Inflammation. It’s often blamed for a number of diseases, including long-haul Covid. But what exactly is it, and what can you do about it?
Inflammation refers to the body’s process of fighting things that harm it in an attempt to heal itself. Basically, it’s the immune system’s response to stimuli that are perceived to be harmful. There are distinct types of inflammation, acute and chronic.
Acute inflammation is cells responding to an attack – from a cut, to a burn, to a bacterial or viral invasion. It can last for a few hours to a few days and needs constant stimulus to keep going. So, if you accidentally stab your finger with a rusty nail, your body responds with redness, pain, heat and swelling — four typical signs of acute inflammation. Extra blood flows to the area to provide antibodies, clotting proteins and specialist cells to ingest and dispose of any toxic microbes. The damaged tissue is basically being isolated and readied for repair. Once the toxins are removed and all the bacteria are eliminated from a careful cleaning, the inflammation goes away because it has done its job.
Chronic inflammation is not as useful and welcome. It can consist of both high-grade and low-grade inflammation. People with rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, asthma and psoriasis experience high-grade chronic inflammation in their joints, intestine lining, lungs and skin respectively. Inflammatory diseases are often treated with anti-inflammatories, although success varies.
Low-grade chronic inflammation, sometimes called systemic inflammation, is associated with a number of conditions, including cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s disease, age-related macular degeneration, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. With low-grade inflammation, compounds associated with inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), interlueken-6 (IL-6) and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-a), are found in the bloodstream at higher or lower levels than normal.
Inflammation and Long-haul COVID
Inflammation may also hold clues to post-COVID syndrome, also known as long-haul COVID. In studies of these patients, evidence of sustained inflammation and activation of the immune response for at least 8 months after initial infection has been uncovered. While inflammation is a critical part of recovery, helping the body get rid of the source of damage and repair injured tissue, too much of it can have unwanted effects. This is especially true when the inflammation persists beyond any actual outside threat. Researchers continue to examine the role of inflammation in post-COVID syndrome.
What are the Symptoms?
Chronic inflammation can be caused by untreated causes of acute inflammation, like an infection or injury; an autoimmune disorder, obesity, smoking, chronic stress, or long-term exposure to irritants, although some cases of chronic inflammation don’t have a clear underlying cause.
Acute inflammation often causes noticeable symptoms, like pain, redness, or swelling. But chronic inflammation symptoms are usually much more subtle. This makes them easy to overlook. Common symptoms of chronic inflammation include: fatigue, body pain, depression or anxiety, gastrointestinal issues, weight gain or loss, balance problems, insulin resistance, muscle issues, and persistent infections.
There are a few key things you can do to reduce chronic low-grade inflammation:
Eat an anti-inflammatory diet – focus on a diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, olive oil, omega-3 fats, and fish; and low in sugars, high GI carbs, saturated fats such as butter and other animal fats, red meat, poultry and dairy products.
Boost intake of anti-inflammatories – These superfoods help reduce inflammation: Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, berries, black and green tea, olive and avocado oils, herbs and spices, especially garlic, ginger, and turmeric.
Drink water — Staying properly hydrated is probably the easiest way to reduce inflammation. If your body is getting enough water, your joints will move more freely and easily — leading to less pain.
Exercise moderately – Studies show that intense exercise can lead, in general, to higher levels of inflammatory mediators, and may increase the risk of injury and chronic inflammation. In contrast, moderate exercise or vigorous exercise with appropriate resting periods can achieve maximum benefit, so if you are fighting inflammation, exercise in moderate amounts.
Manage Anxiety and Stress – Stress and anxiety are known to aggravate inflammation, due to the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses functions like the immune response and digestion and fuels the production of glucose. Try relaxation techniques, such as meditation and yoga, to relax and lower cortisol levels.
Go Easy on Alcohol — Too much alcohol can raise toxin levels in your body, which turn on inflammation. If you drink at all, do so in moderation, which according to the CDC, it’s no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.d
Stop Smoking — Nicotine activates certain white blood cells which release inflammatory molecules and cause increased inflammation throughout the body.
Inflammation can increase your risk of several serious diseases, so it’s important to reduce it when possible. Medication, keeping stress levels low, exercise, and following a low-inflammation diet may all help reduce chronic inflammation. Of course, before making any major lifestyle changes, it’s always best to speak with your doctor who may be able to diagnose inflammation using blood tests.
Authored by Zach Meeker, Research Assistant for Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush University Medical Center
Cerqueira, E., Marinho, D., Neiva, H., Lourenco, O. “Inflammatory Effects of High and Moderate Intensity Exercise—A Systematic Review”. Frontiers in Physiology, 2020 Jan 9;10:1550.
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