If you want to stay healthy for years to come, you should pay attention to possible signs of systemic inflammation in your body. That's because chronic inflammation appears to play a part in many debilitating diseases, including heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity.
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To be clear, not all inflammation is bad. For instance, acute inflammation is a helpful, short-term immune response that happens because of an injury or infection (like an ankle sprain or a common cold). Once your immune cells have healed the area, the inflammation disappears.
On the other hand, chronic inflammation is when the immune system goes into overdrive to fend off threats and sustains this attack mode for long periods of time. This can do damage to the body.
Because inflammation occurs deep in the body at a cellular level, symptoms aren't always visible or obvious. Here, we've talked to medical experts to help you spot the subtle signs of chronic inflammation. Plus, keep scrolling for ways to keep it at bay.
1. Memory and Concentration Issues
Your brain is likely to bear the brunt if your body is dealing with inflammation.
Here's why: "Chronic stress, secondary to inflammation, generally leads to the body being in a state of constant stimulation, especially of the sympathetic nervous system," says Deena Adimoolam-Gupta, MD, a New York City-based endocrinologist and internist.
And this continual state of alertness affects your sleep, which can in turn impair memory and concentration, Dr. Adimoolam-Gupta explains.
2. Body Pain and Muscle Weakness
When inflammatory cytokines (proteins related to the immune system) are elevated in the body, they can trigger muscle soreness and swelling, says Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York-based internist and gastroenterologist.
In fact, chronic inflammation damages the muscle fibers, which not only results in weakness but also affects the arteries that pass through the muscle, Dr. Sonpal says.
Plus, inflammation initiates swelling within and around the joints, which can produce pain and discomfort, Dr. Adimoolam-Gupta adds.
3. Insulin Resistance
"Chronic inflammation leads to an increase in the hormone cortisol, which makes the cells of the body more resistant to the effects of insulin," a hormone that helps regulate your blood sugar levels, Dr. Adimoolam-Gupta says. As a result, this inflammation-induced insulin resistance can cause high blood sugar and lead to (or worsen) type 2 diabetes, she says.
Chronic inflammation is more likely to bring about insulin resistance in people with certain risk factors, including people with type 2 diabetes or obesity, and those with a history of taking long-term steroids, Dr. Adimoolam-Gupta adds.
4. Skin Rashes
Redness, blisters, skin dryness and itchy bumps — all of these skin conditions can be markers of chronic inflammation. Rashes are a response to your immune system fending off things like infectious microbes, allergic reactions and internal diseases, Dr. Sonpal says.
"There are hundreds of skin rashes that may exist related to inflammatory changes of the skin," agrees Dr. Adimoolam-Gupta.
Case in point: psoriasis. This condition — which happens when your immune system becomes overactive and ramps up skin cell growth — leads to skin inflammation and the characteristic psoriatic scales and plaques, she says.
5. Low Energy
Chronic inflammation causes stress in the body, which overstimulates the sympathetic nervous system, Dr. Adimoolam-Gupta says. In other words, you're always in fight-or-flight mode.
Over time, this incessant state of alertness can deplete your energy and lead to generalized fatigue, Dr. Adimoolam-Gupta explains.
What's more, when your body is dealing with systemic inflammation, it must cope with the release of inflammatory cytokines in the blood, Dr. Sonpal adds. "Inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis are all chronic inflammatory diseases that cause fatigue," he notes.
6. Excessive Mucus
Do you deal with chronic nasal congestion, frequent phlegm or a regular runny nose?
"Excessive production of airway mucus happens because the mucous membranes produce phlegm to protect epithelial cells located in the lining of the respiratory system," Dr. Sonpal says. "This occurs especially in inflammatory lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," he adds.
Still, increased mucus could be the product of acute inflammation too. For example, more mucus in the nostrils can occur due to allergic rhinitis, which is a result of an allergen (like pollen) coming in contact with the nasal membranes, Dr. Adimoolam-Gupta says.
7. Stomach Problems
Digestive woes like bloating, abdominal discomfort, constipation and diarrhea can also signal an issue with inflammation.
For example, gastritis — which refers to a group of conditions characterized by inflammation of the gastric lining in the stomach — can cause uncomfortable GI symptoms like upper abdominal pain, heartburn and acid reflux, Dr. Adimoolam-Gupta says.
How to Reduce Chronic Inflammation
There are some simple things you can do to prevent and manage chronic inflammation. Here, Dr. Adimoolam-Gupta shares her top tips for adopting an anti-inflammatory lifestyle:
1. Minimize Stress
Incorporate activities that can help with stress management into your daily life, such as yoga, meditation and deep breathing.
2. Prioritize Sleep
Ideally, you should be getting seven to eight hours per night. Sleep supports the production of human growth hormones and testosterone, which help the body repair and rebuild itself, according to a November 2020 peer-reviewed article in StatPearls.
3. Eat Certain Foods...
Anti-inflammatory foods like fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, may help protect against inflammation.
4. ...and Nix Others
Limit foods with additives and preservatives (think: packaged foods) and those with high amounts of saturated and trans fats (read: fast food), which can aggravate inflammation.
5. Get Moving
Regular exercise may reduce pro-inflammatory molecules and cytokines, per the article in StatPearls. (Here are the six best types to do.)
6. Limit Alcohol
Chronic alcohol use harms gut and liver function as well as multi-organ interactions, producing persistent systemic inflammation, per a March 2010 study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology.
7. Stop Smoking
Cigarette smoking is related to the body producing fewer anti-inflammatory molecules, which can induce inflammation, according to the research in StatPearls. Consider this just one more good reason to quit the habit.
When to See a Doctor
If you have symptoms of chronic inflammation, see your medical provider, who can perform a proper assessment, including blood tests, and offer appropriate treatment options.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.