If you’re tuned in to health and wellness circles, you may often hear about “inflammation.” There is much discussion had about what causes it, what might treat it, and how it affects you. All of this talk may lead you to wonder what inflammation is, exactly, and how it works in the body.
Inflammation is the way that your body’s immune system responds to injuries and illness, aiming to protect your body from bacteria and viruses. Part of the healing process after an injury is inflammatory. When you twist your ankle and it swells up or when you cut yourself and the area gets red and puffy, that is inflammation.
Both of these examples can be categorized as one of the two types of inflammation – acute inflammation, or the “good” type that helps us heal. However, most of the discussion you probably hear about inflammation refers to the second type – chronic inflammation, the “bad” kind associated with chronic disease.
In this article, we’ll delve more into the two types of inflammation, their causes and symptoms, as well as steps that you can take to reduce inflammation.
Different Types of Inflammation
Inflammation can be broken down into two basic types: acute and chronic.
In medicine, the term “acute” refers to something of short duration. As such, acute inflammation is something caused by injury or illness. Think broken bones, bacterial infections, or viruses. Acute inflammation happens quickly as your immune system tries to help protect and heal your body from the injury or sickness.
The more severe your injury, the more severe acute inflammation may be. Depending on its cause, acute inflammation might last between a few days to a few months.
When acute inflammation is triggered by something like an injury, the response is usually localized to one area, like the ankle that you sprained. In other situations, like when your body is in the process of fighting off a bacteria or a virus, the inflammatory response may be systemic, with your white blood cells triggering the release of several inflammatory chemicals that may cause you to feel feverish, sick, or exhausted as your body puts most of its energy toward fighting off the invader.
This type of generalized acute inflammation might last for a few days or a few weeks.
There are also types of viral and bacterial infections that result in localized inflammation as opposed to system inflammation. This includes infections like tonsillitis, appendicitis, sinusitis, and bronchitis.
In medicine, “chronic” means persistent, long-lasting, and/or recurring. Chronic inflammation, therefore, refers to inflammation that lasts for years or even one’s entire life. Often, it isn’t caused by a specific injury or illness. Over time, chronic inflammation can cause major changes to a body’s tissues, organs, and cells.
As such, links have been found between chronic inflammation and a number of serious health conditions such as:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Kidney disease
- Autoimmune disorders
- Fatty liver disease.
Note that a link between chronic inflammation and a condition does not imply causation, and chronic inflammation is considered just one of many contributing factors to the onset and progression of disease.
As you can see, chronic inflammation is, indeed, a major threat to health and longevity.
The signs and symptoms of localized acute inflammation include:
- Swelling, puffiness, and bumps
- Stiffness and loss of mobility
Symptoms of systemic acute inflammation include:
- Sleepiness and lethargy
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
Signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation include:
- Body pain, joint pain, muscle pain
- Chronic fatigue, insomnia
- Depression, anxiety, mood disorders
- Constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Frequent infections
As we mentioned above, acute inflammation is caused by injuries, viruses, and bacteria. It happens when the immune system’s white blood cells release inflammatory chemicals to help the body fight off invaders and heal from injuries.
Unfortunately, scientists don’t yet fully understand what causes chronic inflammation, as it doesn’t seem to serve a healing purpose the way that acute inflammation does. However, they have identified several possible causes of chronic inflammation, most of which being related to lifestyle and aging.
- Physical inactivity. Exercise causes an anti-inflammatory chemical response in the bloodstream, so a lack thereof may lead to chronic inflammation.
- Obesity. Fat tissue, especially the deep layers of visceral fat around the abdominal organs, produce pro-inflammatory chemicals.
- Diet. Diets high in saturated fat, trans fat, and refined sugar are associated with increased inflammation.
- Smoking cigarettes. Cigarettes lower the production of anti-inflammatory molecules.
- Low levels of sex hormones. Sex hormones (like estrogen and testosterone) suppress inflammation.
- Psychological stress. Stress can activate an inflammatory response in the brain and rest of the body.
- Sleep disorders. Irregular sleep schedules have been associated with more markers of inflammation.
- Age. Chronic inflammation gets worse as we age.
- Autoimmune disorders. Autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, lupus, type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel disease trigger an inflammatory response even in absence of invaders.
Thankfully, there are steps that you can take to reduce both acute and chronic inflammation.
Acute inflammation caused by injury is part of the body’s natural healing process and doesn’t always need to be reduced. If the inflammation is excessive or bothersome, it can be addressed with Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation of the injured body part (RICE).
For acute inflammation caused by viruses and bacteria, antibiotics, fever-reducing medications like NSAIDs, and rest are all helpful.
And when it comes to chronic inflammation, lifestyle interventions are the most helpful, including:
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Eating a diet rich in plant foods and low in satured fats, trans fats, and refined sugars
- Exercising, specifically getting at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week
- Resistance training
- Quitting smoking
- Sitting less and walking more
- Getting enough sleep
- Reducing stress with techniques such as meditation
- Possibly, THCV
If you are concerned that you may be at risk of chronic inflammation, it is recommended to speak to your doctor about possible interventions.