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Chronic Inflammation & Chronic Disease

Chronic InflammationMost allergy and asthma sufferers are all too familiar with inflammation, but you may not realize that inflammation also plays a key role in arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and many others. Over the past few decades, scientists have realized that the process of inflammation is virtually the same in different diseases, and a better understanding of inflammation may lead to better treatments for numerous diseases.Inflammation is a hot topic in medical research. Just last month, researchers at U.C. San Diego found a link between inflammation and cancer in the form of a specific protein. In a seperate study last month, psychiatrists at King's College in London found that people who were physically or sexually abused as children are twice as likely to have inflammatory proteins in their blood. And in yet another study released last month in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, researchers found that men who took a single aspirin (an anti-inflammatory drug) every other day were 22 percent less likely to develop asthma than those who did not.

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation is the activation of the immune system in response to infection, irritation, or injury. Characterized by an influx of white blood cells, redness, heat, swelling, pain, and dysfunction of the organs involved, inflammation has different names when it appears in different parts of the body. Most allergy and asthma sufferers are familiar with rhinitis (inflammation of the nose), sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses), and asthma (inflammation of the airways), but inflammation is also behind arthritis (inflammation of the joints), dermatitis (inflammation of the skin), and so on.

In the case of allergies, the immune system responds to the presence of an allergen, a normally harmless substance to which it has become overly sensitive. Allergens bind to antibodies, which trigger the release of chemicals like histamine that result in allergy symptoms. In the case of asthma, inflammation causes the airways to swell, making breathing difficult.

As the initial response that fires up the immune system, inflammation is the crucial first step in fighting off infection and healing wounds. However, when inflammation persists - when the immune system is always activated - this is known as chronic inflammation and can lead to chronic disease.

Inflammation & Alzheimer's Disease

Allergists and immunologists aren't the only medical specialists interested in inflammation these days. In the journal Neurology in 1997, neurologists presented research that people who had been regularly taking anti-inflammatory medicine like Ibuprofen had much lower rates of Alzheimer's disease. In the New England Journal of Medicine in 2001, a study showed an 80% reduction in risk of Alzheimer's among those taking anti-inflammatory medicines daily for two years. Linda Van Eldik, neurobiologist at Northwestern University School of Medicine, explains that whenever the brain is injured or irritated, glial cells pump out cytokines, chemical signals to begin the inflammatory process. However, "in chronic neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, these glial cells are actived too high or too long or both," says Van Eldik.

Inflammation & Heart Disease

Inflammation also plays a role in heart disease because the immune system attacks LDL "bad" cholesterol that has been embedded in arterial walls. Ongoing inflammation eventually damages the arteries, which can cause them to burst. In fact, inflammation is so closely associated with heart disease that many doctors now use use a test for inflammation called CRP (C-reactive protein) to assess a person's risk of heart attack. Research shows that CRP can predict the risk of heart attack and stroke as well or better than cholesterol levels.

Inflammation & Diabetes

Inflammation has been linked to diabetes as well. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the cells that make insulin. Children who have allergies are less likely to develop type 1 diabetes.

"Children with type 1 diabetes are less likely to get asthma, eczema, or hay fever," says pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene, MD. "And the reverse is true, that those with asthma, eczema, or hay fever are less likely to get type 1 diabetes."

"One possible explanation for this is the imbalance between two types of immune cells, T-helper 1 cells and T-helper 2 cells. In children with diabetes, the balance tends to favor T-helper 1 cells; in those with asthma, T-helper 2 cells. It's difficult for one child to have both."

Type II diabetes is also linked to inflammation, as chronic inflammation releases TNF (tumor necrosis factor), which makes cells more resistant to insulin.

"No one would have thought these things were related," but they are, says Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Inflammation & Cancer

Last month, researchers in the journal Cell presented their findings about what could be the long-elusive mechanism through which inflammation can promote cancer.

"Although there is plenty of evidence that chronic inflammation can promote cancer, the cause of this relationship is not understood," says Alexander Hoffmann, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at U.C. San Diego, who led the study. "We have identified a basic cellular mechanism that we think may be linking chronic inflammation and cancer."

A protein called p100 allows communication between the inflammation and development processes. Some amount of dialogue is beneficial, but too much dialogue (which results from chronic inflammation) can lead to unrestrained development (cancer).

"Studies with animals have shown that a little inflammation is necessary for the normal development of the immune system and other organ systems," explains Hoffmann. "We discovered that the protein p100 provides the cell with a way in which inflammation can influence development. But there can be too much of a good thing. In the case of chronic inflammation, the presence of too much p100 may over activate the developmental pathway, resulting in cancer."

How to Extinguish Chronic Inflammation

Anti-inflammatory MedicationsOf course, various medications help inflammatory conditions. Aspirin is one of the oldest anti-inflammatory medications, and many people take it to prevent heart attack and stroke. Ibuprofen, as mentioned earlier, may help protect against Alzheimer's disease. However, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents) such as aspirin and ibuprofen can have significant side effects like liver damage.

Fortunately, you can also lower inflammation levels through lifestyle changes. It all goes back to the fundamentals of taking care of yourself: nutrition, exercise, healthy sleep, and a positive attitude.

Positive Attitude

Inflamation in KidsWhat does a positive attitude have to do with decreasing inflammation? Last month, psychiatrists at King's College in London found that people who were physically or sexually abused as children are twice as likely to have significant levels of CRP. This explains why abused children show a higher incident of heart disease and diabetes as adults. The stress of ongoing abuse produces inflammation that will have repercussions later in life.

"Inflammation is a natural response to physical trauma, such as cutting yourself or getting an infection," explains psychiatrist Andrea Danese. "But psychological stress can also trigger inflammation, since stress is really the anticipation of pain."

Psychological stress triggers inflammation. So if you're stressed, chill out! Find your own effective methods of stress relief.

Healthy Sleep

Harvard Medical School reports that sleep disorders and heart trouble go hand in hand. Poor sleep increases levels of CRP (inflammation). See The Importance of Healthy Sleep to learn how to achieve healthy sleep.


ExerciseIn 2006, Tufts University scientist Andrew Greenberg found that as fat cells reach their maximum size, they break down and die, then specialized immune cells called macrophages rush in to clean up the debris. Macrophages are responsible for most of the inflammatory chemicals released in fat tissue.

"When fat cells die, macrophages surround the dead lipids the same way white cells surround a wooden splinter in your skin," Greenberg says. "The immune system is essentially surrounding and sequestering the dead fat cells and gorging on the leftover lipids and cellular debris."

Inflammation from excess fat cells explains why obesity complicates arthritis, insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease. Exercise regularly to lose those excess fat cells and extinguish the associated inflammation.


Some foods can actually cause inflammation in people who are sensitive to them. Food sensitivities, also known as food intolerances or hidden food allergies, have been linked to asthma, eczema, migraines, and many other conditions. Find out which common foods may be inflaming your digestive system with the ALCAT Food Sensitivity Home Kit.

Other foods have anti-inflammatory properties. UltraPrevention.com lists the following as anti-inflammatory foods and herbs:

  • Ginger
  • Curcumin
  • Rosemary
  • Basil
  • Cherries
Inflamation and Food

Allergen Avoidance

If you have allergies or asthma, the easiest, most effective way to prevent inflammation is to avoid your environmental triggers. Since you spend a third of your life in bed, Allergy Armor allergy relief bedding is your first line of defense. Other products designed to help you avoid allergens include air purifiers, allergy relief masks, HEPA vacuum cleaners, dehumidifiers, and special cleaning products. See our interactive solution guides for more information about specific allergens:

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Allergy Consumer Report.

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