If you are striving to keep yourself healthy for now and many years to come, and you want to know what single thing you should be paying attention to more than anything else, it is this: inflammation.
The reason inflammation is so critical is that it has been found to be a player in almost every chronic disease. And if it hasn’t been shown to be associated with a chronic disease, it’s probably just because no one has looked for it.
You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it is a major part of autoimmune diseases since they are all directly caused by the immune system. Maybe you’ve also already heard that the white cells that sneak into the walls of your arteries are major contributors to cardiovascular disease, meaning it’s not just about cholesterol build-up. Perhaps you also know that cancer tends to form in areas that are chronically inflamed.(1) But you might not have expected inflammation to be a component of osteoarthritis, the disease that we doctors thought was just from too much tackle football or tennis (wear and tear of the bones).(2) Inflammation even plays a role in hypertension and depression. (3,4)
What is chronic Inflammation?
To back up for a moment, let me give you a very brief primer on inflammation. It’s a complex system in our bodies with an ever-growing list of identified components, but the big picture is that it occurs in two main ways. It can be a self-limited response to an injury or infection, for example, if you get a paper-cut or a sprained ankle. You’ll notice redness, pain, warmth and swelling in the area. But once all the cells from the inflammatory response have done their job and the injury is healed, that inflammation disappears. That’s the kind of inflammation you want to happen.
The other kind of inflammation, called chronic inflammation, is the problematic one. It may occur if the immune system is trying to fend off an infection, like Lyme disease, but isn’t having success. Or it may occur if the immune system becomes confused, such as in someone who has antibodies to gluten that also end up attacking other parts of the body that resemble gluten. Inflammation also happens when the immune system senses that something isn’t right, such as when LDL cholesterol makes its way into the lining of an artery. White blood cells follow, but instead of fixing the problem, they inadvertently make it worse by making the plaque unstable and more likely to rupture.
Top 5 Symptoms of Chronic Inflammation
At Parsley Health, one of our main goals is to help people prevent and reverse chronic disease, so we pay a lot of attention to chronic inflammation. We look for symptoms of inflammation beginning at our patients’ very first visit. Here are five common indications that someone may have a chronic inflammatory condition:
- Body pain, especially in the joints
- Skin rashes, such as eczema or psoriasis
- Excessive mucus production (ie, always needing to clear your throat or blow your nose)
- Low energy, despite sufficient sleep
- Poor digestion, including bloating, abdominal pain, constipation and loose stool
The Tests Your Doctor Should Be Doing
Not only do we listen for inflammation in our patients’ histories, but we also test for it in every patient we see using these three biomarkers:
- White blood cell count
- Sedimentation rate (ESR)
- High sensitivity c-reactive protein (hsCRP). (Note: About 1/3 of the adult U.S. population has an elevated CRP.)(5)
Each one of these looks at different components of the blood to see if there is inflammation in the body. They are non-specific, meaning they don’t tell us where the inflammation is coming from, but they do clue us in to look harder for it. Taken together, we get a pretty good idea as to whether inflammation is an issue, and we can also use them to track if the inflammation is resolving or worsening.
How to Heal Chronic Inflammation
If all this talk of chronic inflammation and its pervasive effect on chronic disease is getting you nervous, don’t worry! You actually don’t need to know which cytokine blocks which receptor to know what to do.
Our recommended approach is very similar to what we recommend for health in general:
- Remove the foods that are known to cause inflammation, like sugar, dairy and simple carbohydrates.
- Avoid foods that you are sensitive to. This is something we often test for or figure out with an elimination diet.
- Eat lots of foods that are known to be anti-inflammatory, like leafy greens, colorful veggies, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices (eg, turmeric, ginger and rosemary) and extra virgin olive oil.
- Exercise. Regular exercise of moderate intensity improves immune function and decreases inflammation.(Even occasional exercise has benefits, but high-intensity exercise may actually have a detrimental effect on the immune system.)(6)
- Minimize stress and optimize how you respond to it.(7)
- Supplements such as probiotics, turmeric, resveratrol and fish oil are known to help fight inflammation.
Inflammation is an amazing unifier of most chronic diseases, so if you want to optimize your current and future health, you can do so by minimizing inflammation. Take note if you have symptoms that seem consistent with inflammation, check for it with blood tests, and do your best to adopt an anti-inflammatory lifestyle.
- Mary B. Goldring & Miguel Otero. Inflammation in osteoarthritis, Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2011 Sep; 23(5): 471–478.
- Harrison DG et al. Inflammation, Immunity, and Hypertension, Hypertension. 2011;57:132-140
- Patel A. Review: the role of inflammation in depression. Psychiatr Danub. 2013 Sep; 25 Suppl 2:S216-23.
- Ong KL et al. Trends in C-reactive protein levels in US adults from 1999 to 2010. Am J Epidemiol. 2013 Jun 15;177(12):1430-42.
- Simpson RJ et al. Exercise and the Regulation of Immune Functions. Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2015;135:355-8.
- Rohleder N. Stimulation of systemic low-grade inflammation by psychosocial stress. Psychosom Med. 2014 Apr;76(3):181-9.