Is Chronic Inflammation Shortening Your Life?

Is Chronic Inflammation Shortening Your Life?
A healthy lifestyle centered on prevention is currently the best medicine available to keep chronic inflammation at bay

By Edd and Cynthia Staton
January 29, 2024

We have all experienced the redness and swelling often accompanying an infection or injury. This type of inflammation is essential to the body's healing process as the immune system sends out cells to attack bacteria or repair damaged tissue. Once the problem is alleviated, the inflammation dissipates.

Sometimes, the immune system continues to be active without physical stressors. This condition, known as "chronic inflammation," has been linked to many of the leading causes of death in the world today.

Since most patients are unaware they have the disorder until it is too late, advanced knowledge about its causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment is critically important.

What Is Chronic Inflammation?
"When we're healthy," says Dr. Steven Lu, Specialist General Practitioner for MoreGoodDays, "our bodies are in homeostasis (a fancy way of saying a state of balance) which means our temperature, nervous system and hormones are in their normal range."

Constant physical and emotional stressors cause cytokines, the immune system's key communicators, to continuously send signals to fight an unseen enemy. Chronic inflammation entails "essentially, the body starting to attack itself," says Lu. In extreme cases, this can lead to the development of autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

What Triggers the Condition
"One of the most pernicious things about chronic inflammation," says Rachel Miller, founder of the online apothecary Zhi Herbals, "is the variety of causes that it can stem from." Our lifestyle choices significantly contribute to chronic inflammation, outranking untreated injuries or illnesses, exposure to industrial chemicals and pollutants or environmental allergies.

Smoking, the single most significant preventable cause of disease, and excess alcohol consumption, which impairs the liver's ability to remove toxins from the body's blood supply, are apparent offenders.

Inflammation caused by obesity encourages fat storage due to increased blood glucose, making carbohydrates difficult for the body to assimilate. This altered metabolism slows down the body's ability to lose weight, creating a difficult and dangerous vicious cycle. Closely tied to obesity, of course, is diet. 

According to Dr. Jason Winkelmann, Naturopathic Doctor at True Health Natural Pain Center, "the main culprit for chronic inflammation is a diet high in the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. These are found in processed foods, meat from grain-fed animals and farmed fish." Gluten and sugar have also been linked to increased inflammation.

Stress is another contributor to chronic inflammation. When you are constantly stressed, "you're always in fight or flight mode," says Robin Davis, Family Nurse Practitioner in Florida. During this response, "your body will devote its energy and resources to running away from a potentially threatening situation," she explains, "and your normal immune function is temporarily shut down."

Continual stress undermines health by producing a steady dose of adrenaline and cortisol, which fuels the release of glucose and a reduction of white blood cells, a crucial component of an effective immune system.

Effects of Chronic Inflammation on Health
Chronic inflammation has been identified as a contributing factor to a host of debilitating or potentially fatal conditions, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Asthma
  • Arthritis
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Diabetes
  • Bowel disorders like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
  • COPD
  • Gout

Identifying Symptoms
Many people suffer from chronic inflammation without knowing it. Possible symptoms such as fatigue, minor aches and pains, weight fluctuations and irregular bowel movements are often shrugged off as part of daily life.

If you are constantly plagued by a combination of these issues, or the sudden onset of balance problems, dry eye or unprovoked low back pain, a visit to your physician is in order.

Diagnostic Testing
Although 24% of the adult population in the United States suffers from arthritis, and 3 out of 5 people worldwide die from illnesses associated with chronic inflammation, there is no definitive test for the condition. 

Since tests for inflammation are not part of routine medical care, it is usually discovered in association with another medical problem. There are blood tests called inflammatory markers that can signal the possible presence of systemic inflammation. However, the prevailing attitude of the medical community is that searching for evidence of inflammation without any sense of why it might be there is less productive than screening for the conditions listed above.

Treatment Options
While inflammation is a natural part of the healing process, long-term damage can occur if left unchecked. "Inflammation modulators are medications that help regulate the body's inflammatory response," says Lu. "A popular example is NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen). More recently, low-dose naltrexone (LDN) has been shown to reduce inflammation."

Corticosteroids are sometimes prescribed, but prolonged use can cause more problems than they solve. Before pursuing this option, a consultation with your physician to evaluate the benefits and risks is essential. Certain supplements have been linked to decreases in inflammation, although more definitive studies are needed to confirm their efficacy. These include fish oil, calendula and lipoic acid. Spices like ginger, garlic, turmeric and cayenne may also be helpful.

Practical Steps to Lower or Prevent Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation has been linked to an ever-increasing list of illnesses. Symptoms are vague, diagnosis is inconclusive, and treatment options are limited. What's a person to do? "Given the massive number of issues that can cause the problem, living a lifestyle that reduces both the chances of inflammation and underlying disease processes may be easier than trying to rule out potential health concerns," says Dr. Sergio Alvarez, Medical Director of Mia Aesthetics.

Dan Gallagher, Registered Dietician for Aegle Nutrition, concurs. "One of the easiest ways to help combat inflammation is to be the healthiest version of yourself possible," he says. "This means eating a diet of mostly whole foods, limiting ultra-processed foods and being as active as possible."

Beyond obvious steps like not smoking, limiting alcohol and maintaining an average weight, here are three areas to focus on:

Improve your diet. “If you’re struggling with dieting, the rule to remember is to add, not subtract,” advises Davis. “Some food items to add to your diet include green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, nuts, fatty fish, fruits and olive oil.”
Reduce stress. “Anything that can calm your nervous system will help with the impact of chronic inflammation,” says Lu. “You want to aim to shift from a sympathetic response (fight/flight/freeze stress response) to a parasympathetic response (rest/digest/soothing).” Yoga, meditation, breathwork and journaling are excellent activities.
Exercise. “Keeping a consistent exercise routine can help inflammation in many ways," says Lu. “Studies have shown improved inflammatory and metabolic profiles for people participating in regular physical activity.” Consult your doctor before making significant changes in your activity level. Then, choose whatever form of exercise you enjoy and make the commitment to stick with it.
Hopefully, future research will offer more definitive testing and treatment options for chronic inflammation. In the meantime, a healthy lifestyle centered on prevention is currently the best medicine available.