Inflammation is generally associated with its immediate short-term symptoms: redness, swelling, and rise in body temperature. This reaction is called "acute inflammation", and it occurs when our immune system instantly reacts (in response to a virus, a microbe, or immediate physical or psychological danger) by producing white blood cells, pro-inflammatory cytokines, heat shock proteins and cortisol. Nature has endowed us with a well-organized system of repair that functions on the short term.
Unfortunately, inflammation does have its dark side and can be of a different type: chronic or "low grade". Low-grade inflammation is not a specific short-term response to an antigen or momentary stress stimuli but a slow, silent, insidious production of pro-inflammatory agents that will eventually lead to physiological deficiencies and exhaustion.
How does this chronic inflammatory state settle? Many reasons are at stake, most of which can be defined by one word: stress.
Stress as a cause of low-grade inflammation
Stress is not just the jittering of your leg on exam day or a sudden rise in a heartbeat on your first date. This type of stress will generally be positive and productive outcomes. Stress is of many types: psychological, environmental (pollution of all sorts), nutritional (unhealthy foods and inadequate portions), physical (strain on our bodies, free radical production due to training).
The effects of low-grade chronic inflammation are numerous: rise in cholesterol, weight gain, fatigue, anemia, insomnia, depression, gastrointestinal complications, and body pain. It has now been proven that chronic inflammation may also develop into more serious diseases such as Rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, cancer, kidney, or pulmonary diseases.
We are not used to associating these symptoms with inflammation, nor with stress. Therefore, it is essential to understand how it works and look out for signs.
The case of athletes
Athletes are deeply concerned with the spiral of chronic inflammation and stress. Having to combine training, competitions, medias and sponsors, inadequate food intake, pollution, travelling, emotional fatigue, on top of jobs and families. Being an athlete is nowadays no longer associated with being healthy, and intensive training has become one of the leading causes of chronic inflammation.
The rise of chronic inflammation is often only visible after many months of loss of adaptability.
- Natural adrenal stimulation
- Rise in cortisol
- Self-imposed adrenal stimulation (sport, ergogenic aids...)
- Greater fatigue
- More external stimulation, and so forth until burn out.
How to look out for the signs
Do you feel increased appetite, food cravings, sleep disorders, irritability, mental fog, lack of motivation, body fat gain, and muscle loss? These symptoms are a sign that your system is starting to set up a resistance to some stress load and long-term reaction.
Keeping away from inflammation and stress
Stay tuned! The slightest discord in the orchestra can set off the state of disharmony.
A balanced diet, rich in vegetables, fruit, grains, spices, nuts and healthy fatty acids is the first step to a healthy athletes lifestyle! Remember to pamper your cells and give yourselves sufficient recovery and internal cleansing!
Author: Nutritionist Marie-Nöelle Bourgeois
Denis Riché, Epinutrition du sportif, ed. De Boeck Superieur, Mai 2017.
Brendan Brazier, Thrive, The Lifelong Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sport and life, Lifelong Editions, 2007.
See also our blog "3 main causes of inflammation"