Chronic Inflammation and Your Immune Health

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It is a hot, hot, HOT month…and I don’t mean in a sexy sense.

Right now, we are a country divided, inflamed with anger, frustration, anxiety, fear and confusion. What information is accurate? Who can we trust? How can we be proactive about our health?

When our bodies are INFLAMED by emotion, physical or environmental stressors, our levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, spike sky high. A continuously high level of cortisol triggers a hormonal cascade that promotes inflammation in the body.

Speaking of inflammation… Most of us, myself included, have some degree of inflammation. It is important to understand how to manage inflammation because an inflamed body increases your susceptibility to all viral infections, including COVID-19, as well as experiencing severe symptoms when you have a viral infection.

Inflammation Is a Common Thread

COVID-19 is top-of-mind for everyone, especially since another wave has been predicted for this fall. That said, we now know more about COVID-19 than we did several months ago.

Studies have shown that the following underlying conditions are risk factors associated with making COVID-19 worse and/or increasing risk of hospitalization with COVID-19: 12

–Age. The elderly (>75 years) are particularly vulnerable.

This is an independent risk factor, especially for younger populations (under 60). A study on COVID-positive patients, admitted to a New York City hospital, showed that younger patients (under age 60) with a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 30 or greater had double the risk of being admitted to acute or critical care compared to those with a BMI under 30.

–Hypertension (High blood pressure)
According to the CDC, nearly half of all American adults (over age 18) have hypertension; only 1 in 4 adults with high blood pressure have theirs under control.3

The 2020 National Statistics Diabetes reports that 13% of all American adults (18 and older) have diabetes. While 88% of American adults—that’s 1 in 3—have pre-diabetes, most remain unaware that they are pre-diabetic.4

–Heart disease
This is still the leading cause of death for both men and women. In the U.S., someone dies every 37 seconds from heart disease.5

–Lung disease
Nearly 37 million Americans have a chronic lung disease, like asthma and COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.6

These are all disease and conditions rooted in chronic inflammation.

Consider New York City. In a study, published by JAMA Network, researchers found that, among 5,700 New York City patients hospitalized with COVID-19, the most common co-morbidities  were hypertension, obesity and diabetes. (A comorbidity refers to the presence of more than one physical ailment in one person.) And…88% of New York City patients had more than one comorbidity compared to 6.3% who had just one.7

Inflammation 101

Understanding what inflammation is and how it effects the body can help you make food choices and lifestyle habits that tame chronic inflammation, and, consequently, strengthen your immune system.

Many of us are familiar with acute inflammation. You accidentally cut your finger, sprain your ankle, or have a sore throat. Acute inflammation is a “first responder” at the site of occurrence (e.g., finger, ankle, throat) and manifests as heat (feeling hot to the touch), swelling, pain and/or loss of function.

Inflammation is an essential part of the immune system’s response to injury or attack on the immune system, and it is part of the process of healing.

The problem, however, is that when you have chronic inflammation, where the inflammatory process is ongoing, this can eventually start damaging healthy cells, tissues and organs. Over time, this can result in DNA damage, tissue death and internal scarring. This is why chronic inflammation is linked to the development of overweight/obesity; Type 2 diabetes; cancer; heart disease; asthma; autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis; and Alzheimer’s.

While acute inflammation is temporary, chronic inflammation is persistent, long-term and can affect any part of the body. Also known as the “silent killer” because it often develops without pain, chronic inflammation is low-grade inflammation at the cellular level. You may not necessarily “feel” chronic inflammation the way that you would “feel” a sprained ankle.

So, how do we know if WE have chronic inflammation?

Many times, we dismiss uncomfortable symptoms as “normal” (because they are common, or because we have gotten used to them), or as part of “getting older”. Symptoms of chronic inflammation can manifest as:

–Overweight / obesity.
–Belly fat / large waist size.
–Digestive problems. Excessive gas (flatulence), bloating, chronic constipation, IBS.
–Ongoing fatigue / exhaustion.
–Skin issues. Acne, rashes, hives, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea.
–Frequent sinus infections. Runny nose, post-nasal drip, nasal congestion, mucous discharge, coughing, sore throat.
–Mood issues: depression, anxiety.
–Brain fog. An inability to focus, forgetfulness, poor memory.
–Allergies. Seasonal, environmental, food.
–Puffy face and/or bags under the eyes.
–Respiratory conditions. Asthma, COPD, chronic bronchitis, emphysema/
–Joint pain and muscle aches.
–Low energy.
–Constant headaches.

