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There’s a lot of news these days about the harm inflammation can do to our bodies. This article provides an overview of what you need to know about chronic inflammation, and what you can do about it. 

Let’s review some background. Inflammation is part of our immune-system’s defensive mechanism; a process in which our bodies deploy white-blood cells and other chemicals to protect us from infection or foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses. This response to tissue injury, to other trauma, or to ‘’foreign invaders’’ like pollen, chemicals, microbes or cell damage is  a force for good.  Inflammation plays an essential role in healing and controlling infection, it’s key to our very survival.

Three types of inflammation are recognized. The swelling that occurs after an insect bite, or when we sprain a joint are examples of acute inflammation. Symptoms are usually noticeable: redness, swelling, warmth, pain, and sometimes loss of function. It is generally temporary, lasting a few hours to several days as the body responds by increasing blood flow to the damaged area and releases chemicals, antibodies and proteins as part of the healing process. The usual treatment is to rest the injured area, manage pain and other symptoms, and allow natural healing. Mild painkillers could be prescribed. If substantial or complete healing does not occur in three to four days, a doctor should be consulted to determine if other medical intervention is necessary. 

A second, more serious type is chronic inflammation. It’s not as easy to notice or diagnose and can persist for months or even years. The body’s immune response is constantly and repeatedly triggered resulting in cumulative damage, as is the case in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Chronic, low-level inflammation plays a role in other diseases including type-2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and depression.  Asthma, sinusitis, lupus and Crohn’s disease are also examples. Systemic inflammation and its relation to autoimmune diseases is not fully understood and is the subject of research and investigation. Continuous inflammation due to infection or cell damage can injure blood vessels, nerves and organs like the kidney, or joints, skin and even the brain – often without you knowing in the absence of pain or other symptoms. Chronic inflammation is not well understood but some root causes are now well known. More on that shortly.

Life-threatening inflammation, also termed Sepsis, is the third kind. Defined as life-threatening organ dysfunction caused by an abnormal physiological response due to an infection, it’s an uncontrolled inflammatory response that is followed by a suppression of the body’s immune system. A severe systemic response can also be triggered by non-infectious causes, as is the case in SIRS (Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome), where a patient’s symptoms mimic the response to a serious bacterial infection.  Yet no bacteria are found and the cause of inflammation is unknown. Chemotherapy, some treatments for RA and many medications that suppress the immune system as a side effect can make you more susceptible to life-threatening inflammation.  Early detection and treatment of the underlying cause is the key to overcoming it. Dr. Carl Hauser, a trauma surgeon and immunologist at Harvard Medical School says that inflammatory complications of injury or illness account for about 50% of patients in intensive care units.

Back to systemic chronic inflammation and what we should do for its prevention or mitigation. It impacts our lives more than we realize. If we are overweight, have high cholesterol, hypertension or high blood-sugar levels, we very likely have some level of chronic inflammation. Left unchecked, these conditions promote diseases such as those mentioned above, and the associated disabilities decrease quality of life.  A recent article tells us that chronic inflammation is characterized by persistent increases in small proteins called cytokines throughout the body that are released by the immune system to promote recovery. This upsets the balance between antioxidants (nutrients that minimize free-radical damage) and free radicals (highly reactive compounds that can interfere with normal cell function). Free radicals in the body and environment play a role in many of the diseases mentioned earlier; they can also damage DNA, proteins, and body tissue, thereby accelerating biological aging. The referenced article quotes Professor George Slavich of UCLA:  “Chronic inflammation is involved in not just a few select disorders but a wide variety of very serious physical and mental health conditions … chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death in the world today, with more than 50 percent of all deaths being attributable to inflammation-related diseases.” It can contribute to cognitive decline and mental-health disorders by boosting age-related immune-system deterioration. Social isolation, psychological stress, disturbed sleep, chronic infections, physical inactivity, poor diet, obesity and exposure to environmental toxins – air pollutants, hazardous waste products, industrial chemicals and tobacco smoke – all contribute to its increase.  

A blood test for the for the high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) marker  confirms the presence of systemic inflammation, but it does pinpoint the cause, which could, for example, be infection, an auto-immune disease of some kind, or cardiovascular disease. Physicians have to consider other health conditions and factors, as well as medical and environmental history to identify the source.

Experts agree that a healthy diet is one key factor to reduce our risk for chronic inflammation and improve immune health. In addition, they emphasize the importance of lifestyle changes: maintain healthy body weight, improving sleep, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, and finding ways to decrease stress and exposure to environmental pollutants. Heart-healthy diets (such as DASH and MIND) come highly recommended. Foods that fight inflammation include olive oil, tomatoes, walnuts, almonds, spinach, kale, salmon, mackerel, blueberries, oranges, ginger and turmeric.

You are now armed with the knowledge to take your next steps and create your roadmap to combat chronic inflammation. Consult your doctor, and make the lifestyle changes for a better tomorrow!

Sukham Blog – This is a monthly column focused on health and wellbeing. 

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. To find out more, visit https://www.sukham.org, or contact the author at sukhaminfo@gmail.com.  

With sincere thanks to Hal Gatewood at Unsplash for the use of his beautiful photograph.

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