When inflammation becomes chronic, however, everything changes. It becomes a constant, low level energy drain that affects how our body functions and how we feel. It is the underlying cause of many chronic diseases, which are the most significant causes of death in the world. Chronic inflammatory diseases include diabetes, obesity, stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, heart disorders, arthritis, allergies, dementia, and cancer. If you have metabolic syndrome, at least some of these diseases are familiar to you.
The good news is that even small changes made daily over time can have a profound impact on your overall health by dousing the flames of inflammation. You can change the quality and quantity of your life.
How do I know if I have Chronic Inflammation?
Unlike acute inflammation, symptoms may go unnoticed, or at least not connected with chronic inflammation. These include:
- Weight gain
- Constant fatigue
- Gastrointestinal problems (e.g., constipation, diarrhea, GERD)
- Body aches
- Frequent infections
How do I know if I am at Risk for Chronic Inflammation?
Risk factors that promote the development of chronic inflammation include:
- Obesity (the higher the BMI, the more inflammation)
- Poor diets with an abundance of calories, sugar, processed food, refined carbohydrates, saturated fat, Advanced Glycation End Products* (AGEs), and deficiency of nutrients.
- Chronically high stress levels
- Sleep disorders (e.g., lack of sleep, irregular sleep schedules)
- Age (more inflammatory molecules as we age)
- Low sex hormones (e.g., testosterone, estrogen)
*A note about AGEs: AGEs are found in animal products, and the numbers increase when those foods are cooked at high temperatures (charring or frying, which frankly I love), are high in sugar (which I also love), or processed foods (which are so convenient). AGEs are bad for our bodies because they promote oxidative stress (like an apple turning brown) and inflammation. This affects the normal functioning of cells, making them more prone to damage and premature aging, which contributes to the development or worsening of chronic disease(s).
The Role of the Gastrointestinal Tract
While chronic inflammation affects all the cells in the body, inflammation in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract (i.e., “gut”) is considered a root cause of food sensitivities and allergies. Some of the most reactive foods are barley, beef, chocolate, citrus, coffee, dairy, eggs, nuts, peanuts, rye, seafood, soy, sugar, tea, tomatoes, wheat and yeast. To see if any of these foods are making you feel ill, do you own research and try eliminating them one at a time.
The following factors also promote gut inflammation:
- NSAIDS (e.g., ibuprofen, naproxen, voltaren)
- Prescription drugs (e.g., antibiotics, oral contraceptives)
- Foods such as partially hydrogenated fats (e.g., shortening, soft margarine), sugars (e.g., high fructose corn syrup) and fried foods (AGEs)
- GI bacterial and fungal overgrowth
- Overeating (due to a reduced amount of enzymes available to break down food)
What can I do to Decrease Inflammation?
To decrease chronic inflammation, studies recommend the following:
- Remove sugar
- Eat whole fresh foods:
- Olive oil
- Green leafy vegetables
- Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, anchovies)
- Some fruits (e.g., strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, cherries)
- Exercise -- most days of the week, rigorous at least 3 times a week
- Stop smoking
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Avoid overeating
- Reduce stress
- Get adequate sleep
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has never been a better reason to make your health and wellness a priority! It should be empowering to know that when it comes to lifestyle changes, we hold the key to good health. Change isn’t easy, but the rewards are many.