Chronic inflammation is a problem for millions of people, and it can be the root cause of several other medical conditions. Some may not even realise that they have a problem with inflammation, and attribute their symptoms to other problems. However, more people are starting to take notice of inflammation and all of the issues it can bring with it.
If you're curious about inflammation, this article provides the information you need. We're going to go in-depth on chronic inflammation and on the symptoms to look out for. We'll also talk about how to test for inflammation, and its associated chronic illnesses.
Inflammation is one of your immune system's vital responses to a perceived threat. This threat could be something like a wound or trauma, bacterial infection, viral infection, or another kind of infection. Inflammation is also a signal to your body that it needs to start the healing process by repairing any damage and fighting off any infections. At the site of the injury, your body sends out cytokines to signal the immune system to send white blood cells. (1)
The white blood cells flood to the area, and this is the cause of the pain, tenderness, swelling, heat and redness associated with an injury. This typically fades after a few days when your wound or infection starts to heal. Without this inflammatory response, your wound would take longer to heal and it could have an increased risk of infection.
Chronic inflammation is a little different, and refers to a low-grade inflammation that can spread throughout your body. Chronic inflammation doesn't go away, and it can persist for months or even years.
Your immune system can send out inflammatory markers in response to what it thinks is an internal threat, even if there isn't an actual threat, and this is what physicians use to judge how severe chronic inflammation is. (2)
In response to this perceived threat, your immune system will send out white blood cells that have nothing to attack and nowhere to go, and they can start attacking your organs or joints. This is where common medical conditions like Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis start to develop. (3)
There are several causes of chronic inflammation. We've rounded up the top seven you need to look out for in your own day to day life.
One of the easiest and most concrete ways to know if you have chronic inflammation or not is to a get blood test. There are six different blood tests that your doctor can use to check for chronic inflammation, and you can get them during an outpatient visit. The six blood tests are:
Your body produces this protein naturally, but he levels will increase when there is inflammation present. Your liver produces CRP and sends it out into your body in response to the release of inflammatory molecules, known as cytokines. C-reactive proteins work as a binding agent that binds pathogens or damaged tissue so your immune system can effectively clear them from your body. (13)(14)
The hs-CRP blood test effectively measures the levels of C-reactive protein in your blood below 10mg/L. This is a level that a normal C-reactive protein test can't reach. Your doctor will be able to use this test to look for chronic inflammation, even at lower levels. Once the results are in, treatment can begin. (15)
Your body has a host of small proteins that help your immune cells communicate with one another; the cytokines mentioned above. Their main function is to help your body coordinate your immune system's response to things like trauma or an infection. TNF-a is a pro-inflammatory cytokine, and is directly responsible for stimulating your immune system's response. (16)
When there is an infection or trauma, TNF-a is one of the first responders to the site in question after a wound, infection, or exposure to LPS (bacterial toxins). When this cytokine works to destroy any unwanted microbes, it can cause cell destruction as well. A blood test will show elevated levels of TNF-a if you have chronic inflammation. (17)
Another protein that is active at an infection or wound site is Fibrinogen. It helps to form clots, and heals damaged tissues as well as forming new blood vessels. The levels of Fibrinogen in your blood increase when there is inflammation, and it has the ability to stimulate different immune cells. (18)
You see increased levels of Fibrinogen when you have chronic inflammation, and it's one of the main indicators of several inflammatory medical conditions. You will have higher levels of Fibrinogen if your blood if you have gum disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis or one of a number of other conditions. (19)
IL-6 is one cytokine that plays several important roles because it has both anti-inflammatory and proinflammatory properties associated with it. Your immune system relies on this cytokine to be able to function at peak levels, and you can be at a higher risk of infection if you have deficient amounts of it in your system. (20)(21)
IL-6 also plays a role in transitioning your acute inflammation over into chronic inflammation, and elevated levels can indicate this transition. It also stimulates your liver to release more C-reactive proteins, and this can cause your inflammation to get worse. Your doctor will pay close attention to this level when you receive your bloodwork. (22)
This protein specialises in storing iron, and helps to ensure that your body has the correct amounts of the mineral it needs to function. Blood tests for this protein let the doctor know if you have deficient levels or not. You need iron to make red blood cells, and your body's Ferritin levels will go up in response to an infection or injury to prevent bacteria or pathogens from using the iron stored in your body. (23)(24)
Ferritin will leak into your bloodstream when there is cellular damage. Additionally, Ferritin is closely linked to C-reactive protein, so your doctor will look closely at both levels when they look at your test results. (25)(26)(27)
The final blood test that physicians use is a complete cytokine panel that tests Interleukin-1 beta, Interleukin-6, Interleukin-8 and Tumour Necrosis Alpha Factor all in one examination. This provides comprehensive results in a straightforward manner. (28)(29)
Unfortunately, there are strong links between chronic inflammation and chronic illnesses. Since this is a relatively new discovery, researchers and physicians are just starting to understand the links between chronic illnesses and chronic inflammation. However, what they have found so far is promising, and is giving many people who suffer from chronic inflammation the answers they need.
