If you come anywhere near the wellness space, you hear a lot about inflammation. Tons of snacks, recipes, and cookbooks advertise themselves as “anti-inflammatory,” the #inflammation hashtag is all over health and wellness accounts on Instagram, even Tom Brady has jumped on the anti-inflammatory bandwagon. But what is inflammation? And what is chronic inflammation, a subset of inflammation that gets a whole lot of bad press?
In this guide to types of inflammation, we dive deep on what inflammation means, bad vs good kinds of inflammation, and how you can lead a healthy lifestyle that naturally prevents unnecessary inflammation.
So Let’s Cut To the Chase: What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s natural response against harm. The term itself refers to a process during which your body’s white blood cells, and the substances they produce, protect you from bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders. Sounds like a good thing, right? And a lot of the time, it is totally good — and totally normally. Inflammation happens in everyone, all the time, whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s a vital part of your body’s immune system and ability to heal from injury, as well as a key way of signaling the immune system to kick into high gear. Without it, small issues like a knee scrape or a head cold could turn into something much more serious.
So if inflammation is basically saving your life all the time, why does it have such a bad rap? Why is everyone always trying to avoid it? The answer lies in the fact that there are two distinct types of inflammation: think of them as inflammation, and inflammation’s evil twin.
Types of Inflammation
The two types of inflammation are acute inflammation and chronic inflammation. They’re similar in how the inflammation process works and what the white blood cells do, but very different when it comes to why the processes occur and how they affect your overall health.
WHAT IS ACUTE INFLAMMATION?
Acute inflammation is, in a way, the “good” kind of inflammation. It occurs almost immediately when you experience an injury or catch a virus, has only localized effects (so it only occurs precisely where the injury is), and usually only lasts a short time. So if you cut your finger, bang your knee, sprain your ankle, or come down with a sore throat, acute inflammation is the mechanism that helps your body heal itself, defending against viruses and bacteria and repairing damaged tissue. Redness, swelling, heat, pain, and numbness are all signs of acute inflammation.
So what exactly is happening when you experience an acute inflammation response? Here’s how it goes: When you bang your knee, for instance, your body sends out a type of protein called a cytokine, which you can think of as a siren. This cytokine acts as an emergency signal to let your immune cells, hormones, and nutrients know that there’s a problem for them to fix. After getting the signal, white blood cells go find the injured area and eat up germs, dead or damaged cells, and any other outside crud. Hormones make blood clots to help heal damaged tissue, and then remove them when the healing is over. It’s basically an emergency SWAT team that runs in, fixes the issues, cleans up after themselves, and leaves no trace when they’re done.
The body is pretty amazing, right? So now onto the “bad” kind of inflammation.
WHAT IS CHRONIC INFLAMMATION?
Chronic inflammation occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks normal cells — so just like with acute inflammation, the siren sounds and the SWAT team gets called in, but this time they’re going after the good guys. The white blood cells swarm the “injured” area, but they don’t have anything to do — since there’s no identifiable virus, bacteria, foreign invader, or injury — so they start attacking internal organs or other good tissues and cells.
It’s a long-term problem (hence the “chronic” part of the term “chronic inflammation”) that can be caused by environmental factors like pollution, and/or unhealthy lifestyle habits like smoking and eating a poor diet.
What do these things have to do with the behavior of your white blood cells? How exactly does regularly eating donuts for breakfast, for example, lead to chronic inflammation? Let’s break it down:
When you eat sugary food — like a donut — it gloms onto fat and protein cells already in your body, creating a chemical reaction that turns those cells into advanced glycation end products (AGEs, weird they left out the P in the acronym, we agree). Anyway, this chemical reaction is damaging to the fat and protein cells the donut glommed onto, which causes your immune system to sound that emergency siren (hello, cytokines!) to try to break those damaging AGEs apart. Just like with acute inflammation, the white blood cells are looking for a problem — like an injury, bacteria, or virus — but find nothing, since all you did was eat some sugar and refined carbs.
But, since the cells are obedient little warriors who fight when called (and can’t recognize when it’s a false alarm, per se), instead of retreating they stay and fight what’s there. This means that they eventually start attacking good cells, like your tissues and organs! That’s where chronic inflammation can cause some serious problems.
Now that we’ve answered the question of “what is chronic inflammation,” let’s look at its causes, symptoms, and potential repercussions.
CAUSES OF CHRONIC INFLAMMATION
Chronic inflammation can be caused by a whole bunch of different things, so the root issue can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint. But in general, it results from some outside element — a food, an irritant in the air, chemicals inhaled from a cigarette — disturbing the delicate balance inside your body and setting off the alarm bells.
Some common causes of chronic inflammation are:
Untreated causes of acute inflammation (like a bad cut that isn’t properly cleaned, disinfected, and protected)
Long-term, low-level exposure to an irritant, like an industrial chemical, a certain cleaning product, or air pollution
An unhealthy diet
An autoimmune disorder (like lupus, IBD, rheumatoid arthritis, etc) that mistakes healthy tissue for a disease-causing pathogen
Of course, none of the above causes chronic inflammation in everyone — some people can drink alcohol, eat junk, smoke, and so on and never get chronic inflammation (though they’d probably have some other issues going on…).
And it’s also important to note that sometimes none of these factors will be present, and someone can still experience chronic inflammation. One of the frustrating truths about chronic inflammation is that the underlying cause oftentimes isn’t clear, or it could be a combination of things.
SYMPTOMS OF CHRONIC INFLAMMATION
When you experience acute inflammation, the symptoms are pretty obvious: redness, heat, and pain, all localized to the site of the injury or infection. But the symptoms of chronic inflammation are a bit more subtle — sometimes, there might not even be any symptoms, but doctors can confirm inflammation is occurring by testing for C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation in the blood. While symptomless chronic inflammation might seem pretty chill, it can still lead to all the risks and complications of chronic inflammation with symptoms.