Here’s the Good News…

Your food choices and lifestyle habits can go a very long way to taming chronic inflammation. Eight steps you can take right now to lower inflammation include:

1.  Limit or eliminate caffeine.  Oh, I know…this one is hard to hear. I love coffee, so I get it. You may wonder about all the “good press” that coffee has gotten, about the high level of antioxidants it contains, its fat-burning potential and its role in improved athletic performance. What you may not know: conventionally grown coffee is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world. Pesticides that you regularly ingest create inflammation in the gut.
The caffeine from coffee travels to the hypothalamus ( the part of the brain that links the nervous system to the endocrine system), which signals the pituitary to tell your adrenal glands to release cortisol, the stress hormone. If you are already stressed (and who isn’t these days?!) or you are a Type A, high stress type, elevated cortisol levels can raise your blood pressure; prevent you from sleeping well; and, increase your blood sugar, causing you to feel hungry and overeat. Over time, this can lead to unwanted weight gain. Excess fat increases inflammation in the body.8

2.  Reduce or eliminate alcohol.  Alcohol sales, both in-store and online, soared during the pandemic. This was concerning to the World Health Organization, which stated: “Alcohol consumption is associated with a range of communicable and noncommunicable diseases and mental health disorders, which can make a person more vulnerable to COVID-19. In particular, alcohol compromises the body’s immune system and increases the risk of adverse health outcomes.”

Alcohol disrupts immune pathways and can impair the body’s ability to defend itself from infection. In the lungs, for example, alcohol damages the immune cells and fine hairs that have the important job of clearing pathogens out of the airway. Alcohol consumption has been linked to increased susceptibility to pneumonia; pulmonary diseases, including tuberculosis, respiratory syncytial virus, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).9

Alcohol can also trigger inflammation in the gut, where 80% of our immune system resides, and kill off the good gut bugs that help maintain a healthy immune system.10

3.  Remove inflammatory foods.  The top culprits include sugar (all forms), flour, refined grains, processed foods, dairy, highly processed vegetable oils, like canola, soy and corn, and any foods to which you have a known allergy. Choose, instead, to eat anti-inflammatory whole foods. Yes, quality matters! A wide variety of unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods contain antioxidants and polyphenols that have anti-inflammatory effects. These include healthy fats, like olive oil, avocado and olives; dark leafy greens; organic, pasture-raised or 100% grass-fed and finished meats, including poultry and game; wild-caught fatty fish, like salmon and sardines; root vegetables; tubers; nuts and seeds.

4.  Shift your perception of “stress”. Your body does not know the difference between real and perceived stress. When we perceive everything—running late for an appointment, losing WiFi connection, a dud online date, or losing a job—as an urgent, five-alarm “EMERGENCY”, the body responds accordingly and pumps out loads of adrenaline and cortisol, keeping us in high stress mode. This is a recipe for a highly inflamed body.
Instead, take a step back and evaluate what is truly an emergency (for example, a sick child, a car accident) versus what may feel urgent but is not an actual emergency. This may require that you set healthy boundaries around your time, energy and priorities.

5.  Move your body every day. The key to healthy exercise is not too much, not too little. Exercise offers plenty of health benefits; over-exercise, however, does not—and can, in fact, contribute to inflammation. One of the easiest ways to move your body—and reduce inflammation—is to walk every day.

6.  Get enough sleep. Sleep is essential for immune health. Aim for 7 to 9 hours every night. Chronic sleep loss creates systemic inflammation in the body.

Sleep affects the body’s central stress response system: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, also known as the HPA axis. The three parts of the HPA axis include the hypothalamus (the forebrain; responsible for hunger, thirst and body temperature); pituitary gland (the master gland that controls all the endocrine glands in the body) and adrenal glands, two walnut-sized glands above the kidneys, that produce the stress hormone cortisol, as well as sex hormones, like estrogen and testosterone. Like a symphony, all three parts of the HPA axis work together to regulate your stress response, immune system, digestion, metabolism, mood and energy levels.

Chronic sleep deprivation can increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes (not enough sleep = higher blood sugar), inhibit proper wound healing and reduce cognitive function (poor reasoning skills and faulty memory).11

In one study, men and women who participated in 7 days of mild sleep restriction (for example, sleeping 6 hours instead of 8 hours) experienced increased inflammation in their bodies, evidenced by elevated inflammatory markers, such as high sensitivity C-reactive protein and interleukin.12  Some studies also suggest that women may be more susceptible to increased inflammation from sle­­ep deprivation. Associated with diabetes, heart disease and arthritis, chronic inflammation may also represent a link between diabetes and cancer.13 

Want to get a handle on taming inflammation, but not sure where to start?  Get valuable insight and guidance through Optimize Your Wellness, a one-time, video-only service that can help jumpstart your wellness journey. You will complete either an extensive Food & Lifestyle Review or a Comprehensive Wellness Assessment and receive my feedback via video within 48 hours.


1 medRxiv  Apr 2020
2 Touch Endocrinology. 2020.
3 CDC, High Blood Pressure.
4 National Diabetes Statistics Report 2020
5  CDC, Heart Disease.
6  American Lung Association
7  JAMA Network. April 22, 2020.
8  Hormone Reset. 2016. Sara Gottfried, MD.
9, 10  Alcohol Research. 2015; 37(2): 153–155
11  Biological Psychiatry. 2008 Sept 15; 64(6): 538-40
12  Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Oct 2010. Vol. 24, Issue 5, pp. 775-784
13 Journal of Diabetes Research. 2012, Art ID 789174

Hi, I’m Kathryn Matthews. As a Board Certified Functional Health Coach, I help clients reclaim their energy, vitality and well-being. I want you to feel empowered about taking charge of YOUR health! To learn more, see About Kathryn.

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