What We are Talking About When We Talk About Inflammation

Most of us probably have a general sense of what is meant by the term inflammation. It’s that redness and swelling that appears after an insect bite, or the soreness and swelling of an arthritic joint. Most people realize that when there has been some kind of trauma or stress in the body, our body’s natural response is to create swelling and redness, both of which are associated with pain and tenderness, hallmarks of the inflammatory process. Acute inflammation is a vital, defensive, and potentially life saving response. What you might not know about inflammation is that it’s also now known to be linked to many disorders and disease conditions.

There are two types of inflammation: Acute-inflammation and Para-inflammation. Acute inflammation as I mentioned is the type that is sudden and short term and happens in response to trauma and is an essential part of the healing process. Para-inflammation is chronic and degenerative and it is associated with almost every known disorder and disease condition, including type-2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and brain diseases.

Problems arise when inflammation gets out of control and becomes chronic. Inflammation is meant to be a first wave emergency stop gap, it’s not suppose to be active for months or years. But that is what is happening in millions of people. When inflammation goes on and on unchecked, there are a variety of chemicals that are produced that are toxic to our cells. This leads to a reduction of cellular function followed by cellular destruction.

“Unbridled inflammation is rampant in Western cultures, with leading scientific research showing that it is the fundamental  cause of the morbidity  and mortality associated with coronary heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, Alzheimer’s and virtually every other chronic disease.”       David Perlmutter, M.D.

Inflammation is sort of a hot topic right now. These days more and more doctors are realizing that coronary artery disease, a leading cause of heart attacks, may actually have more to do with inflammation than high cholesterol numbers. And while we all might be familiar with inflammation as it relates to things like asthma and arthritis, the past decade has produced an extensive body of research clearly pointing the finger of causality at inflammation when considering neurodegenerative conditions as well.

The key downstream effect of inflammation that is responsible for the damage is the activation of chemical pathways that increase free radical production. At the center of chronic inflammation, then, is oxidative stress—a biological type of “rusting.” This gradual corrosion happens on all tissues and is a normal part of life: it also occurs everywhere in nature, including when we turn calories (energy) from food and oxygen from the air into usable energy. But when we get too many free radicals causing too much oxidative stress, it can become deadly.

You’ve probably heard of “free radicals.” Free radicals are just molecules that have lost an electron. Normally, electrons are found in pairs, but forces such as pollution, perceptions of stress, chemicals, toxic dietary triggers, ultraviolet light, and ordinary cellular functions can “free” an electron from a molecule such that it goes off and tries to “steal” electrons from other molecules. This is the oxidative process itself, a chain of events that creates more and more free radicals. Because oxidized cells and tissues don’t function properly, oxidation can leave you vulnerable to a slew of health challenges. This helps to explain why people with high oxidative stress, reflected by high levels of inflammation, often have an extensive list of health challenges ranging from slow wound healing, low resistance to infection, joint pain, digestive disorders, anxiety, headaches, depression, and allergies.

As you might have guessed, reduced oxidation lowers inflammation. Antioxidants are important for this very reason. Nutrients such as A, C, and E donate electrons to free radicals, which interrupts the chain reaction. Anti-oxidant rich foods such as vegetables, nuts, and berries are, for this reason and many others, essential to our health.

Let’s Look at Inflammation and Autoimmunity:

In the U.S. alone we are facing an epidemic of allergic (60 million people), asthmatic (30 million people), and autoimmune disorders (24 million people). **There are about 350 million ppl in the U.S.** Autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, celiac disease, thyroid disease, and the many other hard-to-classify syndromes in the 21st century.  These are all autoimmune conditions, and at their root they are connected by one central biochemical process: A runaway immune response also called systemic inflammation that results in your body attacking its own tissues.

Your immune system is your defense against invaders. It is your internal army and has to clearly distinguish friend from foe—to know you from others. Autoimmunity occurs when your immune system gets confused and your own tissues get caught in friendly fire. (Your body is fighting something—an infection, a toxin, an allergen, a food or the stress response—and somehow it redirects its hostile attack on your joints, your brain, your thyroid, your gut, your skin, or sometimes your whole body.)

This immune confusion results from what is referred to as molecular mimicry. Interestingly, autoimmune disorders occur almost exclusively in developed countries. People in poor nations without modern amenities like flush toilets and washing machines don’t get these diseases.  In fact, if you grew up on a farm with lots of animals, you are also less likely to have any of these inflammatory disorders. Playing in the dirt and being exposed to bugs and infections trains your immune system to recognize what is foreign and what is “you.”

In this country, autoimmune diseases, when taken all together, are a huge health burden. They are the eighth leading cause of death among women, shortening the average patient’s lifespan by eight years. The annual health care cost for autoimmune diseases is $120 billion a year representing nearly twice the economic health care burden of cancer (about $ 70 billion a year).

Unfortunately, many of the conventional treatments available can make you feel worse. Anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil, steroids, immune suppressants like methotrexate, and the new drugs like Remicade can lead to intestinal bleeding, kidney failure, ulcers, depression, psychosis, osteoporosis, muscle loss, and diabetes, not to mention overwhelming infection and cancer.  (When used selectively these drugs can help people get their lives back. But they are not a long-term solution. They shouldn’t be the end of treatment, but a bridge to cool off inflammation while we treat the root cause of the disease.)

Luckily there are other cheaper, healthier ways to deal with autoimmune conditions. There are herbs and supplements that support healing and detoxification, anti-fungals for extreme yeast overgrowth, probiotics to regrow the flora and heal the gut, and clean, whole-food, allergen-free, anti-inflammatory diets.

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