There are many potential causes of chronic inflammation, from chronic disease to diet. That’s why inflammatory biomarker testing is a powerful health management tool.
Biomarker tracking is used for diagnosis and preventative healthcare. But what are biomarkers, and how do we test for them?
Essentially, biomarkers are indicators used for health screening and diagnosis. Blood tests can measure these naturally occurring substances, giving us valuable information about what’s happening inside the body.
There are various markers associated with an inflammatory response. Each substance has a different role in the body. If a specific marker of inflammation is elevated, it gives us some clues about the potential cause.
In this blog, we’ll unpack the common biomarkers that indicate inflammation, and what this might mean for your health.
Read on to learn more!
What are Inflammatory Markers in Blood Tests?
Inflammatory biomarkers are substances produced by the body during an immune system response. This includes certain proteins and cytokines, the signalling chemicals immune cells use. Blood tests are the most accurate way to measure levels of these inflammatory markers.
While inflammation is a natural process, excessive inflammation is damaging, as immune cells can harm healthy tissue. Inflammation also indicates the body is dealing with a perceived threat – including infection, injury, toxins or chronic disease.
Inflammation can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). Normal inflammatory marker levels will depend on age, sex and general health status. It’s also valuable to compare against previous tests to track changes in biomarker levels.
Why Test for Inflammatory Biomarkers?
Testing for inflammatory biomarkers can help detect disease early before other symptoms appear. High or low inflammatory biomarker levels provide some direction for further diagnostic testing. If you have non-specific symptoms such as fatigue, biomarker testing can indicate whether the culprit is an inflammatory or non-inflammatory disease.
If you have an inflammatory illness, biomarker testing can also show if a new treatment or lifestyle change is helping.
However, it’s not just about disease. The quantified self movement promotes regular biomarker testing as part of preventative healthcare. Inflammatory markers are something to keep an eye on for proactive health management.
Lifestyle factors like diet and exercise shape our overall health, with or without disease. Testing for markers of inflammation can guide our decision-making and indicate where changes are needed.
Inflammatory biomarker testing can also quantify the impact of lifestyle changes, such as nutrition or supplementation. In fact, biomarker changes during weight loss can suggest which diet or exercise approach is ideal for our body.
If test results show high inflammatory marker levels, you’ll probably want to know what that means. Keep reading to find out!
What Does It Mean When Inflammatory Markers Are Elevated?
High inflammatory markers in the blood are an indicator, not a specific diagnosis. Inflammation can have many causes besides chronic disease. Interpretation will depend on the reason for testing and whether you have other symptoms.
Non-disease causes of inflammation in the body include:
Diseases that can cause raised inflammation biomarkers include:
- Autoimmune conditions (e.g. SLE, MS)
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- ‘Leaky gut’
- Viral, bacterial or fungal infections
- Heart disease
It’s important to look at multiple markers of inflammation to draw any conclusions. Follow-up testing can help narrow down the cause or eliminate disease as the culprit.
Regular or repeat testing over time can also indicate whether inflammation is temporary (acute) or chronic.
Common Biomarkers of Inflammation
The most common inflammatory markers include proteins like C-reactive protein (CRP), as well as pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines. Blood testing is the most common way to measure inflammatory biomarkers.
Learn more about the markers of inflammation below:
C-Reactive Protein (CRP)
C-Reactive Protein, or CRP, is a protein produced by the liver as a rapid response to inflammatory signals. C-Reactive Protein testing can detect inflammation in its early stages – levels increase within 6 to 8 hours.
CRP is also one of the fastest biomarkers to resolve once the source of inflammation is addressed. This makes it one of the most up-to-date measures of inflammation in the body.
Normal CRP levels are typically less than 0.9 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), though each lab’s reference range will vary.
High C-Reactive Protein levels can be caused by acute or chronic inflammation. Causes range from minor infections to chronic diseases and lifestyle factors like diet and stress. Elevated CRP can also be found in cases of alcohol-related liver damage.
Like C-Reactive Protein, Procalcitonin is a protein produced by the liver during acute inflammation. However, this biomarker isn’t typically measured during health screening. Instead, it’s used to diagnose severe bacterial infections such as sepsis. This is because Procalcitonin indicates the severity of infection more clearly in critically ill patients.