Your immune system works to attack any invading viruses or pathogens that it detects and classifies as a threat to your body. Normally this isn't a problem. However, your immune system can start to be overly responsive, acting even when there isn't an actual threat present. When this happens, your body can start to attack itself, and this is called autoimmunity. (30)
When your immune system thinks that the chronic inflammation in your body is a threat that it is struggling to combat, it'll start to increase its response. Instead of just sending cytokines, it'll start sending T-cells, neutrophils and macrophages. This results in autoimmunity, and these autoimmune issues get worse over time. (31)
Managing autoimmune diseases is the key to maintaining a good quality of life, and treating the inflammation can help with this.
Your central nervous system connects every part of your body to the brain, including your immune system. Unfortunately, this means that an overactive immune system can have negative impacts all over the body, including your brain. Recent studies have shown links between chronic inflammation and several mental illnesses. (32)(33)
Type 2 Diabetes is a medical condition which occurs when the body does not use insulin properly to support healthy function. Your blood sugar levels rise in response, and your pancreas in turn makes more insulin, which is ineffective due to insulin resistance in the cells. This issue gets worse when you introduce chronic inflammation to the mix. (42)
Did you know that inflammation can cause insulin resistance? Insulin resistance prevents your cells from soaking up the glucose in your blood. It's important to note that people who are obese are at a higher risk of developing insulin resistance because the fat cells produce TNF-α. This cytokine is instrumental in propagating the inflammatory process. (43)(44)(45)
Chronic inflammation can also play a role in unstable weight loss or weight gain. Obesity is a big problem all over the world, and global numbers are increasing each year. Inflammation in your brain can cause resistance to Leptin, an essential hormone that helps your body regulate your metabolism and your appetite. This can cause you to gain or lose weight depending on your inflammation levels. (46)(47)
Your cells can start storing excess fat, and they expand more as you gain weight. However, when they try to store more fat, they can start to send out signals to your immune system to prompt an inflammatory response. This signal can start a cycle of inflammation that leads to constant low-grade chronic inflammation. This inflammation won't start to go away until you start to lose weight and the fat storing cells stop sending stimuli to your immune system. (48)(49) This in turn works to stop the chronic inflammation cycle.
Eating a low-carb diet and exercising can help you safely lose the weight need. You also want to add antioxidants to your diet because they can help to repair and cellular damage from the inflammation. (50)(51)
When someone talks about neurodegeneration, they're talking about the gradual loss of neurons in your body. Particularly, this references the neurons in the brain, and is a blanket term that refers to a series of conditions and diseases revolving around this specialised type of cell. Your neurons are the main components of your spinal cord and nervous system, and neurodegeneration is an irreversible and debilitating condition that has no cure. (52)(53)
Inflammation directly impacts the neurons in your brain and their ability to communicate back and forth. Microglia are constantly on the lookout for inflammation in your brain, and they release cytokines in response to it. Cytokines are the things that actively block neurons. The more cytokines your Microglia release, the more blocked your neurons become. This starts a cycle of inflammation that can cause and make neurodegeneration worse. (54)(55)(56)
Digestive issues that stem from chronic inflammation are collected under the umbrella term of Inflammatory Bowel Disease. The exact cause of IBD isn't currently known to scientists. However, research has found that stress can make it worse, and it's most likely linked to an immune system malfunction. Instead of simply attacking any bacteria or pathogens that end up in your digestive tract, your immune system attacks the digestive organs themselves. (57)(58)
Chronic inflammation can contribute to your digestive issues because it mistakenly sends signals to your immune system that there is a problem with your digestive tract that needs immediate attention. If it gets bad enough, the bacteria in your digestive system can become unbalanced. This leads to more inflammation and more problems because your immune system mistakenly thinks that the infection isn't gone. This can also lead to acute inflammation transitioning into a more chronic condition. (59)
When someone talks about heart disease, they're usually talking about the main disorder that negatively impacts your heart's blood vessels. Heart disease is a broad term that encompasses issues with your heart itself and the blood vessels going to and from the heart. (60)
