Inflammation touches many aspects of our life. It plays an important role in our body, and it’s not something we can do without. But even as it protects us and plays a critical role when we are injured, it can cause problems if it gets out of control. When this happens we refer to it as chronic inflammation.
It may seem a little strange that something so important to our well-being and good health can also ruin our health, and even cause death, but it is true. Chronic inflammation is something you definitely want to avoid.
Heart disease and cancer have both been linked to problems with inflammation. In relation to heart disease, it can cause coronary blockage, and a heart attack. We’ve been told for years to keep our cholesterol low to avoid the buildup of plaque in our arteries, but scientist now believe that inflammation may play as important a role as cholesterol and plaque.
Inflammation is also a villain in relation to cancer, particularly in the initiation of cancer. Things are not as clear here, and certainly not all cancers are caused by inflammation. Nevertheless some of the cells and chemicals involved in inflammation have been shown to create mutations in DNA that can eventually lead to cancer; furthermore, it can also cause pre-cancer cells to become active cancer cells. A few of the cancers known to be associated with inflammation are colon, lung, stomach, esophagus, and breast cancer.
Many other diseases are also associated with inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, MS, lupus, emphysema, and gingivitis are all inflammation diseases. Indeed, any disease with a name with “it is” at the end of it is an inflammatory disease. A few examples are: bursitis, tendonitis, arthritis, hepatitis, colitis, tonsillitis, and dermatitis.
How Inflammation Begins and Proceeds
Inflammation is the response of the body to harmful stimuli. Several things that can initiate it are:
• Infection by pathogens (bacteria, viruses and so on)
• Physical injury
• Foreign bodies that enter body such as splinters, dirt or other debris
• Chemical irritants
• Burns and frostbite
• Toxins from air or water
Everyone has experienced inflammation in one form or another. It’s major symptoms are redness, swelling, heat and pain. In most cases, however, what we experience is acute inflammation. It is a short term process lasting only a few days to a few weeks, and in most cases it ceases when the stimuli is removed. So for most people it is not serious. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is inflammation that does not clear up properly. It persists for months, and sometimes, years. And it can do considerable harm to your body. This articles is mainly concerned with chronic inflammation.
We’ll begin, however, with an overview of acute inflammation. It goes through two main phases: a vascular phase and a cellular phase. And it consists of a series of biochemical events that involve the local vascular system, the immune system and cells within the injured tissue. A brief (and simplified) outline of how it takes place is as follows:
1. The process begins when a harmful stimuli of some sort is detected.
2. The initial response (vascular phase) comes from immune system cells present in the affected tissue. One of the major ones that detects it first and reacts is called macrophages. They have receptors that recognize pathogens and other foreign objects (not belonging to the body).
3. These macrophages (and other particles) release inflammation mediators that call in other particles. They also release mediator molecules, including histamine, that dilate the blood vessels in the vicinity. This increases the blood flow to the affected area; it also increases the permeability (leakage) of these vessels.
4. The increased blood flow allows more infection-fighting immune cells to reach the area. It also increases the amount of glucose (sugar) and oxygen to the area to help nourish the cells. At the same time the increased permeability of the vessels helps bring in plasma protein and fluids that contain antibodies and so on to the area.
5. As a result of the above the affected area swells and turns red. There is also some heating and there may be pain.
6. The cellular phase begins as the increased size of the blood vessels helps the migration of white blood cells, mainly neutrophils and macrophages, into the area. They are particularly important when pathogens are present, in that they eat them, but they also perform other important roles such as assisting in repair of the wound.
7. One of the main things the above buildup does is “wall off” the area from further attack, particularly from bacteria and viruses.
8. When the pathogen (or whatever) is overcome a cleanup of dead cells and other debris begins. The initiation of a process where new, healthy cells replace the old ones begins, and soon the macrophages and other immune cells leave the area. And in the acute case everything soon gets back to normal.
Unfortunately everything doesn’t always go as smoothly as described in the above process. Several things can go wrong, and when they do, serious problems can occur. (Thankfully, this doesn’t happen too often.) The major problem is usually associated with the termination of the inflammation. In particular, the attack on the foreign objects doesn’t stop as it should. Macrophages and other particles may be left behind and they can do considerable damage to healthy tissue. One reason this might happen is that these particles check a “password” on the surface of cells and if it is a normal body cell they ignore it, but if it is foreign they attack it. Sometimes, however, the password system breaks down and the immune cells mistake body cells for intruders and destroy them. This leads to what is called autoimmune disease (such as lupus and MS).
In the same way, allergies of various types can occur when the immune system overacts. Pollens are usually considered harmless by the immune system, but in some cases it can suddenly decide they are dangerous and attack them. The result may be asthma.
Or the immune system may see damage due to LDL cholesterol in the arteries as a problem and try to repair it. As a result the immune cells become bloated and stick to the sides of the arteries creating plaque.
Most changes of this type occur when a person has a weakened immune system so it it’s easy to see why a strong immune system is important.
Who is Most at Risk
First of all it’s important to point out that everyone needs to be concerned about inflammation getting out of control, and everyone should do what they can to strengthen their immune system. Nevertheless, there are things that make some people more prone to chronic inflammation and other inflammation problems. They are:
1. Anyone who is overweight (in particular, obese). The immune system frequently mistakes fat deposits for intruders and attacks them. In addition, fat cells can leak or break open; if this happens macrophages come in to clear up the debris, and they may release chemicals that cause problems.
2. Anyone with diabetes. Studies show that diabetes II may be related to inflammation, and that people with high levels of inflammation usually develop diabetes within a few years.
3. Anyone with symptoms of heart disease or heart disease in the family. There are several relationships between heart disease and chronic inflammation. Also, it’s well-known that the plaque in arteries, which results from inflammation, causes heart attacks.
4. Anyone who feels tired and fatigued all the time. This is particularly important if no reason can be found for the problem. Fatigue is associated with inflammation.
5. Anyone who works in a toxic environment. It’s well known that toxins cause excess inflammation.
6. Any one suffering extensively from depression or anxiety. It’s well-known that stress causes inflammation.
7. Older People. Our body changes as we age and we tend to produce more pro-inflammation chemicals and fewer anti-inflammation chemicals.
What You can do to Avoid Chronic Inflammation
The above list should give you a good idea what to do to avoid chronic inflammation, nevertheless I’ll list some of the major things and briefly discuss them. I should mention, however, that genes play a role in whether or not you’ll get chronic inflammation, and there’s little we can do about them.
A list of the major things is as follows:
• Eat a highly nutritious diet. It should include at least five servings of vegetables and fruit each day. Cruciferous vegetables are particularly important; they include broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. Other excellent vegetables are carrots, tomatoes, spinach and beans. Some of the best fruits are citrus fruits; berries such as blueberries and strawberries are also important. Other things that are particularly good are grains such as oats and whole wheat, nuts and seeds. Fish is also important as a source of omega-3, and you should eat it 2 to 3 times a week. At the same time you should avoid simple carbohydrates, fast foods, soda, saturated fats and trans fat products.
• Don’t overeat. Also, if you are over-weight, lose weight.
• Get sufficient sleep. For most adults 7 to 8 hours is sufficient.
• Exercise regularly. Exercise is, in fact, a good way to lower inflammation. Both aerobic and weights are important.
• Control your cholesterol, blood pressure and triglycerides.
• Avoid stress.
• Avoid toxins.