Have you heard a lot about inflammation but never really understood what it was? There is quite a focus in the health world on ANTI-inflammation and anti-inflammatory agents. But what is really going on?
In a sentence, inflammation is the body’s reaction to foreign invaders and damaged cells, and results in pain, heat, swelling, redness, and a loss of function. These are the cardinal signs of inflammation, and they can happen anywhere in the body.
There are several ways in which our cells can be damaged, such as trauma (injury, burns, lack of oxygen), infection (bacterial, viral, fungal), toxins (smoking, alcohol, pollution, pesticides, skin care products), or foods (allergies, sensitivities, intolerances). When cell damage occurs, the immune system works to clear out the cells that can’t be saved and heal the ones that can. This process requires greater blood flow in the area to move waste products away and bring in immune cells (such as white blood cells) to stimulate healing. This is why the area becomes red and warm. As our blood vessels dilate to accommodate more blood, they also become leaky, releasing the immune cells in blood plasma, and that’s why we get swelling.
The white blood cell’s job is to engulf the dead cells, microbes, and/or toxins and neutralize them with free radicals- unstable molecules that cause damage to neighboring cells. For example, the pus in an acne pimple or a tooth abscess is an aggregation of dead white blood cells and the debris they have cleaned up. The free radicals, however, can also damage surrounding tissue, impairing its function.
Acute inflammation can actually be a rapid, effective means of returning the body or affected part to a healthier state of being, for example, in the case of a sprained ankle. Low-grade, chronic inflammation, however, is more troublesome as the tissue becomes less and less able to regenerate, and instead is replaced with scarred, non-functional tissue.
Some examples of how free radicals can lead to a loss of function are:
- High blood cholesterol: Free radicals attack the large amount of cholesterol and can’t help but damage to surrounding blood vessels. This makes it easier for plaque to build up, causing the arteries to harden (atherosclerosis) which leads to an increased risk for heart attack or stroke via blockage of blood flow and oxygen.
- Hepatitis B virus infection: The Hep B virus replicates in liver cells. Liver damage occurs while the immune system tries to clear the infection with free radicals. Eventually cirrhosis (scarring) or liver cancer occur.
- Celiac disease (an autoimmune disease): This disease is characterized by an immune response to gluten in the small intestine (ie. free radical intestinal damage). This causes malabsorption of food, leading to the various symptoms of this disease: anemia, diarrhea, bloating, fatigue, …
While in acute situations, the tried-and-true PRICE treatments (protect, rest, ice, compression, elevation) in the first 24 hours are useful, but anti-inflammatory agents will suppress the natural healing process, and inhibit tissue regeneration. However, chronic inflammation is where they can be beneficial. Antioxidants, for example, are anti-inflammatory in that they inactivate free-radicals, stopping the on-going destruction of tissue.
Antioxidants are found abundantly in vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices.
Anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, aspirin, and corticosteroids are popular choices but, with long-term use, have their own adverse effects such as stomach ulceration, kidney damage, and/or greater cardiovascular risk (aspirin lowers cardiovascular risk). Chronic disease processes require further investigation to determine the underlying cause to treat it effectively. See your naturopathic doctor for more information and guidance!