More and more research is confirming low-level chronic inflammation as a major risk factor for developing serious health conditions.
Cancer, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis have all been associated with long-term chronic inflammation.
Impact of chronic inflammation
Chronic inflammatory diseases such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes kill approximately 41 million people every year. It also accounts for 71% of all deaths globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
What causes inflammation?
Inflammation is the immune system’s way of mounting a defense against a foreign stimulus, invader or irritant. Acute inflammation typically lasts for a few days, causing swelling, redness and pain, which then disappear when the battle is won.
Acute vs chronic inflammation
If exposure to the invader or irritant is ongoing – such as exposure to an industrial chemical in the workplace, polluted air or an infectious organism that hasn’t been eliminated or overcome by the immune system – the inflammation can become chronic and last months or years.
Other causes of chronic inflammation include injuries and autoimmune disorders. Here, the body’s immune system goes into overdrive, reacting to and attacking healthy tissue as a result of mistaking it for a foreign invader.
The problem comes in when the invader that triggered the immune response isn’t entirely driven off by the attacking blood cells, or when these cells are not “recalled” when their job is done. The cells continue to behave as if the problem still exists, and starts attacking healthy cells in other organs and body parts.
When you have chronic inflammation, it means your body is constantly on high alert. All bodily systems are put under stress. It’s a bit like driving your car at 120km/h in third gear without ever stopping. As a result of this damage, your organs cannot function as efficiently as they used to. This can lead to life-threatening disease.
Damage to different parts of the body
For many years, doctors and researchers thought that a combination of lifestyle factors (e.g. smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise and stress) and genetic factors determined one’s risk for developing diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. This still holds, but the long-term effects of chronic inflammation has now joined the list of contributing factors.
Examples of how chronic inflammation can damage the body and contribute to chronic disease
- Damage to the linings of your arteries can lead to coronary artery disease, which could lead to a heart attack;
- Damage to the linings of your intestines can lead to inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis;
- Damage to the cells in your brain can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression and multiple sclerosis;
- Damage to the liver can lead to chronic hepatitis and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease;
- Damage to the pancreas can contribute to diabetes and pancreatitis; and
- Damage to the tissues of the muscles and joints can lead to lupus, gout, ankolysing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
The immune system becomes less efficient as you age. The cumulative effects of stress, toxins to which you’ve been exposed, possible weight gain over the years (fat is an inflammatory tissue) and unhealthy habits may contribute to the above disease processes.
Good to know
It’s important to know that there’s no substitute for a healthy lifestyle. Regularly exercising, not smoking, controlling your weight, following a healthy diet and managing your stress levels can go a long way towards keeping chronic inflammation in check.
Speak to your doctor about your risk for chronic inflammation and inflammatory disease. Don’t delay getting treatment if you think you may already have one of the diseases mentioned in this article.
By Carine Visagie
The Content on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.