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Struggling with fatigue? Inflammation may be the cause

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Inflammation is the body’s immune system responding to an irritant. But what happens when it becomes chronic? We speak to two experts to find out more

Despite the warnings of health professionals the world over, inflammation isn’t necessarily something to worry about. It’s a natural response to illness or injury and, in small doses, is vital for healing.

However, the concern isn’t around acute inflammation — the swelling that might appear around a bite or a sting, for example — but chronic inflammation, which can result in a range of unpleasant side effects. This can include frequent skin outbreaks, fatigue, body aches, shortness of breath, depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal issues and frequent infections.

But what exactly is chronic inflammation, and how can we combat it day to day?

Close up of a woman's back wearing sports bra, rubbing it in pain
Chronic inflammation can appear as joint pain
What do we mean when we talk about inflammation?

“Inflammation is a reaction that’s caused by the immune system in order to highlight a site that requires immediate attention from our immune cells,” says nutritionist and consultant Jenna Hope. “Although it gets a bad rep, acute inflammation is actually a vital part of our healing process.”

Inflammation becomes problematic when it becomes chronic — this can have a domino effect on the rest of the body and can impair our normal physiological function. Excess or chronic inflammation can manifest as fatigue, low mood, poor sleep, low energy, brain fog, skin flare-ups, bowel issues, heartburn, unexplained weight gain, frequent illness or infections, joint discomfort and unexplained pain in the body. Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person.

What causes chronic inflammation?

Chronic inflammation can be caused by a host of medical conditions, which can be more challenging to manage. However, a leading source can be found in our lifestyle habits.

“Diets high in sugars, saturated and trans fats, salt, caffeine, alcohol and ultra-processed and fried foods can contribute to worsening inflammation in the body,” says Jenna, who also highlights high levels of mental and physical stress, poor sleep and smoking as potential stressors.

“When the body becomes overwhelmed, inflammation can lead to the damage of normal tissues resulting in chronic disease,” says Rohini Bajekal, an author, nutritionist and lifestyle medicine professional at Plant Based Health Professionals. “Diet and lifestyle choices can either promote or prevent inflammation. The main dietary components that can worsen inflammation are high intakes of saturated fat, mainly from meat and dairy, sugar, and alcohol.”

Certain foods can adversely affect the gut microbiome and stimulate immune cells.

What happens if chronic inflammation goes unchecked?

If inflammation persists for a long period of time, untreated, it can lead to an overall decline in general health and wellbeing.

“Untreated chronic inflammation generally results in poor health outcomes,” says Rohini. “It can destroy healthy tissue and damage our entire body. Inflammation is very closely linked to all common chronic health conditions including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.”

Read more: Are telomeres they key to living longer?

Can chronic inflammation be combated?

There’s no confusion about the key pillars in the fight against inflammation: rest, diet, movement and sleep.

“Healthy lifestyle practices such as regular physical activity, stress management, restful sleep, avoiding alcohol and tobacco and spending time with loved ones are all really important, too when it comes to reducing inflammation,” says Rohini.

Jenna adds: “In some cases inflammation is caused by underlying medical conditions or genetic complications, so diet and lifestyle alone may not necessarily help to manage inflammation. However, when inflammation is caused by diet and lifestyle factors there are absolutely ways to help manage and reduce inflammation.”

How can diet impact inflammation in the body?

A great place to start is simply increasing your fruit and vegetable intake, especially anything colourful (like beetroot, blueberries and bell peppers) or leafy (like spinach, arugula and kale), as they’re loaded with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

“Beans and pulses are a great ingredient to include in your day-to-day meals, they can be added to soups, stews, salads and dahls and they’re rich in protein, fibre, complex carbohydrates and B-vitamins too,” says Jenna.

When it comes to diet, both Jenna and Rohini recommend introducing or increasing wholefoods and foods rich in fibre and antioxidants such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, pulses, herbs and wholegrains.

“These foods reduce inflammation, keep the gut microbiome healthy and keep our immune system in check. In addition, adequate vitamin D intake is also essential,” explains Rohini, who strongly advocates for a plant-based diet. Evidence suggests that plant-based diets can reduce risk of chronic disease.

Read more: Seaweed: the surprising superfood to add to your daily diet
Avocado on toast with halved boiled eggs and nuts sprinkled, on a white plate
Seeds, olive oil and avocados promote sleep
Is there anything else we can do?

When it comes to lifestyle, minimising stress, moving your body and maximising sleep quality are all important for combatting inflammation.

“Sleep is absolutely essential for supporting our overall health and wellbeing and plays an important role in repair and replenishment,” says Jenna. “If we’re not sleeping well we’re far less likely to be able to repair inflammation in the body.”

“Poor sleep is associated with decreased immune function and an increase in inflammatory markers,” adds Rohini. “When we’re sleep-deprived, the hormones that affect appetite and satiety are also disrupted.”

Eating more fibre and unsaturated fats — such as nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados — can help to promote sound sleep. However, drinking alcohol will not only disrupt your sleep and cause inflammation, but likely result in unhealthy choices.

A variety of different kinds of exercise is vital for fighting inflammation —yoga, walking and meditation can help to lower cortisol levels in the body, while regular vigorous movement, such as cycling or swimming, will help to keep your immune system strong.

“Try to build movement into your day to make this a habit,” suggests Rohini. “Take frequent breaks from your desk to stretch and regular 10-minute walks. Find a form of exercise you enjoy and incorporate it daily.”

What do you recommend for those who have an unavoidably busy lifestyle?

Finding healthy options that fit easily into your existing routine can be a better way of creating lasting change over trying to overhaul your day-to-day entirely.

“Where possible try to incorporate walking into your day, whether that’s to take a meeting, as part of your commute or for a gentle break throughout a busy day,” says Jenna. “Additionally, be prepared with your meals and know where to reach when you’re short on time. I’m a fan of BOL Foods’ new Power Shakes for busy mornings as they’re made from wholefood ingredients such as banana, oats and nuts and they contain 20g of protein per serving.”

If some or all of these don’t come easily to you, it’s important to plan ahead. Batch cooking is your friend, as is routine when it comes to work outs and relaxation.

“You can batch cook whole grains, lentil dals, and chop fruit and vegetables as part of your Sunday routine so that you always have healthy meals for the week ahead,” suggests Rohini. “Set a date to meet a friend during the week for a walk and carve out time in the diary for a long evening bath. Planning ahead is the key to creating healthy habits that last.”

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