OUCH! You just cut your finger and the pain is intense, your finger is bleeding, turning red, and swelling up. You’re probably yelling your favorite expletive, but you should really be celebrating. This annoying accident is actually a beautiful manifestation of your immune system at work. This is acute inflammation. It’s your body doing everything it can to protect you against invaders and restore your body to peak function. Inflammation is the body’s attempt to protect itself by removing any irritants, pathogens, or damaged cells to allow the body to heal itself.
Any symptoms of inflammation — redness, swelling, or pain, for example — are proof that the body is doing what it was designed to you: namely, keep you alive.
According to Dr. Leo Galland, one of the pioneers of functional medicine and author of the book The Allergy Solution, “inflammation is a coordinated response that the body mounts in response to infection or injury. It involves the activation of white blood cells and the release of chemicals through which these cells communicate with each other and with surrounding tissues.”
Inflammation: friend or foe?
So why is inflammation being blamed for just about everything today? Rheumatoid arthritis? Inflammation. Irritable bowel syndrome? Inflammation. Heart disease? Inflammation. Brangelina break-up? OK maybe not everything, but certainly the majority of diseases are linked to inflammation, according to emerging research.
Says Galland: “[Inflammation] is receiving so much attention these days because misdirected, chronic inflammation plays an important role in most of the common chronic illnesses of modern life.”
How does chronic inflammation happen?
While we need the inflammatory response to heal us from wounds and overcome infections, excessive inflammation, on the other hand, damages organs, creates blood clots, and causes muscles to waste away.
Galland cites four factors responsible, namely “a sedentary lifestyle, diets based on processed and manufactured foods that are depleted of key anti-inflammatory nutrients and fiber, exposure to toxins from outdoors and indoor pollution, and alterations in the friendly bacterial populations that normally inhabits our bodies aka the microbiome.”
The stress connection
According to Galland, “Chronic low-grade inflammation interferes with normal processes through which the body regulates its response to stress. It can cause disturbances of metabolism and hormone function, weight gain, fluid retention, and circulatory problems, leading to heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.”
Does just thinking about any of these ailments stress you out? Well take a deep breath because stress is one of the worst offenders when it comes to inflammation in the body.
“Hormones secreted in response to stress may either increase or decrease inflammation, so the balance of stress hormones is important. Adrenalin increases stress. It also increases the
growth of bacteria that further promote inflammation. Stress also impairs the function of immune cells called regulatory T-cells that normally decrease inflammation,” Dr. Galland explains.
The immune systems of people with chronic inflammation are in overdrive. Their bodies are acting as if they are always fighting infection or healing from injury. Their bodies are constantly on the defensive, which is exhausting mentally and physically.
The fight against inflammation
We don’t want to give you one more thing to stress about, so how about some good news? Scientists are busy studying the inflammatory processes and waging a war on inflammation. Galland has been studying the microbiome for the past 30 years and is excited about current findings.
“It is now clear that our bodies exist as ecological systems and that the relationship between our own cells and the tens of trillions of microbes that live in our bodies has a huge impact on health. Some of these microbes prevent inflammation; others promote it. Inflammation itself and the lifestyle factors that create more inflammation influence the composition of the microbiome in numerous ways, for better or for worse,” he explains, adding “Also important is research on the role of specific functional foods in preventing the widespread low-grade, chronic inflammation that is at the root of most modern diseases.”
While we may be living in an inflammation nation, Galland is optimistic about a future where medical research and personal lifestyle changes can halt or reverse chronic inflammation.
“Future studies will help us understand how to engineer our lifestyle choices and our microbiomes to achieve optimal balance of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses, so that our bodies act quickly to heal infection and injury without producing immune or metabolic dysregulation,” he says.
In sum, it all comes down to balance.