Most people are familiar with the signs of acute inflammation: You burn your hand and your immune system sends in an army of inflammatory cells and cytokines (proteins that stimulate more inflammatory cells) to protect and heal the wound, resulting in redness and swelling. This kind of inflammation is usually easy to spot and very adaptive: it helps us heal and protects our body from outside aggressors.
But inflammation isn’t always visible—or beneficial for our health. In fact, chronic low grade inflammation is one of the most insidious drivers of poor health. “Although chronic inflammation progresses slowly, it is the cause of most chronic diseases and presents a major threat to the health and longevity of individuals,” National Institute of Health researcher Roma Pahwa writes in a recent report.
Researchers believe chronic inflammation represents a long-term or recurring immune response to a low grade irritant, such as toxins from cigarette smoke or excess fat cells (especially in the abdominal area). Essentially, your immune system shortcircuits and can’t turn itself off: it continues to fire off inflammatory cells and cytokines even when there is no outside threat.
When a person suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, for example, their immune system attacks joint tissues, creating an inflammatory response that comes and goes, causing serious damage over time. Other signs of chronic inflammation include: abdominal pain, chest pain, fatigue, fever, mouth sores, and rashes (i.e. eczema).
Left unchecked, chronic inflammation can damage healthy cells, tissues and organs and may cause internal tissue death and damage to cell DNA, leading to life-threatening illnesses such as cancer or Type 2 diabetes.
In fact, 50% of all global deaths can be attributed to inflammation-related diseases such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes mellitus, chronic kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and autoimmune and neurodegenerative conditions, according to a 2018 systematic review in the Lancet.
There are an infinite number of triggers for chronic inflammation but a few of the more common ones include: autoimmune disorders such as Lupus, where your body attacks its own healthy tissue; untreated acute inflammation from an infection or an injury; exposure to toxins like pollution, industrial chemicals, mold or lead; chronic stress; obesity (excess weight in the abdominal area is particularly dangerous); low sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone); and drinking in excess and smoking.
Interestingly, while moderate exercise can reduce inflammation, studies show exercising at your maximum capacity too frequently (i.e. running marathons regularly) can have the opposite effect.
“Inflammation damages the blood vessel lining, and repairing that damage can lead to narrowing (or further narrowing) over time,” Director of Hypertension at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Ray Townsend, M.D., says, noting that inflammation also stiffens arteries, increasing blood pressure over time. Inflammation can also accelerate the progression of atherosclerosis.
Within the arteries, inflammation causes fatty cholesterol rich plaque to build up. Your body sees the plaque as a threat, so it tries to wall off the plaque. But if the wall breaks down, the plaque can break free, forming a clot that blocks blood flow, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Studies show lifestyle changes can reduce chronic inflammation—and possibly even reverse — its progression. Here are are seven scientifically-proven ways to do it:
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