body fat, creating a vicious cycle of weight gain, inflammation and blood sugar issues. These conditions increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Cancer. Research shows that long-term, low-level inflammation contributes to some types of cancer. For example, colorectal cancer may be more likely to develop because of chronic intestinal inflammation in people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Viral hepatitis is an infection that causes liver inflammation and damage that can lead to liver cancer.
Gut microbiome imbalance. Most of the time, the body has a proper balance of helpful and potentially harmful microorganisms living in the gut. This balance is crucial because these microorganisms help maintain a healthy digestive system and overall well-being. But sometimes the balance of microbes is disrupted, causing a reduction in helpful bacteria and an increase in potentially harmful bacteria — such as the bacterium Helicobacter pylori(H. pylori), a risk factor for stomach cancer. Researchers think an imbalance occurs for a number of reasons, including chronic inflammation. In turn, the imbalance may trigger additional inflammation that is linked to a host of diseases, including inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
How your diet improves or worsens inflammation
Some foods raise the risk of chronic inflammation, while other foods keep inflammation in check. (11) To manage the level of inflammation in your body, try making the following changes to your diet.
Eat more fruits, vegetables and plant-based foods. These include berries, leafy greens, beets and avocados. Other good choices are whole grains, legumes, ginger, turmeric and green tea. These foods have high levels of antioxidants, which help prevent, delay or repair some types of cell and tissue damage, reducing inflammation.
Consume fermented foods with live microbes. A recent and well-designed study found that consuming fermented food decreased inflammatory markers. For 10 weeks, study participants consumed a diet high in fermented foods, including yogurt, kefir, fermented cottage cheese, kombucha, kimchi and other fermented foods.
Blood tests taken after the 10-week period showed that levels of 19 inflammatory proteins decreased. One of these proteins, interleukin 6 (IL-6), is linked to conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes and stress.
Additional studies have shown that eating yogurt lowers levels of the inflammatory markers IL-6 and fibrin, decreases insulin resistance, and might play a role in reducing the risk of disease.
Fermentation is an ancient technique of preserving food using microorganisms like bacteria or yeast. But just because a food is fermented doesn’t mean it contains live microbes or probiotics. To benefit your body, the microorganisms in fermented food must be alive. Select yogurt and other fermented foods with labels indicating that they contain “live and active cultures.”
Focus on omega-3 fatty acids. These play a role in regulating the body’s inflammatory process and might help regulate pain related to inflammation. Find these healthy fats in fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel. Walnuts, pecans, ground flaxseed and chia seed contain smaller amounts.
Cut back on red meat. Red meat can be proinflammatory. If cutting out red meat is challenging, try substituting your lunchtime or dinner beef with fish, nuts or soy-based protein a few times a week. Or choose lean cuts of meat, such as sirloin and tenderloin, as well as ground beef that’s 90% lean or higher.
Eat less sugar and processed food. Food and drinks that contain high levels of sugar release inflammatory messengers that can raise the risk of chronic inflammation. In addition, deep-fried food and pastries contain plenty of unhealthy fats that are also linked to inflammation (11-14). An air fryer can help reduce the amount of oil typically used in cooking fried foods. In general, aim for a diet that is high in whole foods and low in highly processed foods to help keep inflammation in check. Good drink choices include sparkling water, infused water, plain dairy milk, unsweetened teas and coffee.
Lifestyle changes that curb inflammation
Choosing healthy foods isn’t the only way you can reduce inflammation in the body. You can also:
Engage in moderate exercise. Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity daily at least five days a week. However, even 20 minutes of physical activity such as brisk walking, broken up throughout the day, can help reduce inflammation. (26)
Get quality shut-eye. People who regularly get the proper amount of sleep tend to be less likely to have chronic inflammation than are people who don’t sleep enough. Aim to get the recommended amount every night, which is 7 to 9 hours for adults.
Manage stress. When you’re stressed, the immune system sends out proinflammatory cytokines. Techniques such as meditation, yoga and tai chi may help induce positive changes in the nervous system and the immune system to help quell the inflammatory response.
Quit smoking. Nicotine and cigarettes can trigger inflammation and suppress the anti-inflammatory processes.
By a certain age, most people have some degree of inflammation in their bodies. The key is to keep it from becoming excessive. Consider making small changes to your diet and lifestyle, then build from there. Even little steps can get you on the path to living a healthier life by reducing chronic inflammation.