This Is the #1 Sneaky Sign of Chronic Inflammation Most People Miss

Woman dealing with chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation can cause a wide range of health woes, ranging from the mild and annoying (like skin rashes or digestive distress) to life-altering and serious (like cancer or cognitive decline).

The vast ways chronic inflammation can affect the body can make it difficult to pinpoint. But rheumatologists say there are tell-tale signs of it to be aware of, including one symptom of chronic inflammation that often flies under the radar.

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What Is Inflammation, Exactly?

Inflammation is a term thrown around a lot, often without any context, so it’s important to first know exactly what it is. Dr. Adam Kreitenberg, MD, a rheumatologist at 1MD Nutrition, explains that there are different types of inflammation. He shares that, generally speaking, inflammation is the immune system’s response to certain stimuli, either foreign or toxic to the body, and that inflammation protects the body by acting as its defense system.

Dr. Kreitenberg says there’s also a difference between acute inflammation and chronic inflammation. “Acute inflammation develops rapidly and typically will resolve within one to two weeks or less. Chronic inflammation usually develops over time and is long-lasting. Several reasons for chronic inflammation include chronic low-level exposure to noxious foreign material, recurrent acute inflammation or autoimmune disease, among others,” he explains.

Related: The One Food You Should Never, Ever Eat if You Have Chronic Inflammation

Dr. Aly Cohen, MD, a rheumatologist, integrative medicine doctor, environmental health expert and founder of The Smart Human, emphasizes that not all inflammation is bad. “Inflammation is critical for keeping us safe. It’s when there is an enormous level of unnecessary inflammation for a long period of time that is beyond what it’s intended for,” she says.

Chronic inflammation—high levels of inflammation that can last for months or even years—has been linked to health conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and joint diseases, allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When it comes to reducing chronic inflammation, the key is knowing its symptoms so you are able to identify it as soon as possible.

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The Number One Sign of Chronic Inflammation Most People Miss, According to Rheumatologists

In terms of how to know if you are experiencing chronic inflammation, both doctors say there is a wide range of symptoms someone may experience; chronic inflammation can manifest vastly differently in one person than it does in someone else. Dr. Kreitenberg says that the signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation are non-specific, which means they are reported by patients but can’t be observed.

“They may be symptoms that you think are not necessarily related to chronic inflammation. These may include non-restorative sleep, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, joint and muscle pain, swelling or stiffness and recurrent infections,” he says. Dr. Cohen adds that, sometimes, the symptoms of chronic inflammation take the form of skin rashes, joint pain or frequent gastrointestinal issues.

However, there’s one symptom of chronic inflammation that Dr. Cohen says people often miss: unexplained and frequent fatigue. “Fatigue is an underappreciated sign of chronic inflammation,” she says.

Dr. Cohen adds that if you are getting the recommended amount of sleep each night but still feel tired during the day, this is an example of the type of fatigue she is talking about. “It’s important to do a deep dive to figure out what is causing the fatigue,” she stresses.

If you are experiencing frequent fatigue—or any other types associated with chronic inflammation—Dr. Cohen and Dr. Kreitenberg recommend making an appointment with your healthcare provider. “A thorough history, physical exam and laboratory testing can frequently identify the presence and cause of chronic inflammation and from there develop an individualized treatment plan to reduce inflammation and combat its long-term complications,” Dr. Kreitenberg says.

In terms of how chronic inflammation is treated. Dr. Kreitenberg says that this depends on the type and cause of inflammation. “Generally, [treatment includes] a healthy diet with essential micronutrients, physical exercise, weight management and anti-inflammatory and antioxidant supplements. Consult with your physician whether specific pharmaceuticals are necessary to treat your subtype of inflammation,” he adds.

When it comes to chronic inflammation, the big lesson to keep in mind is that any time something feels “off” with your body, take it seriously. Chronic inflammation has a wide range of symptoms but what they all have in common is they negatively impact the body. Symptoms affecting your skin, digestive health or brain (like low energy or a depressed mood) all deserve proper attention. You deserve to live well!

Next up, here's everything you need to know about the anti-inflammatory diet.