To spot the signs of inflammation, you first need to understand the different kinds of inflammation. We’ve all experienced inflammation—the redness, pain and swelling that happens when you cut your finger or sprain your ankle. This kind of acute inflammation is a normal and necessary part of the immune system’s response to damage in the cells or tissues, caused by injury, pathogens or other toxins. Acute inflammation is short-lived; once the threat is neutralized or contained, pain, swelling, redness and inflammation subside.
But chronic inflammation is an entirely different matter. A variety of factors, including untreated infection or injury, low-grade irritants, autoimmune disorder or unhealthy diet and lifestyle, can lead to ongoing, systemic inflammation. Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation isn’t self-limiting—and that’s a problem. Left unchecked, inflammation damages healthy cells, tissues and organs and, over time, increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
The scary part; chronic inflammation is sneaky, with often subtle signs—and it manifests differently from person to person, making it that much harder to recognize. Here are 8 signs of inflammation to watch for:
1. You’re achy and weak
It’s normal to be a little stiff and sore after a vigorous workout. But if muscle aches, joint pain and weakness are a way of life, you may be chronically inflamed. Elevated levels of inflammatory chemicals impact muscle and joint issue, and ongoing, low-grade pain and can limit strength and manifest as weakness. And inflammatory disorders like rheumatoid arthritis can affect other tissues and organs and, left untreated, may lead to lasting damage.
2. You’re itchy all over
Other signs of inflammation include itchy, irritated skin, swollen red patches or a rash that just won’t quit? Short-term inflammation from sun exposure, allergens or chemical irritants in soaps or lotion resolves within a week or two, without significant tissue damage. But skin problems that don’t resolve may signal chronic inflammatory conditions like eczema, psoriasis, rosacea or seborrheic dermatitis; even acne is linked with systemic inflammation.
3. You’re an apple, not a pear
Excess weight predisposes the body to inflammation and increases the likelihood of chronic illness and disease. But where fat accumulates seems to play a role. Studies suggest “apple” shapes—people who carry fat in the abdomen—have a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and other conditions than “pear-shaped” folks who store their weight in the hips and thighs. One possible reason: fat cells inside the abdomen secrete molecules that boost inflammation and increase the likelihood of disease.
4. You’re super phlegmy
Constantly coughing, clearing your throat or blowing your nose—even when you’re not sick? Inflammatory respiratory conditions like allergies, asthma, bronchitis and some lung diseases are linked with increased mucus production. When mucus membranes that run from the nasal cavities to the lungs are inflamed, they amp up production of phlegm as a way to protect delicate cells in the lining of the respiratory system. The result: excess mucus, coughing, sneezing and throat-clearing.
5. You’re tired, all the time
Day-after-day exhaustion and fatigue, even if you’ve had plenty of sleep, is one of the signs of inflammation. When your body’s constantly inflamed, the immune system remains on alert, expending excessive energy and reducing nutrient availability—and, thus, the body’s overall availability of energy. And studies link chronic fatigue syndrome with low-grade inflammation in the central nervous system and increased levels of pro-inflammatory chemicals.
6. It hurts to floss
Redness, swelling, tenderness and bleeding in your gums may be a sign of a more serious condition. Gingivitis—inflammation of the gums caused by a buildup of plaque—is common, relatively mild and easy to fix. But left untreated, it can lead to periodontitis—a destructive and aggressive inflammatory gum disease. Left untreated, it can damage tissue, destroy bones that support the teeth and lead to tooth loss. Periodontitis has also been linked with serious diseases, including respiratory disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cognitive impairment, obesity, metabolic syndrome and cancer. And people with periodontal disease have two to three times the risk of heart attack, stroke or other serious cardiovascular events.
7. You’re gassy and bloated
It might not be something you ate: frequent digestive disturbances like bloating, gas, cramping, constipation or irregular bowel movements may mean your gut’s inflamed. Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and other inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are characterized by intestinal inflammation, damage to the epithelial cells lining the gut and changes in gut bacteria; over time, that can lead to increased intestinal permeability, or leaky gut syndrome—a condition in which bacteria and toxins pass through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream, prompting more inflammation and creating a vicious cycle.
8. You just can’t shake the blues
Depression, low mood and hard-to-shake blues may be the brain’s response to inflammation. Studies show people with depression have higher levels of inflammatory markers; other research suggests inflammation has specific effects on the brain and behavior, directly impacting neurotransmitter systems and regions of the brain associated with motivation, arousal and mood. Plus, chronic pain caused by systemic inflammation is linked with a higher rate of depression.
Tame the flame: 6 supplements that ease inflammation
- Curcumin, the primary active compound in turmeric root; look for supplements with black pepper extract to boost absorption.
- Boswellia, from the resin of the Boswellia serrata tree native to India; black pepper extract also improves boswellia absorption.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon, sardines and other fatty fish; look for supplements with high levels of DHA and EPA.
- Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), a vitamin-like antioxidant that’s naturally produced by the body; take it on an empty stomach to enhance absorption.
- Ginger root, a member of the Zingiberaceae family, related to turmeric; choose capsules or tinctures, or use fresh ginger root.
- Resveratrol, a polyphenol antioxidant in red wine, grapes and peanuts; look for high-potency formulations to maximize effectiveness.
Read on to learn more about supplements that support your whole system including inflammation and beyond: