The reason inflammation is so critical is that it has been found to be a player in almost every chronic disease, which affects approximately 133 million Americans , representing more than 40% of the total population of the United States. And if inflammation hasn’t been shown to be associated with a chronic disease, it’s probably just because no one has looked for it. (Yes, there are common signs of inflammation and chronic inflammation symptoms you can be on the lookout for.)
You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that inflammation 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 blood cells that sneak into the walls of your arteries are major contributors to cardiovascular disease , meaning it’s not just about cholesterol build-up—but could be signs of chronic inflammation. Perhaps you also know that cancer tends to form in areas that are chronically inflamed . But you might not have expected inflammation to be a component of osteoarthritis , a disease that scientists thought was just from the wear and tear of the bones, maybe too much tackle football or tennis. Inflammation even plays a role in hypertension and depression .
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 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. These are all signs of inflammation in the body. (And chronic inflammation has likely been going on for a long time before you realize it’s happening.)
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 chronic inflammation symptoms at our patients’ very first visit. (Because, if chronic inflammation goes untreated, it can lead to a host of other issues, especially in the heart and brain.)
Here are five common indications that someone may have a chronic inflammatory condition or systemic inflammation:
Body pain, such as muscle aches and joint pain, are commonly caused by increased systemic inflammation. When inflammatory cytokines are elevated in the body, they can attack muscle and joint issues resulting in redness, swelling, and pain.
Skin rashes such as eczema or psoriasis, are inflammatory skin conditions that are characterized by red, rough, and flaky skin. Both eczema and psoriasis are linked to hypersensitivity of the immune system and individuals with these conditions are more likely to have a greater number of inflammatory mast cells which when activated, trigger the skin rashes to surface.
Always needing to clear your throat or blow your nose? Sounds like you might be inflamed! When inflamed, mucous membranes produce thick phlegm in an attempt to protect epithelial cells in the lining of the respiratory system which results in coughing, sneezing, and a runny nose.
Constantly feeling fatigued despite getting adequate nightly sleep is yet another clue your body is fighting off chronic inflammation. Just like you feel run-down when you’re sick, when you’re chronically inflamed your immune system remains active and continues to work overtime to regulate its response. In turn, chronic inflammation increases the requirement of cellular energy to ensure rapid regeneration of immune cells and further depletes you of the fuel you need to feel fully energized.
Common digestive issues including bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, and loose stool may also suggest an issue with inflammation. Chronic inflammation throughout the body can contribute to leaky gut syndrome , or intestinal permeability, which can cause bacteria and toxins to “leak” through the intestinal wall into the rest of the body. A “leaky gut ” can further fuel ongoing systemic inflammation and contribute to digestive symptoms such as abdominal distention and irregular bowel movements.
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:
Each one of these looks at different components of the blood to see if there are signs of 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.
If all this talk of chronic inflammation symptoms 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.
Here’s our recommended approach for healing chronic 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 understanding signs of inflammation in the body. Take note if you have symptoms of chronic inflammation, check for it with blood tests and the guidance of a physician, and do your best to adopt an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle.