Chronic Low-Grade Inflammation: Causes and effects

By Ellen S. Gibson

Master Gardener Volunteer picking fresh produceThe November 2019 issue of the AARP Bulletin1 has an article by Mike Zimmerman that cites chronic low-grade inflammation as a causal factor for a wide range of illnesses associated with aging. A list of these ailments is diverse and harrowing. It includes dementia, depression, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, as well as autoimmune diseases such as Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis. How is it that so many different illnesses all have a common denominator? The answer lies in the cellular response to inflammatory triggers.

Some triggers are good, some are not

You can divide inflammation into two types. One is as a natural and important cellular response to combat injuries and fight viral and bacterial infections. This is acute inflammation. Acute inflammation is triggered as a result of a specific problem—like a sprained ankle. Your ankle swells up because the cells are producing what they need to take care of the problem. Once the response is successful, the trigger goes away.

There is another kind of insidious, chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation triggers an unnecessary cellular response. Instead of healing the body, it causes continual, unwarranted stimulation at the cellular level. It stresses and damages healthy cells, and this is why chronic inflammation is now being correlated with a whole litany of poor health outcomes.

How do you know if you have chronic inflammation? This is highly individual. There are tests available, and you can ask your doctor if testing is appropriate for you. There are over-the counter anti-inflammatory medicines, but these have damaging side-effects of their own and are not recommended to be taken on a long-term basis.

What may be the most useful is to spend a little time considering your overall health. What you can do to improve it? Consider the following list.

Keep it simple.

  1. Eat more vegetables. Count your colors every day; the food on your plate should be as colorful as the rainbow and include red, orange, yellow, blue, green, and purple (flavonoids, not artificial colors!)
  2. Eat more fish. Support Maine fishermen!
  3. Eat less sugar. This is easier said than done because sugar is highly addictive. It’s in a lot of processed foods. Look at the dietary information on the side panel of whatever food you are eating to see how many grams of sugar are contained in a serving. Divide the number of grams by 4 to convert to teaspoons per serving. (For reference, the recommended amount of sugar consumption daily for women is six (6) teaspoons, and for men it is nine (9) teaspoons.)
  4. Drink less sugar. There’s a lot of sugar in soft drinks. It’s not uncommon for a 12 oz. can of soda to have 48 grams of sugar. Divide by 4 and you can see that you will be consuming 12 teaspoons of sugar per can, or 1 teaspoon per oz.
  5. Eat more real food. That is, food that you make at home from scratch. Bring back sit down suppers at the kitchen table with the whole family.
  6. Get more exercise. Move! Walk, run, dance. Practice tai chi, karate, yoga, Pilates. Swim, climb, ski. Play water polo, basketball, soccer. Go horseback riding. Lift weights. Stack some wood. Vacuum the house to jazzy music. Don’t worry about how much. Just start. Your strength will build. You will feel better. Bonus: exercise is great for the brain, increasing focus and improving memory.
  7. Play more. When was the last time you played a game of cards? Jumped into a pile of leaves? Danced wildly in the kitchen? Just acted silly and laughed and laughed? Play is as necessary for adults as it is for kids.
  8. Cultivate gratitude. If it sounds trendy or new-age, so be it. It’s really an ancient practice and can provide perspective when the world seems like it’s going haywire.
  9. Get more sleep. Zimmerman says, “It not only lowers your inflammation levels, it also helps you do everything else better.” Rest helps you deal with stress, gives you more energy for exercise and helps you make better decisions on how to live your best life.

I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s empowering to realize that there are many choices I can make that are good for me, partly because they will reduce chronic inflammation.

Making changes can be difficult, but it’s no picnic to feel crappy all the time. Think about what you do to take care of yourself and how you feel as a result.

Stay well.

1Zimmeman, M. (2019, November) The Cure for Everything. AARP Bulletin, volume 60, 11-18.