There seems to be no end to the range of health problems that inflammation in the body causes. You may have read about chronic inflammation as a contributor to everything from menstrual pain and Alzheimer’s disease, to cancer and the aging process itself. Why is this the case? What does inflammation do to your body, and why can it seem impossible to resolve?
Inflammation can be either beneficial or harmful. Sometimes, inflammation actually protects our bodies. Short-term, controlled acute inflammation is necessary for fighting infection and starting the healing process when there is an injury. When inflammation gets out of hand by becoming too severe or overstaying its welcome, however, further pain, illness, and degeneration often result.
“Good” Inflammation: The Acute Inflammatory Response
First, let’s look at what “good” inflammation is. Acute inflammation is a necessary part of the nonspecific immune response, so it is the same whether you suffer a bacterial infection, viral infection, cut, burn or radiation exposure. A healthy inflammatory response involves:
- Dilation and increased permeability of blood vessels, which allows
- The migration of immune cells to the affected area, so they can clear pathogens and debris from damaged tissue, and triggering
- The initiation of the healing process.
The heat, swelling, and redness seen in inflammation is the result of the first step, while pain can be caused by damage to neurons. Prostaglandins worsen to pain and cause muscle cramping, such as that in period pain.
“Bad” Inflammation: When Resolution Goes Wrong
Chronic inflammation can be the result of the initial inflammatory trigger remaining in the body, such as a persistent pathogen or repeated toxic exposure; or a failure to resolve acute inflammation. Aging can promote inflammation, causing a harmful cycle, through oxidative stress, impaired energy production, and the accumulation of senescent cells. Additionally, obesity, stress, and trouble sleeping all increase inflammatory mediators.
One particularly nasty pathway, for example, is the release of large amounts of HMGB-1, an immune mediator, from cells. This can happen as a result of cell damage, where it leaks from dead cells and into the “outside world” of the body. Acute effects of a spike in HMGB-1 may include sepsis and organ failure if it’s severe enough. Diabetes, arthritis, and cancer can be some long-term consequences of more insidious, slow-burning rises in HMGB-1.
Besides inflammatory pathways, we also have pro-resolution mechanisms (SPMs) that turn off inflammation. It is now known that many benefits of fish oil are thanks to the pro-resolving mediators made from omega-3 fatty acids. These regulate inflammatory responses, restore gene expression to its normal state, and can even support immunity. Yes – besides being directly anti-inflammatory, resolving mediators may enhance the immune response against infections including S. aureus (golden staph) and E. coli. However, what benefits of resolution mechanisms you do see may be controlled by the time of day, as they are produced along with daily rhythms. One study showing beneficial effects of SPM-enhanced fish oil prescribed the supplement in the morning, so you may find success with this time, too.
How Inflammation Affects the Body
Inflammation affects the immune system’s behavior and our overall health in a number of ways. Its consequences range from unpleasant symptoms to tissue degeneration and long-term memories of harmless cells being mistaken for an infection.
Symptoms of Inflammation
The immune system is involved in every part of our bodies, so many symptoms affect the whole body. Common symptoms of systemic inflammation include pain, such as joint or muscle pain; frequent infections, as the acute response is affected; mood disorders including depression; weight gain or loss; chronic fatigue; and digestive complaints such as constipation or diarrhea.
As I explain in my book, Infla-Menses, inflammation is a common cause of menstrual problems. A number of downstream products of arachidonic acid are largely responsible for issues such as period pain, including prostaglandins E2 and F2. Not only do they cause uterine cramping, but they also heighten our perception of pain. Chronic manifestations of this problem are known as visceral hypersensitivity, which may include illnesses such as IBS and fibromyalgia.
Degeneration and Scarring
The purpose of short-term inflammation is to clear out cellular debris from an injury, or an infection. Its destructive nature is eventually toxic to cells and tissues that would otherwise be healthy. These are then replaced by scar tissue, connective tissue or even epithelial tissue, which normally forms the lining of all organs. Polyps and abscesses are some examples of the tissue remodeling that goes on with chronic inflammation.
Over time, inflammation leads to long-term tissue degeneration. For example, in the case of age-related macular degeneration, some inflammatory mediators make retinal cells more sensitive to oxidative stress. Others promote the accumulation of scar tissue, which prevents the healthy functioning and repair of normal tissue. Some increase the growth of blood vessels, a helpful act in some contexts, but in others, it can interfere with normal tissue functioning and contribute to tissue overgrowth.
Memory and Confusion
During the chronic inflammatory response, the immune system is more likely to become “confused”, attacking parts of the body that resemble a microbe or food allergen. This is called molecular mimicry and may be involved in illnesses such as multiple sclerosis (MS). Unfortunately, the immune cells remember this interaction, even though it was a case of mistaken identity.
The immune system’s memory is a key reason why autoimmune diseases are so devastating. Some of the first people with MS to have ever seen their disease “frozen”, and in many cases partially reversed, achieved this by resetting their immune systems. Several thousand people around the world so far have found success from destroying their old immune systems with chemotherapy, and then having a bone marrow transplant to rebuild it all over again. These new generations of immune cells don’t have the memory of myelin being misinterpreted as harmful. Some people no longer consider themselves as having MS after the transplant, but many others still have some disabilities leftover from scar tissue development.
Considering all the effects that inflammation has on the body, it’s no surprise that inflammation contributes to so many illnesses and health conditions. How do we prevent inflammation? Your risk of chronic inflammation, and the remedies that work best for you, are influenced by your genetics. A DNA test can uncover where your vulnerabilities lie, and how to protect yourself with the right anti-inflammatory foods and lifestyle choices.