What’s All This Talk About Inflammation?

We talk a lot around here about inflammation, and some of you have raised good questions (and answers) regarding what we’re really getting at. A continuing thanks for your comments and thoughtful responses.

So, what do we mean by inflammation when we harp on the evils of sugars, grains, trans fats and other nutritional fiends? Ah, the many sides of swelling: abscesses, bulges, distensions, engorgements, boils, blisters, bunions, oh my! Do swollen ankles and puffy black shiners really have anything to do with the inflammation of arterial walls? Can flossing possibly help prevent heart disease? Let’s explore, shall we.

Anyone who has ever, say, walked into a door knows that with injury comes inflammation (and a little humiliation). The effects are right there: redness, pain, swelling. It hurts to touch the site, and we might for some time look like Marcia Brady in the infamous football episode. We might be horrified at the visual effects that ensue, but it’s just the body’s natural and essential response to defend itself from infection or trauma. In fact, the swelling initiates the healing process itself. Remember, the body doesn’t care what you look like as long as it can regain your good health.

Walking into that door is an example of “acute inflammation,” a localized response characterized by compression of the surrounding nerves (ouch!) and collection of fluid in the area that helps bolster an immune response. The microscopic trainers are busy shouting orders, notifying the brain of wounded status, calling in the clotting response and going to work to reset things and get you taped up. They take care of business, you avoid all human contact for two weeks out of embarrassment, and you come out basically no worse for the wear.

Acute inflammation circumstances tend to be pretty run of the mill: sprained ankles, cuts and scrapes, bumps on the head, etc. In certain cases, however, inflammation takes on much larger significance, such as in the case of the major trauma of a car accident, significant burns, major allergic reaction or a previously localized infection that spreads to other parts of the body. Major and/or multiple sites of trauma and infection initiate a larger, systemic response.

In cases of severe trauma, the body elicits a massive inflammatory response. The immune system kicks into high gear, and white blood cells, among others, migrate to the injured areas. Receptors that sense the sweeping call to inflammatory action get in on the action. The blood supply to major organs, such as the lungs, is compromised. If left unchecked, organs failure can ensue.

But there’s another wrinkle to the inflammation picture. Sort of an “in-betweener.” Ongoing health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure and autoimmune disorders can instigate what’s known as chronic, low-grade inflammation. This kind of inflammation doesn’t result in the immediate, sweeping response of trauma, but it keeps the body in a constant state of repair response. Immune cells (macrophages, monocytes, and lymphocytes) take charge, and a recurring, destructive process of tissue destruction and repair effort develops and continues until the source of the chronic inflammation is removed.

And there are serious consequences to this unchecked, ongoing inflammation. Neutrophils, one of the cells involved in inflammatory response, attack what they perceive as outside damage/invaders with the massive production of free radicals. They and other cells will keep pumping and spreading these free radicals throughout the body as long as they sense the inflammation. As you know by now, free radicals also destroy healthy cell walls and DNA, so there is collateral damage, too. The body’s general immune response (the ability to deal with daily exposure to bacteria, virus and fungus) is compromised because the system is kept busy tending to the incessant, active inflammation. Long-term effects of chronic inflammation can influence the development of many other conditions from Chrohn’s disease to cancer. And, of course, countless studies have connected chronic inflammation with the development of atherosclerosis (and, increasingly, insulin resistance). Remember we spoke recently about the devastation caused when arterial walls are inflamed and the body responds with a “cholesterol band-aid“? Yep, chronic systemic inflammation is a big factor there, too. Even to the extent that chronically inflamed gums might be a tangential cause of heart disease – and if not a cause, at the very least an accompanying symptom of systemic inflammation.

Frightening scenario, eh? The good news is that a CRP or C-reactive protein test can offer you and your doctor a better sense of your inflammation picture. Another test called hs-CRP may offer a detailed picture of inflammation as it relates to heart disease risk. If you get these tests, be sure to do so when you don’t have a recent injury or illness, since CRP can linger from the acute response, too.

We’ll say what we’ll always say. (Systemic) inflammation sucks. Get rid of simple carbs. Eliminate stress. Get some exercise (but not too much). Embrace a Primal anti-inflammatory diet. Check ’em out in the archives, and share your comments.

ulybug, late night movie Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Top 10 Natural Ways to Reduce Inflammation

Science Daily – Seeing is Believing: Visualizing Inflammation in Fat Tissue

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