Silent inflammation – bad news for your health?
Inflammation is your body’s natural way of fighting back when it’s under attack from illness or injury. It’s an essential part of your immune response and healing process. So to a certain extent, inflammation is a good thing. But silent inflammation, which is low-grade chronic inflammation, can become problematic. Chronic inflammation can harm your health in many ways: it’s associated with a number of serious conditions including diabetes and heart disease and can also cause more immediate issues like headaches and joint pain.
In this article, we do a deep dive into the two types of inflammation (acute and chronic), the things that trigger inflammation, how to test for inflammation, and tips to reduce chronic inflammation and protect your overall health.
Here are the key points that we cover:
- Acute inflammation is a short-lived immune response that helps your body recover, while chronic inflammation is a long-term process that can harm health.
- Environmental toxins, nutrition high in fat and sugar, and auto-immune and auto-inflammatory diseases can lead to chronic inflammation. Inflammation also tends to be higher in obese individuals, older folks, people who smoke, and people with chronic stress and irregular sleep schedules.
- You can measure bodily inflammation with a blood test.
- Reducing blood sugar, eating anti-inflammatory foods, exercising, and getting enough sleep are key ways to manage chronic inflammation.
What is inflammation?
The normal process of inflammation involves a combination of molecular reactions and cellular activity working to repair and heal your body from some kind of threat, and stops once the threat is gone. There are two types of inflammation: acute inflammation and chronic, or silent, inflammation.
Acute inflammation is an immune response that helps your body heal tissue damage and fight infection. In short, this type of inflammation is helpful as it keeps us healthy.
When your body is defending itself from a bacteria or virus, your immune system starts a rapid defense mechanism, aimed at quickly eliminating the invader. Your body secretes inflammatory chemicals in the bloodstream, increasing blood flow locally and destroying some germs directly. The chemicals also attract and activate more specific and powerful agents, some of which can produce antibodies. This takes more time but is more effective. Together, these mechanisms cause you to feel classic sickness symptoms like headache, fever, nausea, tiredness, runny or stuffy nose, and sore throat. Or in the case of an injury, your skin around the area gets swollen, red, warm, painful, stiff, and bruised. These are the signs that inflammation is doing its job. The cells that are involved are collectively known as leukocytes.
Acute inflammation is short-term, lasting between a few minutes to several weeks or months, depending on how long you need to heal from the wound or illness.
On the other hand, chronic inflammation is a harmful long-term immune response that can take place over many years or decades. During chronic inflammation, the immune system thinks it’s under constant attack and white blood cells may end up damaging healthy tissues and organs.
Research shows a link between chronic inflammation and a wide number of chronic health conditions, including poor heart health, cancer, diabetes, kidney and liver problems, as well as autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
What causes chronic inflammation in the body?
Chronic inflammation usually happens when your body doesn’t fully recover from an infection, but there are a variety of other factors that can trigger it.
A 2015 study of 210 healthy twins between the ages of 8 and 82 discovered that environmental factors, not genetics, are the largest driver of chronic inflammation. Specifically, exposure to harsh chemicals in foods, personal care products, prescription drugs, and household cleaners can harm health and lead to long-term inflammation.
Nutrition high in sugar and unhealthy fats
A systematic review from 2018 found a number of studies that prove a link between sugar consumption and chronic inflammation. Sugar and fat enter your bloodstream through the foods you eat, which kick starts the production of fatty acids in your liver and pro-inflammatory molecules.
Regularly eating lots of sugary and fatty foods (saturated and trans-fats) can lead to unhealthy blood sugar (glucose) levels and high amounts of inflammatory markers in the blood, such as C-reactive protein (CRP).
But all bodies are unique, and not everyone reacts to foods the same way. A 2021 study of 1002 generally healthy adults living in the UK found that the body’s inflammatory response to sugary and fatty foods is individual, and may for some inflammatory markers be more pronounced in males, overweight individuals, and older folks.
