The Warning Signs of Chronic Inflammation You Shouldn’t Ignore

Nearly every disease process involves inflammation in one way or another. And while it’s true that acute inflammation—like the kind you get when you cut your finger—is a necessary and healthy response of the immune system, chronic inflammation is another story entirely. This type of inflammation occurs when the inflammatory response is activated for too long. Chronic inflammation can lead to all sorts of health problems, including autoimmune diseases, cancer, and heart disease.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is an important part of your body’s defense process against things that harm it, like infections, injuries, and toxins. It’s also part of a normal and healthy healing process. Normally, inflammation works with your body to restore balance.

There are two main types of inflammation:

Acute inflammation - When you cut your finger, get an insect bite, or sustain an injury, your body responds with acute inflammation to protect against infection and initiate the healing process. You’ll notice this in the form of redness or swelling. Once healed, the inflammatory response dissipates and returns to a calm baseline. This is inflammation at work in a good way.

Chronic inflammation - Unlike acute inflammation, this type of inflammation is an ever-present, systemic, and low-grade inflammation, and is often painless and hardly detectable. You probably won’t feel this type of inflammation, but it does increase your risk of serious health conditions. Chronic inflammation is a "slow burn" that can continue for years undetected.

This slow burn results in the body releasing proinflammatory signals like C-reactive protein, cytokines, and reactive oxygen species (ROS). These pro-inflammatory compounds damage cells and increase the risk of developing chronic inflammatory diseases (1).  

Learn more about conditions we treat: Chronic Inflammation

8 Signs you have chronic inflammation

Inflammation is involved in nearly every disease process either as a contributing factor or as a consequence. Chronic inflammation symptoms may be an early risk factor for most age-related disease, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Type 2 Diabetes (2,3) 

Depression or other mood disorders

Chronic inflammation can have a devastating impact on the brain. Over time, low-grade inflammation can break down the blood-brain barrier (BBB), the protective barrier that keeps regular circulation separate from the delicate tissues inside the brain.

When this process occurs, pro-inflammatory cytokines make their way into the brain’s circulatory system and activate an immune response. This causes microglia to recruit even more pro-inflammatory cytokines to the scene, further breaking down the BBB, and driving inflammation (4). 

Symptoms of brain or neuroinflammation can include (5,6): 

  • Brain fog
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Cognitive decline
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Keep reading: Alzheimer’s & Neurodegenerative Diseases May Actually Start in the Gut

A constantly runny nose or sinus congestion

Allergies occur when your body’s immune system overreacts to something you eat or in your environment, causing a noticeable inflammatory response. Allergy symptoms, including itchy eyes and a stuffy nose, stem from chronic inflammation. They are all critical signs that your body is inflamed and trying to tell you something is wrong

Joint pain & arthritis

Virtually all joint pain is worsened by inflammation that starts in other areas of the body (7). Joint pain due to wear and tear on the body, known as osteoarthritis (OA) has traditionally not been considered an inflammatory condition, but recent evidence suggests that chronic inflammation is linked to joint damage, and a possible immune response (8). 

In the case of inflammatory arthritis conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout, Lupus, and psoriatic arthritis, immune dysregulation triggers an inflammatory response and the immune system attacks connective tissue. Both processes are driven by unresolved inflammation.

Related: How to Reduce Chronic Inflammation to Alleviate Joint Pain & Arthritis 

Abdominal fat

An excess of fat cells around the abdomen increases production of hormones that increase inflammation (9). Obesity is both a cause and an effect of diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and increases systemic inflammation regardless of how well blood sugar remains controlled if you do have type 2 diabetes (10). Belly fat also increases the likelihood of inflammation even more so than an elevated BMI in patients with type-2 diabetes.

Read: The Barriers to Weight Loss You Must Address First

Poor digestion

Many inflammatory conditions arise as a result of chronic inflammation in the gut. Digestive symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, or indigestion can all indicate the presence of chronic inflammation originating in the digestive system.

Gut health is mainly influenced by two interconnected factors: the intestinal barrier and the gut microbiome. A healthy intestinal barrier blocks the circulation of harmful pathogens or toxins and regulates digestion & immune function (11). And your gut microbiome relies on the trillions of beneficial bacteria to aid with essential functions associated with digestion, enzyme production, protection, and more.

If the intestinal barrier becomes permeable, or dysbiosis occurs within the microbiome, this can trigger inflammation. Long-term inflammation in the gut contributes to the development of chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), colon cancer, obesity, or ulcerative colitis.

Related: How to Heal Your Gut After Antibiotics

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Insulin resistance

Inflammation reduces the body’s sensitivity to the hormone insulin (12). Insulin regulates glucose levels in the blood, allowing cells to use it for energy. When inflammation interferes with insulin function, you can become insulin resistant. Insulin resistance is linked to diabetes, high metabolic syndrome, obesity, and poor cardiovascular health.

