The word “inflammation” is derived from the Latin word “inflammo”, which means “I set alight, I ignite”. Inflammation is a process in which our body heals itself when we are injured. It is our body’s self-protection mechanism against harmful stimuli, irritants, allergens and pathogens and is a natural part of the body’s immune response system. This could be your body fighting against an infection or a splinter in your finger. Inflammation involves immune cells, blood vessels and molecular mediators that work together to eliminate the initial causes of cell and tissue injury. Not only does inflammation work to eliminate the initial cause of cell injury but also to clear out dead cells and other tissue that may have been damaged as a result of the injury. Once the initial process of inflammation begins the damaged tissue can start to repair itself.
Inflammation is part of our innate immunity. This means that it is present in our bodies since birth, unlike adaptive immunity that is developed throughout our lives after an infection or a vaccination. However, even though inflammation is a critical process in the body, if it becomes chronic, it starts to cause complications and can lead to serious health issues. Therefore, we need to differentiate between acute inflammation and chronic inflammation.
Acute inflammation is good in that it promotes healing and recovery. It starts quickly to get to work on repairing an injury or fight an infection. For example, a badly strained ankle. I remember tripping up a few years ago and badly straining my ankle. Have you ever done that? It is really quite painful. I was amazed at the swelling and bruising. This is the inflammation process at work and the symptoms of acute inflammation are redness, swelling, heat and pain. This acute inflammatory process is at work with the following conditions:
● Acute sinusitis
● Acute tonsillitis
● Acute appendicitis
● Viral infection
● Acute bronchitis
● Torn muscle
● Cut to the skin
Clearly, inflammation is a critical process in the human body and without it, infections, wounds, and damaged tissues would not heal.
On the other hand, chronic inflammation or systemic inflammation as it is sometimes known, is more long term and can last for months or even years. This occurs when the inflammation process fails to heal the original cause. When inflammation becomes chronic, it can lead to more serious diseases and conditions such as:
● Celiac Disease
● Crohn’s Disease
● Inflammatory Bowel Disease
● Rheumatoid arthritis
Many experts in the field of medicine and nutrition now view chronic inflammation as an epidemic. So many diseases that are prevalent in today’s society are linked with chronic inflammation. However, the problem is that this low level systemic inflammation can go unnoticed for many years. Most of us will not even be aware of this. As we get older, our body’s become less resilient to chronic inflammation and this is when we can start to see the effects of this hidden force that has been smoldering away in the background for years or even decades.
When an inflammatory process continues even when there are no foreign substances or antigens to fight, it leads to auto-immunity. This is when the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body by mistake because it does not distinguish between healthy tissue and antigens. There are over 80 known autoimmune diseases. Common examples of autoimmune diseases include Celiac Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Type 1 Diabetes.
Interestingly, autoimmunity is present in all of us to a small degree and generally doesn’t pose a threat to our health. In fact, it is intrinsic to all vertebrate life. The problems start when autoimmunity progresses from benign to pathogenic. When something is pathogenic, it means it can cause disease.
In Western medicine, chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases are often treated with various drugs and steroids that suppress the immune system and inflammatory response. These drugs may well have a role to play as a part of a wider treatment plan under the guidance of a doctor, but we need to think about addressing chronic inflammation at its roots.
Throughout our lives we experience all types of injury ranging from cuts to the skin and sprained joints to torn muscles and tendonitis to name just a few. The acute inflammatory response is absolutely essential in protecting and repairing the injured area. As soon as we sustain an injury, even if it is a minor cut, the immune system mobilizes the troops for action. The possibility of infection is increased as thousands of foreign particles, mostly bacteria, invade the injured area. The immune system mounts an immediate defensive strike to combat the invaders and destroy them before they can establish a foothold and advance further into our bodies. Acute inflammation is our body’s first line of defense and it is a powerful fighting machine of amazing complexity that vigilantly protects us without our conscious thought. Simply amazing!
In the next article on this subject, we'll take a closer look at the impact of chronic inflammation and how we can combat this.
Sports & fitness nutritionist, researcher and author on a mission to improve the human condition. Focusing on evidence-based and outcome-based nutrition, training, mindset & environment