Creatine Kinase is an enzyme found in muscle tissue throughout the body. Muscle cell injury causes creatine kinase to leak into the bloodstream, where it can be measured as an inflammatory biomarker.
It’s important to note that strenuous exercise naturally causes elevated creatine kinase levels. However, if CK is elevated even after prolonged rest, this indicates an unusual level of inflammation.
High creatine kinase levels can be a symptom of cardiovascular or muscular disease. Other common culprits include overtraining, alcohol or drug consumption, and some medications.
Pro-inflammatory cytokines are a group of substances produced by the body’s immune system. As the name suggests, they’re a natural part of the inflammatory process, making them a useful biomarker.
High levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines indicate inflammation is present. This can be caused by infection, other disease, and lifestyle factors.
Low pro-inflammatory cytokine levels can be a problem as well. This is a common feature in autoimmune disorders. It can also leave you susceptible to infection or cause symptoms such as impaired healing, excessive thirst, frequent urination and vision problems.
Common pro-inflammatory cytokines measured in biomarker testing include:
- Interferon gamma (IFNG): Produced to control antibody production when infection or inflammation occurs.
- Interleukin-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1Ra): There are a number of interleukin biomarkers associated with inflammation. IL-1Ra is produced by immune cells to regulate inflammation.
- Interleukin-17A (IL-17A): A chemical produced by T helper cells as part of the body’s immune response.
- Interleukin-6 (IL-6): A chemical not typically elevated in healthy individuals, IL-6 raises body temperature (in cases of fever) and produces immune antibodies. Note that exercise can increase this marker temporarily, so do not exercise 4 hours before this test.
- Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNF-alpha): Produced by immune cells to defend against infection.
Anti-inflammatory cytokines are also immune signalling chemicals. However, these regulate inflammation and protect the body’s cells from damage.
The most common pro-inflammatory cytokine tested for is Interleukin-10 (IL-10). Produced as part of the body’s immune response, this anti-inflammatory cytokine helps protect the body from damage.
High IL-10 levels suggest a high level of inflammation, which correlates with symptoms like pain and fatigue. Low IL-10 levels are linked with autoimmune disease.
What to Do About High Inflammatory Biomarkers
Treatment of underlying infection or disease is essential. However, if tests show chronic inflammation without a clear cause, the main goal is to reduce pro-inflammatory triggers and increase the anti-inflammatory elements. Here are some tips to help:
- Eliminate Toxins: Alcohol causes acute and chronic inflammation. The good news: just a few weeks of abstinence makes a big difference! Cutting back also helps reduce the impact on your liver and gut health.
- Quit Smoking: Cigarette smoke triggers inflammation in the lungs and airways, setting the stage for chronic disease. Unfortunately, evidence shows that vaping is also pro-inflammatory.
- Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Anti-inflammatory foods include leafy greens, nuts, berries and fish. Reducing pro-inflammatory foods such as sugar, fats, and processed foods can also lower inflammation levels.
- Regular Exercise: Exercise reduces inflammation and is particularly important as we age. Studies show endurance training can be beneficial. However, be wary of overtraining, which can also increase inflammation levels.
- Manage Stress: Physical and mental stress can increase your body’s inflammatory response. Deep breathing and meditation practices are the fastest way to move your body into a parasympathetic state (rest and digest). Have a regular stress management protocol such as a meditation practice.
Regular testing for inflammatory biomarkers is a great way to monitor the results of any diet or lifestyle changes.
How Can I Test for Inflammatory Biomarkers in Australia?
Drop Bio Health offers direct-to-consumer biomarker testing using only a finger-prick of blood. Operating out of a UNSW lab, their tests provide a holistic overview of your health status, with data on 25 biomarkers.
My 8-week InsideOut Challenge also includes biomarker testing at the start and end of the program. You’ll get a report on your health in the core pillars of: inflammation, stress, sleep, exercise, body composition and energy/fatigue. See the tangible benefits your body is getting from nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle changes over the 8 weeks!