As they hang out there over time, they can cause damage to nearby organs, says Veena Taneja, Ph.D., an associate professor of immunology at the Mayo Clinic. Since this is all happening internally, you don’t tend to feel symptoms of chronic inflammation until it turns into something bigger.
In particular, chronic inflammation been linked to a number of autoimmune diseases, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. More research needs to be done to determine the role that inflammation plays in these diseases (e.g. is it causation or merely correlation?), but the prevailing scientific thought is that we should try and decrease chronic inflammation. The question is, how?
Your Action Plan
Some people have genes that predispose them to inflammatory responses, which we have little control over, Taneja says. Luckily, researchers are starting to uncover ways that we can limit chronic inflammation.
Anti-inflammatory diets are all the rage today. “Foods with anti-inflammatory properties include those that are naturally fatty, naturally leafy, contain protein, and contain fiber,” Hegazi says. A number of small studies have found that foods often associated with the Mediterranean diet (tomatoes, leafy greens, nuts, fish, olive oil) reduced chronic inflammation in test subjects. But Peter Bloomfield, a neuroscience researcher at Imperial College London, and Marion both caution that these findings are only preliminary and cannot be thought of as cure-alls at the moment.
Reach for a bottle of turmeric, mangosteen, or cat’s claw, and you’ll find they all tout their anti-inflammatory properties. These supplements are common parts of treatment regimens prescribed by integrative medicine practitioners like Douglas Lord, M.D., the medical director at Nava Health and Vitality Center. Lord says he’s found success using these supplements with patients, and an initial batch of studies backs up these claims. But Taneja and Bloomfield again note that research needs to be more substantial before drawing a direct connection between supplements and lowered inflammation.
If you need another reason to ditch cigarettes, put chronic inflammation at the top of your list. Most smokers experience background inflammation for years after they quit, Taneja says. On the other hand, moderately intense exercise can help decrease inflammation—so now you have another motivation to get your sweat on.
4. Future Treatments
Just a few years ago, science had a huge breakthrough in the study of inflammation: Turns out, it might come from our gut. More specifically, Taneja says, from our gut microbiome—the combination of bacteria in our digestive tract. Taneja has conducted research that found one type of bacteria prevented or halted rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis in mice. Next step: Test it on humans.
While new findings about inflammation and the gut are exciting, we have more questions than answers at this point. But if you suspect you are dealing with chronic inflammation or one of the possibly related diseases, it’s worth consulting with your doctor.