Why chronic inflammation is seriously bad for you

Chronic inflammation can cause much discomfort and have long-lasting health impacts – here’s how to spot it, and how to fight it.

When you hear “inflammation” you probably think of what happens when you cut yourself – the area becomes red, swollen and painful. In other words, inflamed.

You’re right. Called “acute inflammation”, it is part of the healing process.

“It’s your body’s immune response jumping into action,” says Dr Anna Coussens, a laboratory head at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, where infection, inflammation and immunity are key research theme.

“Blood vessels dilate to allow white blood cells to rush in and clear away pathogens and repair tissue.”

So what is chronic inflammation?

But there’s another, unhealthy type of inflammation – the “chronic” kind.

That’s where the immune system remains switched on, continuing to pump out white blood cells, so that low-grade inflammation hangs around for months – or years.

Over time, chronic inflammation damages internal organs, tissues and cells, bumping up the risk of a range of diseases.

Research shows chronic inflammation is a cause of everything from memory problems, cancer and heart disease to diabetes, kidney disease and neurodegenerative disorders.

In fact, worldwide, three of every five deaths are due to chronic inflammatory diseases.

What causes chronic inflammation, and why is it so bad?

Advancing age and autoimmune disorders can cause chronic inflammation, but other risk factors are much more modifiable.

“Obesity is one of the biggest triggers of chronic inflammation,” says Dr Coussens. “Continuously elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and long-term exposure to an irritant, if you work somewhere that involves chemicals for example, are also triggers.”

Smoking and eating inflammatory foods such as refined carbohydrates, fried foods and those loaded with added sugar can also contribute to chronic inflammation.

A US study published in June found poor sleep causes chronic inflammation, too.

University of California senior study author Professor Matthew Walker says this explains the link between sleep deprivation and heart disease.

“We’ve discovered that fragmented sleep is associated with a unique pathway – chronic circulating inflammation throughout the blood stream – which, in turn, is linked to higher amounts of plaques in coronary arteries,” he says.

“This link between fragmented sleep and chronic inflammation may not be limited to heart disease, but could include mental health and neurological disorders such as major depression and Alzheimer’s disease.”

How to tell you are living with chronic inflammation

You can have a blood test to measure levels of chronic inflammation biomarkers, but physical symptoms to look out for include joint pain or stiffness, digestive problems and fatigue.

“If you’re living in a state of permanent stress, you’re probably living with chronic inflammation, too,” says Dr Coussens.

How to lower your risk of chronic inflammation

On top of getting a good night’s sleep and combating stress, you can lower your risk of chronic inflammation by:

Eating an anti-inflammatory diet

It’s the same diet that’s good for heart health – rich in fruit and vegetables, nuts, wholegrains, olive oil and oily fish.

“A healthy diet provides your body with antioxidants, as well as micronutrients that cells require to function properly and fibre to maintain a healthy gut microbiome,” says Dr Coussens.

“It also provides omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are important in helping to balance inflammatory molecules.”

Exercising regularly

Recent research found a group of 75-year-old men who were lifelong exercisers had significantly “younger” inflammation profiles than people the same age who weren’t exercisers.

Different research shows just 20 minutes of moderate exercise immediately suppresses inflammation in the body.

Meditating

According to a US study mindfulness meditation, a technique that involves practising attention and acceptance, may help to relieve chronic inflammation, perhaps thanks to the way it reduces stress.

National Pain Week 2020 runs from July 27 to August 2.

Written by Karen Fittall.

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