It’s skincare’s latest buzzword: Chronic inflammation. Everyone from dermatologists and endocrinologists to physical trainers and nutritionists are reaching out for this term to explain (and treat) skin problems like acne, eczema, wrinkles, fine lines, dullness and sagging.
And that’s not all: Chronic inflammation is also a key reason behind deep rooted diseases such as diabetes, auto-immune disorders, heart trouble, and even Alzheimer’s.
But what is chronic inflammation? And is it really as bad as we are led to believe by a slew of specialists and celebrity lifestyle pros?
What is inflammation?
At the most basic level, inflammation is our body’s response to any foreign organism or injury. For instance, suppose you are stung by a wasp. This punctures the skin and also releases a flood of foreign chemicals inside our body. When this happens, our body calls upon certain blood cells and natural chemicals to isolate and destroy the invaders. Consequently, the area around the bite gets swollen. Once the attack has been negated, the swelling subsides.
This swelling and the process which brings it about is inflammation – of the good kind.
Sometimes, this process is not visible to the naked eye. Like when our body is dealing with an internal problem such as food poisoning or a cold. That’s when we have internal inflammation, which works to isolate and heal the organs inside our body.
Again, this is good inflammation. In fact, it’s necessary inflammation, without which our body would not be able to get rid of bacteria or virus and heal itself.
When does inflammation become ‘bad’?
Sometimes, our body makes a mistake and starts treating its own organs as if they are foreign invaders. This kind of inflammation exists even when there is no wound or infection that needs healing.
It starts creating a swelling under the skin or around our vital organs – such as the heart or liver – putting extra pressure on them (think of it as an extra layer of fat or mucus that’s squeezing the organs), while simultaneously blocking optimal supply of nutrients.
This is known as internal chronic inflammation and unlike external inflammation, it is trickier to spot and treat. In fact, you may live with chronic inflammation for several years and not realise it at all.
If you lead a busy lifestyle, live in a polluted city, spend time in the sun, are exposed to chemical irritants (including those found in beauty products), indulge in bouts of junk food or alcohol, or have high stress levels, you’re at a high risk of chronic inflammation.
What happens when you have chronic inflammation?
A lot! As Annee de Mamiel, acupuncturist, aromatherapist, healing holistic facialist, and creator of the most luscious skincare products I have ever come across (including those that deal with inflammation), explains: “Skin-wise, chronic inflammation releases a group of enzymes called Matrix Metallo Proteinases (MMP’s). Among other things, MMPs break down healthy collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid, which are crucial to skin health. The breakdown of these tissues lead to disorganised and clumped-up fibres.”
Marie Reynolds, the celebrated wellness and skin health expert, adds: “Inflammation increases pH, and increases mucus in the body, which in turn creates a breeding ground for bacteria, virus and fungus. All of which impact the skin and influence the epidermal flora and fauna.”
Cue: Your complexion starts piling on the acne, sallowness, puffiness, lack of radiance, loss of smoothness, fine lines, dark circles, wrinkles and sagging. If left untreated, it manifests in more chronic skin problems such as dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema and rosacea.
And that’s not all: Chronic inflammation is also a known factor in diabetes, heart disease, dementia, irritable bowel, arthritis, cancer, stroke, asthma and a whole lot of other ailments.
Do I have chronic inflammation?
Internal inflammation is difficult to spot and tricky to treat – especially since we don’t have enough doctors looking out for the symptoms.
Annee gives us quite a comprehensive list of what to look out for:
Excess weight around your waist: Fat cells in the abdomen churn out inflammatory chemicals. So, the more belly fat you have, the more of these chemicals they create.
Digestive issues: Problems like gas, diarrhoea, bloating, or constipation can stem from a sick, inflamed, overly permeable gut – and a leaky gut that allows toxins to escape into your bloodstream is one of the leading cause of chronic, body-wide inflammation.
You feel tired all the time: Inflamed cells are sick cells, and they can’t produce the energy you need to feel refreshed and invigorated. As a result, you feel fatigued even when you first get out of bed. And by afternoon, you are often exhausted.
Skin problems: Issues like eczema, psoriasis, redness, blotchiness, allergies, worsening hay fever, a puffy face, and bags under your eyes could be an external sign of internal fire. This is why there’s a strong link between psoriasis and inflammatory conditions that manifest internally, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Gum disease: This is another outward clue of internal inflammation.
Feeling down, anxious, or suffering from brain fog: Inflammation can affect your brain chemistry, causing changes in how you think and feel.
Elevated blood sugar levels: High blood sugar increases the numbers of inflammatory cytokines circulating in your blood. Sugar also attaches to collagen, which makes the collagen hard and stiff, in a process known as glycation.
Clinically, you can do a blood test – like Elevated High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (HS-CRP) – which can reveal what’s happening in your body.
So, how do I tackle chronic inflammation?
Luckily, it is possible to keep inflammation in check with small lifestyle changes – whether for your looks or your health.
Slim down: When you are overweight, the body pumps out more of the chemicals that cause inflammation. Belly fat is particularly dangerous – it is estimated that up to 40% of the fat cells in our bellies are producing inflammatory chemicals. Lose the excess weight NOW!
Exercise regularly: Any physical exercise releases chemicals that decrease both pain and inflammation. So, get moving!
But don’t overdo it: Reynolds also warns against over-exercising as stressing the body too much will also release inflammatory chemicals into the blood stream. “A happy medium is best,” she explains. “Ground yourself… walk barefoot in the park, if that makes you happy.”
Eat better: When you eat refined sugars or starches, there is a rapid rise in blood sugar. This, in turn, causes insulin levels to rise. And when insulin levels are high, it kicks up an inflammatory response. If this happens often, the body enters a state of chronic inflammation. The solution? Switch to an anti-inflammatory diet. This would include lots of leafy greens, fruits and spices for the antioxidants; essential, monounsaturated fats, like those found in nuts and olive oil; and high alkaline content foods such as avocados, leafy greens, soya beans, radish and broccoli.
Get a health checkup: Untreated infections, like bronchitis or tooth decay, can create chronic inflammation.
Put on the SPF: When UV rays penetrate our skin cells, they sets off inflammatory reactions. In fact, sunburn itself is an inflammatory reaction. One of the best ways to prevent this kind of inflammation is to use sunscreen every day.
Add on a layer of antioxidant skincare: According to Annee, “Research shows that these first and second generation antioxidants interrupt the inflammation cascade at different steps.” My personal favorite: de Mamiel’s own Intense Nurture Antioxidant Elixir, which combines silky botanical oils with aromatherapy for a double-pronged approach.
Manage your stress: Stress increases cortisol levels, which regulate the body’s anti-inflammatory response. While stress is an inevitable part of urban living, we can still minimise its effects by getting adequate sleep, exercising, meditating, aromatherapy, and getting professional counselling.
Quit smoking: Smoking causes diseases such as bronchitis, which lead to long term inflammation. Another reason to quit!