Read more: 4 Benefits of Insulin Sensitivity & How to Increase Your

Skin symptoms

Atopic dermatitis (which literally means “inflammation of the skin”) is a chronic, inflammatory skin disease which results in widespread rashes and patches of itchy skin. It affects about 26.5 million adults in the U.S (13). In addition, conditions like psoriatic arthritis, acne, psoriasis, and eczema all stem from inflammation. 

If you have a rash that doesn’t go away or red, itchy dry skin patches, you should consider this a red flag and check with your doctor.

Fatigue 

Tiredness is very commonly associated with chronic inflammation. People who feel chronically tired or fatigued have higher markers for pro-inflammatory compounds. In fact, inflammation may be the missing link to solving chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). One study showed that patients with CFS, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) have variations in 17 cytokines which are connected with greater disease severity, suggesting that the condition is essentially an inflammatory disease (14). 

Some CFS/ME patients also exhibit symptoms like sore throat, sensitive lymph nodes, pain, or digestive discomfort that are associated with inflammation (15).

Related: Adrenal Fatigue

Functional medicine tests to detect chronic inflammation

There are tests available to help detect acute and chronic inflammation. However, these tests can’t distinguish between acute inflammation (as a result of infection or injury), and chronic inflammation that may result from diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, or an autoimmune disease.

  • C-reactive protein (CRP), or hs-CRP. The liver releases CRP into your bloodstream in response to inflammation. A high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) test is more sensitive than a standard CRP test, so it can detect more subtle changes. A normal value is less than 0.3 mg/dL in most healthy people. A value between 0.3 mg/dL and 1 mg/dL is considered minor elevation and can be seen in obesity, pregnancy, depression, diabetes, the common cold, sedentary lifestyle, and with cigarette smoking (16).
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (sed rate or ESR). ESR is based on how quickly red blood cells (RBCs) settle inside a test tube. Many factors can cause an abnormal ESR (including pregnancy, obesity, and use of NSAIDs), so an ESR test is typically used with other tests to diagnose and monitor inflammation. Ranges vary by lab test, but normal result is usually less than 20 mm/hr (17). 
  • Ferritin. This is a blood protein that reflects the amount of iron stored in the body. If there is too much iron in the body, ferritin levels may be high, and also rise when inflammation is present. The normal range is generally higher in men, but is 20 to 200 mcg/L.
  • Fibrinogen. While this protein is most commonly measured to evaluate acute inflammation in the vascular system, it can be elevated in response to other conditions. Fibrinogen may help identify the extent of systemic inflammation associated with multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, bacterial infection, colitis, lung and kidney fibrosis, and several types of cancer. A normal fibrinogen level is 2.0 to 4.0 g/L (18). 

Speak with a patient care coordinator about whether testing for chronic inflammation is right for you.

Should you test for chronic inflammation?

In conventional medicine it’s not routine to test for chronic inflammation. However, if you’re experiencing symptoms of chronic inflammation like described above, testing may help diagnose or manage an inflammatory condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or a leaky gut.

Learn more about testing for chronic inflammation at CentreSpringMD.

What causes chronic inflammation?

Many factors associated with genetics, lifestyle, diet, and environmental exposures contribute to chronic inflammation, including (19): 

  • Underlying infections (i.e. Lyme disease) or intestinal dysbiosis
  • Autoimmune disorders, where your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue
  • Exposure to heavy metals or environmental pollutants, like industrial chemicals or pesticides

A range of factors also contribute to chronic inflammation, like:

  • Smoking
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol use
  • Chronic stress and/or isolation
  • Sedentary lifestyle

Left unchecked, chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on your health. Fortunately, by understanding the signs and symptoms of systemic inflammation, you can work with a functional medicine doctor to get to the root cause of the issue and heal your body from the inside out. 

  • Test, treat, and resolve chronic inflammation with help from a qualified functional provider. Learn more.

If you’re dealing with any of the issues mentioned in this article, don’t hesitate to reach out to a functional medicine provider at CentreSpringMD. We can help you identify the source of your chronic inflammation and develop a plan to address it so that you can live a healthy, happy life.

Resources 

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3929010/
  2. https://www.nia.nih.gov/about/living-long-well-21st-century-strategic-directions-research-aging/inflammation-plays 
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092867410001820 
  4. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/fullarticle/793256 
  5. https://n.neurology.org/content/92/11/e1256
  6. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.00384/full
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19079223/ 
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3638313/   
  9. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.119.315896 
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6878926
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4281373/
  12. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/inflammatory-clues/
  13. https://www.aafa.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Atopic-Dermatitis-in-America-Study-Overview.pdf 
  14. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1710519114 
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5576849/  
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441843/ 
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557485/ 
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22037947/
  19. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-019-0675-0

Tags

chronic disease, inflammation


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