This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.
☑️ Evidence Based — Medical review by Po-Chang Hsu, M.D.
The CDC broadly defines chronic diseases as illnesses that last more than one year. In contrast to infectious diseases, the cause of chronic diseases is usually not viral infections, microbes, or other environmental pathogens. Instead, chronic conditions often develop as we age. However, we can influence them with our lifestyle and diet.
Behavioral factors like physical inactivity can undermine a person’s overall health and increase the risk of chronic conditions, especially in adults who do not follow proper dietary guidelines.
In this article, we will explore the link between inflammation and chronic disease to understand how factors like anti-inflammatory foods and dietary choices may improve our health, reduce the need for anti-inflammatory medication, and assist in the prevention of several conditions that are often unwelcome byproducts of aging.
Inflammation and Chronic Disease: An Inextricable Link
When we think about inflammation, we usually envision swelling, redness, and sometimes pain or itching. On a molecular level, the body’s inflammatory processes involve signaling pathways and substances, receptors, inflammatory cells, and target tissues.
Here is how it works: Inflammatory cells detect particles and react against them by creating inflammatory substances. These substances act as a signal for the neighboring cells to increase blood flow, the permeability of the blood vessels, and the leaking of white blood cells into the affected tissue.
When your body has to sustain these processes for a long period of time, we call it chronic inflammation, and it causes progressive modifications of the affected tissues. Over time, this can degrade your health and lead to the development of chronic diseases (1).
For example, inflammation contributes to the aging brain in a process that scientists call “inflammaging,” and it may be one of the factors behind several age-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, atherosclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and other health problems (2).
Inflammation is also a known mediator of chronic pulmonary diseases, the leading player in asthma, and an aggravating factor in rheumatic diseases like arthritis. It is also linked to increased risk for chronic kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, and several gastrointestinal problems (such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis). Inflammation is even related to metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, diabetes mellitus, and cancer (3).
Inflammation and Cancer
To better explain how inflammation influences the development of chronic diseases, let’s take a look at two widespread health problems that affect millions of people every year: cancer and diabetes.
Scientists have discovered that even low-grade inflammation plays a vital role in the development and progression of cancer. Cancer feeds off inflammation, so to speak, because inflammatory mediators increase the blood flow to provide nutrients to cancer cells (3). As a result, chronic inflammation may be one of the risk factors associated with prostate cancer, breast cancer, gastric cancer, and other manifestations of the disease.
Some inflammatory mediators are therapeutic when the body releases them in normal concentrations, but they start to create health problems when they are unregulated. For example, there is a molecule called tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), which has anticancer potential when secreted by white blood cells as part of the immune response system (4). However, it feeds cancer and fuels many other health issues when cancer cells release it disproportionately (5).
Inflammation and Diabetes
On the other hand, the link between inflammation and diabetes is a bit more complicated. So here is a simplified version:
As part of the body’s metabolism, a substance called the insulin receptor substrate 1 (IRS-1) plays a significant role in receiving the signal of insulin. Without it, the body becomes resistant to insulin, and the pancreas needs to release extra insulin to compensate. At some point, the pancreas would start failing due to the e