According to the Arthritis Foundation and several studies, these are foods that lead to inflammation:
- Sugary foods and beverages (sodas, sports drinks, chocolate, pastries, and desserts)
- Saturated fats (red meat and full fat dairy)
- Trans fats (fast food, fried foods, cookies, and donuts)
- Omega-6 fatty acids (vegetable oils, corn oil, and sunflower oil)
- Refined carbohydrates (white rice, white bread, and white potatoes)
- MSG (ready-made Asian foods, soy sauce, canned soups, and sandwich meats)
Autoimmune and auto-inflammatory disorders
Autoimmune disorders occur when immunoglobulins, normally responsible for protecting the body from invaders, mistakenly attack healthy tissue, and inflammation can result. Auto-inflammatory disorders such as Familial Mediterranean Fever lead to chronic inflammation due to a cellular defect that changes how the body can manage the inflammatory response.
In addition to the factors mentioned, inflammation generally tends to increase with age, obesity, smoking, and in individuals with chronic stress and irregular sleep schedules.
How to know if you have inflammation
Inflammation can be “silent” because it doesn’t always cause symptoms. So it can be hard to know if you have chronic inflammation. Thankfully, you can find out with a simple blood test. At Aware, we are making regular blood testing more accessible to make it easier to track health and prevent disease.
There are several biomarkers that indicate inflammation:
C-reactive protein (CRP) is a protein that your liver releases in response to inflammation. It’s an important component of your immune system and helps your body fight infection. Healthy levels of CRP contribute to a strong immune system and a healthy heart, whereas elevated CRP levels are a sign that there’s inflammation in the body. When CRP stays at a high level over time, it’s linked to poor heart health.
White blood cells, or leukocytes, are another good indicator of inflammation. These cells help protect your body from harmful invaders. When your white blood cell count is in a healthy range, it’s a sign that your immune system is working as it should, while higher levels signal bodily inflammation or that you’re currently fighting off an infection.
A third marker for inflammation is the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR). This tests how quickly your red blood cells, or erythrocytes, settle at the bottom of a test tube. Red blood cells usually take a while to settle, and a faster ESR can point to inflammation.
7 tips to reduce chronic inflammation and protect your health
There are many things you can do to improve inflammation, thereby reducing your risk of chronic illnesses.
1. Control blood sugar
Cut back on sugary foods and beverages, processed meat, and refined carbs. A 2014 study discovered that people who reduced consumption of sugary drinks had lower inflammatory biomarkers including CRP. For in-depth information on keeping your blood sugar in check, take a look at the book, How to Be a Glucose Goddess.
2. Eat anti-inflammatory foods
Experts from Harvard Medical School explain that there are certain foods associated with stopping the body’s inflammatory response. For instance, foods high in antioxidants called polyphenols are anti-inflammatory.
- Red grapes
- Green tea
- Dark leafy greens
Beyond that, micronutrients including magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc, and selenium are all known to be anti-inflammatory. Magnesium in particular is associated with lowering biomarkers of inflammation including CRP.
3. Get regular exercise
During physical activity, the body decreases its inflammatory response, which can help prevent chronic conditions linked to inflammation. A 2017 study discovered that as little as 20 minutes of moderate physical activity, i.e. going for a brisk walk, has an anti-inflammatory impact. And a 2016 meta-analysis of ten studies that looked at 23,345 seniors aged 70 to 80 found that people who met the minimum international recommendations for physical activity lowered the odds for developing Alzheimer’s by 40%.
4. Get enough sleep
People who regularly sleep 7-9 hours per night have a lower risk for chronic inflammation. Additionally, try to limit your exposure to blue light at night time as it increases alertness and messes with your circadian rhythm, which promotes inflammation.
5. Quit smoking
Experts say that quitting smoking can cause a dramatic reduction in inflammation in just a few weeks. If you need support to quit, Smokefree has an online library of resources and access to counselors.
6. Manage stress levels
Chronic stress can impair the body’s ability to control its inflammatory response and immune system. If you regularly feel stressed out, try to incorporate relaxation techniques and self-care into your routine, as these can help alleviate stress-caused inflammation. Research shows that yoga and meditation can increase levels of protective anti-inflammatory biomarkers and decrease harmful pro-inflammatory biomarkers.
The bottom line
Chronic inflammation is bad news for health, but there’s plenty you can do to stop it. By controlling blood sugar, staying active, and sleeping well, you can not only improve inflammation but also help prevent a long list of inflammation-related illnesses.
For insight into the current state of inflammation in your body, sign up for early access to Aware.
November 15, 2022
August 8, 2023