If you’ve ever spent a full day on your feet, you may have experienced the pain of swelling and redness in your ankles and legs. Or perhaps you have eaten a particularly spicy meal and are probably familiar with the uncomfortable bloating and burning that can result from it. Most people would describe these symptoms as inflammation, simply brought on by their behavior. However, it turns out that inflammation is a much more complicated and insidious problem than the result of standing too long or suffering a bad case of heartburn.

There are two distinct types of inflammation that can cause a diverse range of problems—sometimes lasting for months or even years. And it’s not just the regular external warning signs you need to be aware of.

The Inflammatory Response

You may not know that your body is experiencing an inflammatory response unless it presents itself externally, and you might even suspect other conditions are at play—which is why it’s so important to understand how inflammation works.

Inflammation is a naturally occurring process that happens when your body encounters a harmful agent, such as an infection or a toxin. Acute inflammation typically lasts from a few hours to a few days, but it eventually resolves itself as your immune system fights back. However, in the case of more severe chronic inflammation, your body’s natural responses can go into overdrive, potentially causing a wide range of other problems, including diseases.

Typically, inflammation is a sign that your body’s immune system response is actually working properly. Inflammatory cells release chemicals that fight off infection and heal the body, but if the inflammation is prolonged, the body can actually start to have the opposite response, with good cells and healthy tissue being attacked. This chronic response can result from a number of things, such as the inability to rid the body completely of the irritant, an autoimmune disorder, or even repeated bouts of acute inflammation.

But what long-term problems can this prolonged inflammation cause for the body?

Skin conditions
Acute inflammation of the skin, such as a reaction to poison ivy, is typically resolved quickly with the help of medication. But chronic inflammatory skin conditions like rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema can all stem from a prolonged immune system response, resulting in redness, rashes, itching, and other uncomfortable skin problems.

You might think of arthritis as a condition that occurs with old age, as bones weaken and become easily fatigued. However, age is not the only determining factor in whether a person will experience arthritis. One of the most common inflammatory types is rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that affects more than 1.3 million Americans. The disease causes damage to once healthy tissue, leading to pain in places like the hands, knees, and feet, though it can also affect other parts of the body like the lungs.

Heart disease
One of the most dangerous problems associated with chronic inflammation is when organs function improperly. Over time, an abundance of inflammatory cells can contribute to troublesome plaque buildup in the arteries. When your critical organs have to work harder because of inflammation, other serious health conditions, including a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, are more likely to develop.

Prevention vs. Cure

In most cases, it’s much easier to prevent chronic inflammation from occurring rather than trying to cure it once it’s already developed. There are plenty of ways you can help protect your body from inflammation, and many of them are things you should already be doing to benefit your well-being.

You are what you eat
The most obvious way to prevent inflammation is through the foods you eat, which includes avoiding response. Some examples of good foods to eat include green vegetables such as spinach and kale, berries, and omega-3-rich fish like salmon. The Mediterranean diet has grown increasingly popular in recent years, in part because it is loaded with these types of foods—making it a good program to follow if you’re trying to reduce inflammation.

On the contrary, foods that cause inflammation should be avoided when possible; these include sugary drinks like soda and sweet tea, red meat, and refined carbohydrates such as processed breads or pasta made from enriched flour.

Practice self-care
Not surprisingly, stress is another major factor in chronic inflammation. We’re always told that we need to reduce our stress levels if we want to live long, healthy lives. While that may be true, it’s a lot easier said than done. If you feel that your stress is severe enough that it’s causing headaches, fatigue, loss of sleep, or other disruptive issues, it might be a good time to speak with your doctor about ways you can help manage your stress before it manifests into a more severe condition.

Keep moving
A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to a number of health conditions, including inflammation. Thirty to forty-five minutes a day of consistent movement that elevates your heart rate is ideal for adults. People who are not at a healthy weight are more likely to experience inflammation, but exercise, along with good eating habits, is one of the most effective ways to prevent an inflammatory disease. You can also try incorporating workouts that aid the mind and body, such as yoga—a practice that can help with relaxation.

Here’s What to Look for

If you think you might be suffering from chronic inflammation, these are a few warning signs that you should pay attention to:

  • Gut problems. Consistent bloating and irregularity, as well as stomach pain, can be a marker of inflammation in the body.
  • Fatigue. As long as you’re getting the proper amount of sleep, you shouldn’t feel overtired
    first thing in the morning. Constant feelings of tiredness can be a sign that your immune system is working overtime.
  • Pain and skin reactions. Inflammation commonly damages tissue in muscles and joints, so chronic pain is one of the most common symptoms. This response can also trigger skin problems like psoriasis.

Chronic inflammation is one of the most common health problems in America, so if you’re suffering from any of these symptoms, you’re not alone. The most important thing to remember is that many inflammatory problems are preventable. Inflammation is a necessary process for your body to go through to heal itself—but it can also cause long-term damage.

Talking to your doctor should always be the first step if you feel like inflammation is impacting your daily life. Identifying the source of inflammation and implementing lifestyle changes could help you start feeling like yourself again in no time.

For more info, visit mayoclinic.org