Chronic Inflammation and Disease
Inflammation is a hot topic in medical research, the news, and health communities, because it is being linked to a variety of health conditions and diseases including diabetes, Alzheimer disease, and cancer. In fact, the presence of inflammation has been an important factor in understanding how some diseases develop and what can be done to try to manage them. It’s not surprising that these exciting finds have led to a trend of products, diets, and lifestyles reported to improve health by decreasing inflammation. With any health trend, it is important to know learn more about the condition to understand how or if these health steps can affect your well-being.
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s healthy response to problems like irritation, physical trauma, or infections by viruses or bacteria. Injured tissues send out signals to open blood vessels and allow fluids to move from blood vessels to the area around the injured tissue. This fluid carries blood cells and other items that can help fight infection and begin to repair damaged tissue. The increase in fluid around the injured area can lead to the familiar signs of inflammation, which are redness, swelling, heat, and pain.
When this inflammation process is short-term, it is an effective and natural tool that helps you heal.
When Inflammation Goes Bad
The initial inflammation is often good, but too much can be bad. Certain situations or conditions can cause a long-term inflammation known as chronic inflammation. This type of inflammation may not have a clear cause or may be associated with:
- An autoimmune disorder—the body’s own immune system attacks healthy tissue stimulating inflammation.
- Chronic infection such as a parasite
- Environmental exposures, medications, or toxins
- Allergic reaction
- Genetic factors
Chronic inflammation may not have obvious symptoms like pain, but over time may still be causing damage to local tissue. This damage can interfere with normal function and may contribute to the development of certain diseases.
Inflammation and Disease
Not all inflammation is visible, but proteins in the blood called inflammation markers can show if there is inflammation in the body. Over the last decade, research and testing has found these inflammation markers in multiple, apparently unrelated diseases. Some conditions that are often associated with inflammation markers include:
- Cancer, especially colon, liver, stomach cancers, and cancer progression
- Metabolic or endocrine disorders, such as diabetes and insulin resistance, thyroid disease, and Cushings Disease
- Celiac disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Alzheimers disease
- Kidney disease
- Crohns disease and ulcerative colitis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
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However, the role of inflammation may differ from disease to disease. The inflammation may be part of the disease itself or may have contributed to the development of it. For example:
- Growing tumors can cause damage and inflammation in surrounding tissue.
- Inflammation in the brain has been associated with the development of diseases such as Alzheimer or Parkinson disease.
- Blood vessel inflammation can lead to blockages or ruptures in blood vessels, which can lead to heart disease or stroke.
- Inflammation with rheumatoid arthritis is caused by the immune system attack of joint tissue and contributes to joint damage.
Controlling the Inflammation?
If you have a condition or disease associated with chronic inflammation such as arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease, work with your doctor to manage your condition. Medications and lifestyle changes may help manage inflammation to decrease tissue damage and future complications.
Managing or understanding inflammation that is not causing obvious symptoms but may lead to issues later is a little less certain. Although blood tests can show inflammation, guidelines still need to be determined on what is normal, what indicates risk, and who should be tested. More research must also be done before we can fully understand what steps, if any, we can or should take to control inflammation.
There are many diets, supplements, and lifestyle programs that are promoted as a way to decrease nonspecific inflammation in the body. Some of these recommendations such as decreasing processed foods in diet, regular eating fruits and vegetables, sleeping well, and decreasing stress have been shown to be good for overall health and disease prevention. There is little harm in adopting some of these options. Other recommendations that include eliminating certain food groups from your diet or taking certain supplements could negatively affect your health, so talk to your doctor before making these changes. As for the final word on inflammation, stay tuned.
American College of Rheumatology
Canadian Rheumatology Association
Canadian Arthritis Network
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Last reviewed November 2013 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 1/13/2014