There isn't any explicit proof that chronic inflammation causes heart disease, but constant, low-grade inflammation does have strong links to all stages of a condition that precedes a heart attack, called atherosclerosis. (61)
One big link between heart disease and chronic inflammation is the presence of an elevated Creactive protein content. C-reactive protein comes from your liver in response to inflammation, and it can cause problems with your artery walls and put you at a higher risk of heart attack or heart disease. (62)
Another factor relates to fatty plaque buildup in your artery walls, which is encouraged by inflammation. Your body knows that this buildup isn't normal, and it'll try to wall it off with a clot formed from blood cells. This clot can eventually cause the artery to tear or rupture, and this can lead to a heart attack or stroke. (63)(64)
Millions of people get a cancer diagnosis each year, and studies link chronic inflammation with an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer. Particularly, it has strong links to colorectal cancer, lung cancer, cervix cancer and throat cancer. (65)
Currently, scientists believe that chronic inflammation can have an impact on cancer growth because tumours trick certain immune cells into infiltrating them. This will stimulate your immune system to flood the area with cells, which feeds the cancer tumour and allows it to grow and spread rapidly. (66)
Another way that chronic inflammation can encourage cancer growth is by damaging your DNA molecules over time. This cellular damage is also why people who have Crohn's disease and Ulcerative Colitis are at an increased risk of certain cancers. (67)
Your sleep schedule is important, and you want to get between six to eight hours worth of sleep each night to help keep your body functioning at peak levels. Unfortunately, chronic inflammation can cause issues that can prevent you from falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting a restful sleep each night. (68)
One study found that people who routinely got less than seven or eight hours of sleep each night had higher levels of inflammatory proteins in their blood. Stress is one of the biggest markers for sleep issues, and can trigger inflammation because it causes free radical damage to the cells from oxidative stress. When this happens, your immune system triggers inflammation to get helper cells to the damaged cells. However, lack of sleep and high levels of stress mean that the damage does not completely go away. (69)(70)
Bone density loss and bone damage is more prevalent in people with chronic inflammation than with people without. Research showed that the common inflammatory markers present in people with chronic inflammation can actually interrupt the body's natural repair and replacement process of old bones. (71)
A second study showed that having low levels of chronic inflammation can cause problems with your bone density. Your body will pull vital minerals away from your bones and use them in other areas of your body to help fight off a perceived infection even if there really isn't any infection present. This can lead to reduced bone strength and bones which are more brittle. (72)
Chronic inflammation isn't just limited to internal issues, it can cause external issues as well. This is particularly true for your skin, and a variety of issues can arise from inflammation. Psoriasis is one condition with direct links to inflammation. It occurs when your immune system causes your skin cells to grow and form too rapidly. You'll get scaly patches of skin cells that are rough to the touch and very red. (73)
This inflammation can also encourage accelerated ageing of cells, and this can contribute to wrinkles or loss of elasticity. The inflammation can work to break down the collagen in your skin; an important substance that keeps your skin looking youthful. (74)(75)
Chronic inflammation is a serious condition that can lead to a variety of mental and physical problems if you don't identify and treat it. The purpose of this article is to give you an overview of how to test for inflammation, and what courses of treatment you can take. It is also designed to provide a better understanding of the associated symptoms and conditions, and of the differences between chronic inflammation and the inflammation you might experience following an injury.
You now have a better picture of what the conditions means and what it can do to your body, and you should also have a checklist of signs to look out for. However, it is important to remember that chronic inflammation, and its effect on the body, is not yet fully understood by medical professionals. As such, this information might not be complete.
This is why it is so important to seek advice and guidance, as the long term implications of chronic inflammation can be grave. In order to decide whether or not you have a problem with inflammation, or to learn more about the condition, you are advised to discuss your concerns with your physician.