Inflammation: What Does It All Mean?
These days, we hear a lot about inflammation. Chronic inflammation plays a major role in many degenerative disorders, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, the aging process, and even cancer. What exactly is inflammation?
Inflammation is activation of the immune system, which is called into play whenever there is a threat to the organism. This may be a consequence of injury, in which the immune system acts to protect the affected tissue and promotes the process of healing and tissue repair. A sprained ankle is a simple example of this process, in which swelling, heat, and redness are all typical of an acute inflammatory reaction. As the tissue heals, the inflammatory process slowly resolves. Infection, whether viral or bacterial is another example in which acute inflammation initiates the process of healing, as the immune system fights off the offending microbe.
Inflammation may be acute or chronic. Acute inflammation is short lived, just days to weeks and resolves on its own. In most cases, the process is helpful to us and is an important part of healing and recovery. But chronic inflammation is another story. Chronic inflammation occurs when either the initial trigger persists, as in the case of a chronic, persistent infection or if the body, for some reason does not turn off the inflammatory process. In that case, persistent activation of the immune system can be damaging to tissue and makes us sick.
With inflammation, activation of the immune system results in the stimulation of white blood cells, antibody production, serum proteins, and the production of cytokines, which are specialized molecules produced by the immune system that amplify and perpetuate inflammation. When these processes persist, and do not naturally resolve, rather than helping us to recover, chronic inflammation can lead to accelerated aging, tissue damage, disordered immune function and illness.
When we experience chronic systemic inflammation, several symptoms may emerge, such as fatigue and lethargy, low energy, impaired sleep, low grade fever, skin and hair changes, and musculoskeletal discomfort. With more severe and persistent inflammation, allergies, eczema and other skin conditions emerge and autoimmune disorders may develop. But in many cases, low grade chronic inflammation may not be recognized and the individual may experience few or no symptoms at all. In fact, many of us have evidence of low grade chronic inflammation without even realizing it! This situation significantly increases the risk of many conditions, including cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in North America.
What can you do to identify and prevent inflammation? For one, if you suffer with any of the symptoms discussed above, it is highly likely that your body is inflamed. For those of us who may remain asymptomatic, there are several blood tests that can measure our state of inflammation; the sedimentation rate and C-reactive protein tests are commonly used for this purpose. Other common measures include the blood count (chronic inflammation may cause anemia and elevated white blood and platelet cell counts), measures of liver function tests, ferritin (an iron binding protein), to name a few.
In my next post, I will discuss how to address and treat inflammation naturally.