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Inflammation: in check or out of control?

Woman holding an ice gel pack over an ankle injury.

read time: 5 min


Health & Wellness

Is inflammation the redness of a bug bite? The tenderness of a sore muscle? Or is it the discomfort of feeling bloated? The answer is: yes, yes, yes, plus so much more.

You depend on inflammation to protect your body. Yet, if the body isn’t in great condition to start with, inflammation can get out of control and lead to a variety of long-term health risks. Uncover the facts about inflammation—what it is, how it works, and warning signs—along with information on testing that can help bring other conditions to light. We’ll also share tips to help reverse inflammation when it gets out of balance.


Acute vs chronic inflammation

Acute inflammation causes the redness, warmth, swelling, and pain you feel when you cut yourself, get a splinter, or twist your ankle. It’s a good thing. As part of the normal healing process, white blood cells are mobilized to battle the invading bacteria. Once the threat is overcome, the attack stops.

But when inflammation sticks around for too long, it can become chronic as tissues and the lining of blood vessels are silently damaged. Chronic inflammation is linked to many health problems, including heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, autoimmune disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.


Inflammation can start anywhere

Chronic inflammation can originate anywhere in the body and turn dangerous. How? Let’s break down just one example by starting with your teeth:


Bacteria buildup on your teeth can lead to a gum infection, then your immune system attacks the infection and the gums become inflamed. (So far, so good.) 


But that acute inflammation in the mouth can seep into your bloodstream, where it triggers inflammation in the blood vessels. It can then build up a waxy substance called plaque inside the walls of arteries. (Well, that’s worrisome.) 


In some cases, the plaque can break open, causing the body to send out white blood cells to attack the harmful plaque and seal it off by clotting the blood. (OK, that doesn’t sound all bad.)


But if the blood clot is too large, it can block blood flow. (Don’t like where this is going.)


And blocked blood flow can cause a heart attack or stroke. (Yikes, not good at all.)

That entire chain reaction was set off by inflammation in the mouth. But it never needs to go that far. The everyday act of brushing and flossing can help prevent a gum infection in the first place. If you do experience red, irritated, or bleeding gums, see your dentist promptly.

That’s just one example. Inflammation can be anywhere and everywhere. Painful chronic inflammation in your joints may be a sign of arthritis, lupus, or gout. Constipation, heartburn, and diarrhea can be indicators of inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn disease and ulcerative colitis. If you’re experiencing any unexplained inflammation symptoms, talk to your doctor so you can get to the bottom of it.

6 signs of chronic inflammation

It’s important to reduce chronic inflammation, but you may not realize you have it if you aren’t watching out for the warning signs. Of course, overwhelming symptoms like chest pain, difficulty breathing, and extreme weakness should send you right to the emergency department. But not all symptoms will be that obvious. Any of the following symptoms are worth talking to your doctor about:

• Weight gain

• Frequent or lingering infections

• Chronic fatigue and trouble sleeping

• Mood changes, like depression and anxiety

• Pain in the muscles, joints, and spine

• Constipation, diarrhea, and acid reflux


Detect inflammation through testing 

Even seemingly healthy people can have hidden inflammation and be at risk for associated conditions. Whether or not you have clear symptoms, there are tests that can assess the level of inflammation “biomarkers” in your body. Done regularly over time, measuring for low but consistent levels of one biomarker called “C-reactive protein” (CRP) can give you a more complete picture of overall health risks. In fact, high-sensitivity CRP inflammation testing is often used to assess the risk of heart disease.


Tips to reverse inflammation

Now that you know how to spot signs of inflammation and diagnose it through testing, you can fight back. Consider these tips to help your body reverse inflammation.

Get consistent with sleep

Try to get about 7-9 hours of sleep a night.1 Those who get fewer2 or more hours3 of sleep are shown to have higher levels of inflammation biomarker CRP.
African American woman sleeping peacefully

Start moving

Just 20 minutes of moderate exercise a day has a direct effect on decreasing inflammation.4 And exercise comes with bonus points by lowering blood pressure, helping to reduce or manage weight, and reducing the risk for type 2 diabetes.
Fit, young African American woman working out with hand weights.

Eat well

Calm inflammation by following the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, lean proteins, and olive oil. Eating berries, nuts, leafy greens, and fatty fish reduces the risk of inflammation leading to heart disease. Avoid or limit sugary, fried, and processed foods and drinks, red meat, and white bread.5
 Salad with avocado, spinach, pomegranate, and sesame on a plate.


The aging factor

Keeping inflammation to a minimum can help reduce health risks as you age. One study of people who lived to age 100 or beyond suggests that inflammation might be the limiting factor between those who don’t reach advanced age and those who do—even more than heredity.6

Just as it takes a while for inflammation in the body to build and cause damage, inflammation won’t go away overnight. But smart lifestyle changes now will give you a fighting chance to prevent or delay a variety of serious health conditions, so you can live better, longer.



1 National Institute of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How Much Sleep Is Enough? Updated March 24, 2022. Accessed December 5, 2023.

2 Emory University. Poor sleep quality increases inflammation, community study finds. ScienceDaily. Published November 15, 2010. Accessed December 5, 2023.

3 Prather AA, Vogelzangs N, Penninx BWJH. Sleep duration, insomnia, and markers of systemic inflammation: Results from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA). J Psychiatr Res. 2015;60:95-102. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2014.09.018

4 Dimitrov S, Hulteng E, Hong S. Inflammation and exercise: Inhibition of monocytic intracellular TNF production by acute exercise via β2-adrenergic activation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 2017;61:60-68. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2016.12.017

5 Estruch R, Martínez-González MA, Corella D, et al. Effects of a Mediterranean-Style Diet on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Randomized Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. Published July 4, 2006. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-145-1-200607040-00004

6 Arai Y, Martin-Ruiz C, Takayama M, et al. Inflammation, but not telomere length, predicts successful ageing at extreme old age: a longitudinal study of semi-supercentenarians. EBioMedicine. 2015;2(10):1549-1558. doi:10.1016/j.ebiom.2015.07.029

Page Published: March 07, 2024

The Quest Editorial Team

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