If it seems like every medical expert and health website in the world is talking about the health effects of inflammation, there’s good reason for it! Chronic inflammation is at the root of countless serious diseases. In fact, chronic inflammatory diseases rank as the most significant cause of death worldwide—and they’re poised to affect even more people in the coming years. (1)

But what is inflammation, exactly? And what causes inflammation in the body? In this blog, we’ll dig into those questions and explore ways to reduce inflammation to decrease chronic disease risk.

Despite its dangerous consequences, inflammation is a completely normal part of the body’s defense system. Just think of the last time you stubbed a toe or got a splinter. You probably noticed the telltale symptoms of inflammation—redness, swelling, heat, and pain.

doctor messaging a person's foot

Swelling is a very common sign of inflammation.

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This inflammatory response is perfectly appropriate. When the body recognizes a threat—such as a physical injury or unwelcome microbes—it triggers inflammation, which can rally the forces of the immune system.

While the pain and swelling that this type of inflammation causes are unpleasant, they’re not a problem. That’s because this type of inflammation has a clear and important purpose: to contain the threat and address any damage caused. After the threat is minimized, inflammation goes down—usually within minutes, hours or days—and life goes on.

This type of inflammation is called acute inflammation. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to heal from wounds or fight the constant assault of bacteria and viruses we’re exposed to everyday.

But when inflammation overstays its welcome—or when it’s a response to a threat that isn’t really there—it becomes a problem that we call chronic inflammation.

What is chronic inflammation?

Chronic inflammation lasts for prolonged periods—months or years. It involves many of the same processes as acute inflammation—expanded blood vessels, increased blood flow, and a surge of inflammatory cells coming to respond to the threat (whether real or perceived). (1)

But unlike acute inflammation, which has a clear and immediate purpose, chronic inflammation can affect the whole body—and have long-term, dangerous effects.

What diseases are linked to chronic inflammation?

Chronic inflammation isn’t localized to one spot like acute inflammation. Instead, it produces a low level of inflammation throughout the body. And that can contribute to a number of diseases, including these three big ones:

Cardiovascular disease

Inflammation is known to be a contributing factor in cardiovascular disease. (2) Here’s one of the ways inflammation and cardiovascular disease are linked: When plaque builds up in the arteries (a condition called atherosclerosis), it can trigger the inflammatory response. The inflammation can then promote more plaque growth, and it can also make the plaque unstable. When the plaque loosens, it can cause a blood clot—and that can result in a heart attack or stroke. (3)

Type 2 Diabetes

Inflammation contributes to diabetes in a number of ways, including obesity-related insulin resistance, impaired insulin secretion, and vascular complications. Reducing inflammation might help treat diabetes and prevent complications. (4)


The links between inflammation and cancer continue to be revealed, but the Johns Hopkins Health Review explains the underlying premise. “Inflammatory cells produce free radicals that destroy genetic material, including DNA, leading to mutations that cause cells to endlessly grow and divide. More immune cells are then called in, creating inflammation that feeds the growth of tumors.” (5)

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And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Research has found connections between chronic inflammation and other diseases too, including arthritis, asthma, autoimmune diseases, and more. (6)(7)(8)

Causes of chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation can occur in response to a number of factors. While some, like advancing age, are out of our control, there are others that we can change. These are a few of the main factors that are within our control: (1)

ginger plant and powder in a clear bowl

Adding ginger as a supplement into your diet can help reduce signs and symptoms of inflammation.

How to fight chronic inflammation with diet

Chronic inflammation doesn’t always present symptoms. However, it sometimes shows up as chronic pain, fatigue, mood disorder, digestive issues, weight gain, or trouble fighting infections. (1)

If you suspect you have chronic inflammation, you can ask your doctor to run blood tests for high-sensitivity C-reactive protein and fibrinogen. These are good markers of systemic inflammation.

But even without those tests, it’s a good idea to make choices that help to prevent or reverse inflammation. (1)

  • Eat a low-glycemic index diet. These diets are low in sugar and refined carbohydrates, which can trigger inflammation.
  • Reduce saturated and trans fat intake. These fats, which are often present in packaged and heavily processed foods, can aggravate inflammation.
  • Eat more omega-3s. These healthy fats have been shown to reduce inflammation. (9)
  • Eat more fiber, fruits, and vegetables. Fiber, which is found in fruits, vegetables, and legumes, can lower inflammatory cytokines. Plus, fruits and veggies are full of antioxidants that can combat inflammation.
  • Exercise. Not only does exercise combat obesity, but it also lowers levels of inflammatory molecules and cytokines in the body. (10)
  • Reduce stress. Stress can cause the body to release inflammatory cytokines. It can also lead to sleep disorders, which compounds the risk of chronic inflammation. Try meditation, yoga, or therapy to reduce your stress levels.
  • Consider supplements. Certain botanical supplements, including ginger and turmeric, have been shown to fight inflammation. (11)(12)

The bottom line

Given how many risks are associated with systemic inflammation, and the many dietary implications of inflammation, it makes sense that it gets so much attention. If you’re interested in reducing disease risk—and who isn’t?—combating inflammation with the tips outlined here should be at the top of your priority list.

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