Inflammation is a crucial component of the body’s immune response, and it’s typically characterized by the swelling and redness, as well as warmth, at the site of a wound or infection. While inflammation resulting from an obvious external wound is easy to identify, inflammation can also occur inside the body – and it’s not as easy to detect. There are many causes of inflammation in the body:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Certain foods and dietary habits
- Hormonal changes, such as those associated with menopause
- Allergies or sensitivities to certain foods or environmental factors
- Environmental toxins, such as pollution and pesticides
- Increased cortisol production associated with stress
- Infections in the bloodstream, which may be subtle and otherwise unnoticed
- Exposure to lead and mercury
- Lack of sleep
Dietary factors are one of the biggest contributors to inflammation in the body. Specifically, certain dietary habits and some specific ingredients have been linked to inflammation:
- Polyunsaturated vegetable oils like corn oil, peanut oil, soy oil, safflower and sunflower oils, which contain omega-6 fatty acids
- Gluten (found in wheat, rye, and barley) and casein (found in whey protein products)
- High-carbohydrate, low-protein diets
- Refined sugars and carbohydrates – generally foods with a high glycemic index
- Aspartame, an artificial sweetener
- Saturated fats
- Trans fats, commonly found in fast food
- Mono-sodium glutamate (MSG), most often found in soy sauce and Asian foods
The Link Between Inflammation and Chronic Disease
While inflammation is sometimes painful, it’s not always accompanied by pain. The swelling associated with inflammation is a result of increased blood flow to the area, triggered by your immune system as your body sends white blood cells, nutrients, and hormones essential for healing.
Inflammation can result from a chronic condition, such as arthritis, or as a result of diet and lifestyle habits such as inadequate sleep or excessive alcohol consumption. But because inflammation within the body can be sneaky, manifesting in less-obvious ways, many people who have inflammation experience a variety of symptoms without realizing that they may be caused by a case of chronic inflammation.
It’s even trickier considering that inflammation is a necessary physiological response that helps your body heal and recover from illness or injury, yet excessive inflammation or chronic inflammation are detrimental to your health and well-being. Chronic inflammation is associated with several health conditions impacting various areas of the body:
- The gut – Typically, the body’s immune cells ignore the healthy bacteria that naturally converge in the gut, but in some cases, immune cells begin reacting to healthy gut bacteria, leading to chronic inflammation. When immune cells begin to attack the digestive tract, it can lead to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as ulcerative colitis and Chron’s disease.
- The joints – Rheumatoid arthitis (RA) is the most common type of autoimmune arthritis, impacting 1.3 million Americans. While there is no definitive cause, RA appears to have genetic components but has also been linked to smoking. In RA, the body’s immune cells attack healthy joint tissue, leading to chronic inflammation.
- The heart – People with heart disease have a buildup of fatty plague in the arteries, which can trigger an immune response resulting in chronic inflammation. As white blood cells accumulate around plagues in the arteries, blood clots may form, leading to a heart attack.
- The lungs – Inflammation is often the culprit behind some of the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as inflammation in the lungs causes fluid buildup that in turn narrows the airways, making it more difficult to breathe.
- The gums – Periodontal disease, commonly referred to as gum disease, although technically it includes any disease that impacts any of the teeth’s supporting tissues, has been associated with heart disease and other chronic diseases, although a causal relationship has not been established. Recent research indicates that the association between oral health and systemic disease is related to inflammation – in the most simplistic terms, that oral inflammation may trigger inflammatory responses in other areas of the body.
Inflammation and Insulin Resistance
Clearly, inflammation plays a role in many chronic health conditions and diseases, serving to help the body fend off invaders and disease but also contributing to a variety of unpleasant effects and long-term health impacts. One of the most concerning associations is the link between obesity and inflammation. In studies of obese mice, scientists noted a high concentration of immune cells in fat tissue.
“Stranger still, the immune cells aren’t just watching; they’re activated, ready to take on an invader that isn’t there. Just as in humans, the obese mice with chronic inflammation were more likely to become insulin resistant,” explains DiabetesForecast.org. “Insulin resistance is a key component in the development of type 2 diabetes; if the body’s cells don’t respond to insulin by absorbing sugar, or glucose, from the blood, the consequences can be disastrous.” Of course, people with type 2 diabetes have an increased risk of a variety of other health conditions, including high blood pressure, stroke, kidney disease, skin and eye complications, and more.
There’s still much research to be done, as scientists are just beginning to understand the full impacts of inflammation in the body and the intricate ways inflammation is associated with so many bodily systems, health conditions, and chronic disease. It’s clear, though, that chronic inflammation comes with some serious health concerns, and it’s wise to take steps to reduce your risk of developing chronic inflammation in the body. From taking a natural probiotic supplement to balance the healthy bacteria in your gut (where most of the body’s immune cells are found) to eating a healthy diet, minimizing alcohol consumption, and avoiding environmental toxins and pollutants, there are many lifestyle changes that can reduce inflammation.