What does the word “inflamed” mean to you? Do you think of inflammation as a productive and helpful response to an injury, infection, or illness? Or do you think of it as something unwanted, like debilitating pain, unsightly breakouts, or annoying puffiness?
The truth is that inflammation is a smart and necessary immune response. And it’s also true that when it does not or cannot resolve, inflammation becomes chronic and leads to discomfort and damage. Chronic inflammation is a player in most degenerative diseases, including the ones that we think of as a “normal” part of aging. This means your arthritis, perimenopausal hot flashes, or cognitive impairment don’t show that you’re getting older, rather they show that you’re becoming more inflamed!
How inflammation becomes chronic
You make all sorts of brilliant immune messengers called cytokines that manage inflammation. Cytokines can cause an inflammatory response or stop it. It turns out that Inflammatory cytokines need to resolve in order to stop the response. When they don’t get a chance to resolve, they signal your immune cells to make more of the same inflammatory cytokines. This can become a perpetual loop. Unresolved cytokines cause a chronic inflammatory process that can:
- Occupy your immune system and makes it harder to mount a fast response against a virus or pathogen (like Covid)!
- Wear down joints and bone, causing arthritis and osteoporosis.
- Lay down plaque in your arteries.
- Affect your brain. Neuroinflammation contributes to anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline.
- Cause autoimmune flares, as well as the development of more autoimmune diseases.
- Make it harder to heal from injuries or recover from exercise.
- Prohibit weight loss and cause weight gain.
- Make PMS and period pain worse.
- Block hormone receptors and contribute to hormone resistance (like insulin resistance).
I think we can all agree that an unresolved (chronic) inflammatory response is undesirable. But how do you recognize that it even exists?
How it feels
You may know you’re inflamed because of how you feel. For example, you may experience symptoms such as:
- Brain fog
How it shows up on bloodwork
Sometimes you don’t feel inflammation because it is “silent,” and this is when lab tests can be useful. Silent inflammation can show up as elevations in:
- C-Reactive Protein (CRP or hsCRP)
- Interleukin 6
- Reverse T3
- Sedimentation rate
- Triglycerides and LDL cholesterol
- Insulin and glucose
Chronically inflamed conditions
Unresolved inflammation is a player in most chronic and degenerative conditions. Sometimes inflammation is the root cause, other times it’s the condition that causes the inflammation. If you have these conditions, you can assume chronic inflammation is present:
- Unmanaged allergies (pollen, food, dust, etc)
- Chronic stress (high cortisol levels)
- Reoccurring infections in organs and spaces that are exposed to the outside environment: sinus, vagina, bladder, lungs, GI tract
- Autoimmune processes that aren’t in remission
- Blood sugar and insulin dysregulation
- Excessive belly (visceral) fat, including fatty liver
- Hypoxia (low oxygen) from apnea, anemia, or other causes
- Cardiovascular disease
- Neurological conditions like dementia, anxiety, ADHD, and depression
- Conditions that end in “osis” like endometriosis and osteoporosis
- Conditions that end in “itis” like arthritis. bursitis, interstitial cystitis, sinusitis, gastritis, and tendonitis
The bottom line is if you have noticeable symptoms, elevated lab markers, or one of the above conditions –you’ve got unresolved inflammation! And you’re not unique, as chronic inflammation is widespread. We are led to believe that it’s a normal, par-for-the-course occurrence that we have no say over. This is not true, as you can actively do many things to resolve and reduce inflammation! In the next post, we talk about a food-first approach to resolving chronic inflammation.