What is Inflammation? 11 Causes of Chronic Inflammation

Debbie Rodrigues is a CrossFit athlete, certified Personal Trainer and a brain tumor survivor. On her blog, Debbie in Shape, she shares fitness and health tips to inspire others overcome adversities and improve their quality of life.

Inflammation manifests itself in many forms and it is not always easy to diagnose. Even though there are blood tests that can be used to detect it, treatment is not always straight forward. There is no solution that fits all cases. Because it manifests itself in a wide range of ways, going from a simple scratch up to diseases such as multiple sclerosis, it can be easily overlooked.

What is Inflammation?

According to The Center for Physical Rehabilitation, inflammation is ‘a localized physical condition in which part of the body becomes reddened, swollen, hot, and often painful, especially as a reaction to injury or infection.” Even though we frequently associate inflammation with something bad, acute inflammation is a natural reaction of our body when exposed to foreign invaders. We have all had injuries such as a swollen knee after a fall or a fever due to a cold. In such cases, inflammation is not an issue. On the contrary, it is just the cells of our body doing an extra effort to help us heal. Acute inflammation itself is not the issue. The problem begins when things go wrong and it becomes chronic.

The symptoms of chronic inflammation vary widely depending on its stage and the organs affected. They can be easily mistaken for common allergies, tiredness and acne. Chances are that these reactions are in fact the manifestation of inflammation in the patient’s body.

Causes of Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation may cause diseases such as cancer, diabetes and depression just to name a few. Read about the most common triggers of inflammation below.


Research shows that many Americans are eating more than double the recommended allowance for sugar (1). Everything from our favorite breakfast cereal, to those delicious low-sodium crackers, to that microwaved bowl of soup contain added sugars, mainly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Excessive sugar can cause an immune response and lead to inflammation and diseases such as diabetes. Read more about the effects of sugar and artificial sweeteners here.

Processed Foods

How many times do we choose fast food or a delivery simply because we are just too tired to cook or running late? The consumption of processed foods is a reality that’s almost impossible to escape. Many foods cause inflammation, but especially processed meals because they contain high levels of sodium, fat, empty carbs and added sugar. At first they might give a boost of energy, but it does not last long and hunger quickly returns. Since they do not have the ingredients our body needs to function, it keeps on craving more, leading many to overeat.


Before starting any discussion about fat, it is very important to understand that fat itself is not the problem. Our body needs fat to function. Our brain craves fat. If you do not believe me, ask a bodybuilding athlete how they feel during contest preparation. They know everything about fat depletion and its effects. Unsaturated fats, such as the ones found in olive oil and almonds, are essential for our well-being. Trans fats, found in anything battered and fried, can be highly toxic and should be avoided as much as possible.


The grains produced today are not the same as 50 years ago. In order to feed the ever-increasing population, genetic manipulation has created stronger and more resistant seeds. The side effect is that those grains, that were for centuries the main source of food, have changed dramatically. Even patients who do not have celiac disease can show similar symptoms (such as pain, bloating and fatigue) after the intake of gluten.


The effects of excessive alcohol consumption are well-known to anyone who has gone through a hangover. Most of the consumed alcohol is broken down in the liver. In this process, certain toxins that are even more harmful than the alcohol itself are generated, which damages the liver cells. Inflammation is only the beginning since these by-products weaken the body’s defenses. Having a weak immune systems leaves room for more dangerous inflammations such as alcoholic hepatitis and fibrosis.


It is highly recognized by the medical community that smoking increases the risk for coronary heart disease, stroke and lung cancer (2). What most people do not realize is that these diseases are triggered by the inflammation of the arteries caused by nicotine.


In modern society, the constant rush against the clock is a reality. We force our mind and body to stay alert non-stop. There is little chance to rest in our hectic lives. This never-ending state of ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which influences our metabolism and can trigger chronic inflammation.

Poor Sleep

Sleeping less than six to nine hours every night is associated with higher coritsol levels (3). The higher your coritsol levels, the more likely you are to suffer from chronic inflammation. Read how to get a better night’s sleep here.

Sedentary Lifestyle

Unlike our predecessors, we do not have to grow and harvest our food or hunt for our next meal. We spend the majority of the day sitting, whether at work or in the car. These sedentary habits combined with poor diet can lead to inflammation associated with heart disease and diabetes (4).


Very few places around the world are free from pollution. Breathing in pollutants in the air causes our body to fight back with an immune response. Extended exposure to these pollutants can lead to long-term inflammation (5).

Chemical Sensitivity

Have you ever gone into a room and smelled something that caused you to get a headache or become dizzy? Cleaning products, air fresheners and perfumes contain chemicals that even in low doses, can disrupt our immune system causing irritation and inflammation.

How Have You Been Treating Yourself?

It is true that when it comes to inflammation, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Our genetic blueprint plays a major role in how our organs react to different elements. By taking a look at your food and lifestyle, you can find out what you are lacking in or what you are getting too much of. Below are some questions to ask yourself.

Start with your meals. What do they look like? Do they predominantly consist of pro or anti-inflammatory ingredients? Are they varied? Are you getting enough nutrients? Do they come from healthier foods? Do you have an idea of how much sugar is in your daily intake?

What about your lifestyle? Do you smoke? How many hours of exercise do you get per week? Are you confronted with stressful situations on a regular basis? Do you have insomnia?

Have you ever noticed allergic reactions to specific products? Have you ever felt unwell after noticing a certain chemical odor? Do you suffer allergic reactions when entering closed buildings?

Take your time to answer these questions. Observe yourself and your interaction with the foods, environments and situations you are exposed to. Make note of repetitive patterns and see if progress is made by the elimination of certain conditions. For some, the first signs may appear as fast as after a few weeks, while for others it may take months. But no matter how long it takes for you, it will surely be worth trying.


3. Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol levels the next evening: Leproult R1, Copinschi G, Buxton