When chronic inflammation symptoms do present themselves, they can manifest in a variety of different ways, many of which can be mistakenly attributed to the common cold, or something else (hence chronic inflammation being so tough to nail down!). But here are some of the most common chronic inflammation symptoms:
Fatigue, often coupled with chronic insomnia
Body aches and pains
Rashes or skin irritation
Abdominal pain or digestive issues like constipation, diarrhea, or acid reflux
Depression or anxiety
Weight gain (and obesity is a contributing cause to chronic inflammation — talk about a vicious cycle!)
Someone with chronic inflammation might experience none, some, or all (Yikes, hopefully not!!) of these symptoms, and they can range from barely noticeable to severe and last anywhere from around a month to several years.
DISEASES LINKED TO CHRONIC INFLAMMATION
While those symptoms all sound pretty awful, there’s worse news: chronic inflammation has been linked to some very serious health issues down the line. While researchers are still trying to understand exactly how chronic inflammation contributes to disease, there’s conclusive evidence that chronic inflammation plays some role in the development of various conditions. This is because, if it’s “rescuing” i.e. fighting over a long period of time, your body’s inflammatory response does major damage to healthy cells, tissues, and organs, which in turn leads to damaged DNA, tissue death, and internal scarring.
If chronic inflammation is left untreated, all of this damage can result in a variety of different diseases, including:
Neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s
Certain types of cancer (according to the National Cancer Institute, this is because of the DNA damage caused by chronic inflammation)
Type 2 diabetes
Cardiovascular disease and stroke (according to the American Heart Association, this could be because when inflammatory cells remain in blood vessels for too long, they promote the buildup of plaque, which the body perceives as a foreign substance and tries to wall off from the blood flowing in the arteries. If the plaque subsequently ruptures, it forms a blood clot that blocks blood flow to your heart or brain, which triggers a heart attack or stroke.)
High blood pressure
How to Prevent Chronic Inflammation
All of the above sounds pretty scary, right? Well, the good news is that usually, all it takes to prevent chronic inflammation are some lifestyle tweaks.
TIPS TO PREVENT CHRONIC INFLAMMATION
Avoid inflammatory foods
Certain foods can trigger an inflammation response, so avoiding them can make a big difference. Cut out or eliminate processed foods, high-fat meats, and food products with trans fats (like things made with margarine or corn oil). This also means avoiding simple carbs (think anything white: white bread, white rice, etc), refined sugar (which is used in most food products with added sugar), and high-fructose corn syrup, since these can all cause a blood sugar spike, which can in turn lead to chronic inflammation.
Eat anti-inflammatory food
On the flip side, certain foods can actually help control or prevent an inflammatory response. Organic fruits and vegetables, and anything with a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, are great choices. Check out our guide to the 14 best anti-inflammatory foods for more.
Chronic stress puts the body in a constant state of fight-or-flight, which can lead to chronic inflammation. We know, life gets super busy, and sometimes you can’t change that, but try to keep your stress levels under control through yoga, meditation, biofeedback, enough sleep, regular exercise, acupuncture — whatever works for you!
Get enough sleep
Sleep is crucial to preventing inflammation, because sleep is when your body works to repair your white blood cells. If you skimp on sleep, your immune system doesn’t get the restoration it needs, so it needs to kick into higher gear to keep you healthy. This leads to — you guessed it — inflammation.
Focus on gut health
Sixty to 70 percent of your immune system is located in your gut, so it’s pretty obvious that if you have poor gut health, your immune system isn’t working properly, and one result of that is chronic inflammation. To keep your gut in good working order, check out our comprehensive guide to gut health.
Reduce toxins in your life
Exposure to irritants or toxic chemicals sets off alarm bells in your body and can lead to inflammation. Cut these toxins out of your life by eating organic food whenever possible and choosing non-toxic personal care and household cleaning products.
Identify hidden allergies
If you have an allergy you’re not aware of, all your efforts at preventing inflammation could be thwarted. If you’re leading an anti-inflammatory life and still experiencing issues, you might have a sensitivity to something you’re eating or a product that you’re using. Get to the bottom of it by trying out an elimination diet, or asking your doctor for a blood test. Common allergens and sensitivities are gluten, soy, dairy, eggs, and yeast. You can also do a product or environment elimination diet by living or at least sleeping in a different place for a few nights, or using none of your normal personal care products and seeing if your allergy symptoms are reduced or even go away completely. When we interviewed Dr. Jonathan Aviv about acid reflux and heartburn, he told us that many common allergy symptoms, like a stuffy nose or post-nasal drip, are really just chronic inflammation from foods your body is trying to reject.
Conclusion: The Bottom Line on Types of Inflammation and How to Stay Healthy
This is a lot of info, so we’ll wrap it all up in a neat nutshell here for you. Here’s everything you need to know about inflammation, boiled down to a few easy-to-remember points:
There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is good, and helps you heal from an injury or disease. Chronic inflammation is bad, and can lead to serious health issues down the line.
Chronic inflammation occurs when your body is under some sort of stress, which can come from a variety of sources, including nutritional, environmental, and lifestyle factors.
You can prevent chronic inflammation by reducing stress, sleeping enough, watching what you eat, and sussing out any unknown allergies.
So there you go! Now the next time someone asks “What is inflammation?” you’ll have a clear answer to give them (this is what people talk about at parties, right??).
Have you experienced chronic inflammation in your life? Were you able to get to the bottom of the issue? Let us know in the comments below!