What is inflammation? A precise definition seems altogether impossible. Inflammation manifests in different ways, which spans the spectrum of both helpful and harmful. Today we are working towards having a better understanding of inflammation and its role in our lives. The best attempts to define inflammation still lack the precision that we've been looking for more than a century.
Inflammation is our immune system's primary tool in the elimination of toxic agents and the repair of damaged tissues. But when inflammation persists to a chronic state or switches on inappropriately, it can become our enemy rather than our friend. Hardly a week goes by in which I don't come across a study where researchers are finding new links between inappropriate inflammation and common diseases & disorders. The other day I came across a study that found the brains of children with Autism contain an overabundance of inflammation-stimulating proteins. The presence of these proteins suggests a "connection" between inflammation and Autism. It seems like, wherever we begin to look, research is finding these sorts of connections. From Alzheimer's and heart disease to arthritis, cancer, and gastrointestinal disorders, elevated or out-of-whack inflammation is a common thread that ties together these seemingly unrelated ailments. Likewise, research has linked chronic inflammation to mental health conditions, including depression and bipolar disorder.
To understand how and why inflammation seems to underlie so many conditions, it's essential to recognize that the term "inflammation" refers to many biological processes. Inflammation is a broad term for many different types of immune-related responses. Basically, inflammation is the body's response to anything that needs repairing. From Alzheimer's and heart disease to arthritis, cancer, and gastrointestinal disorders, elevated or out-of-whack inflammation seems to be the common thread that ties together these seemingly unrelated ailments.
One type of inflammation is designed to battle harmful bacteria or parasites. When there's an infection, invading virus or bacteria, the body generates inflammation that destroys the invading agents. Meanwhile, there are other types of inflammation that signal that the body is recovering from injury. When the body is wounded, inflammation floods the injured area with cell-derived components that repair, replace, and dispose of damaged tissue.
When your immune system is working as it should, these and other forms of inflammation are transitory. They flare up in response to threat or injury, and it settles down when that threat of damage has been healed. There are countless ways in which your immune system can manifest an inflammatory process and get out of whack. In some cases, the inflammatory process that turned on to kill harmful viruses and bacteria can become misguided and start doing damage to healthy cells. This form of improper inflammation is what you may have been hearing more and more of in our culture, an autoimmune disorder. Examples are diseases such as Celiac disease and lupus. There's also evidence that something similar may be going on in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease. That is something that keeps me interested in keeping inflammation at bay. I know that I have the APOE4 gene, which increases my probabilities of getting Alzheimer's. Persistent inflammation caused by chronic stress or injuries seems to be a foundational principle for the disease.
There's evidence that imbalances in immune-system activity can lead to harmful or out-of-control forms of inflammation. One part of the immune system deploys inflammation in an effort to protect the body from parasites, while a separate part is using inflammation to attack harmful bacteria or microorganisms. The body wants to balance these, so when one is turned on, the other is turned down or off.
But if one of these parts becomes over- or under-active, the resulting imbalance can cause problems. This sort of imbalance may help explain why rates of some autoimmune disorders are skyrocketing in recent years. In our modern societies, we've almost totally reduced our exposure to worms and parasitic infections. A result being noticed is that the part of the immune system that works against those worms and parasites is shrinking while the part of the immune system wired for inflammation is growing.
In one form or another, inflammation is the immune system's go-to weapon against almost anything it perceives to be a threat to the human body or brain. When a person is free of disease, inflammation has done its job. But when problems arise, it makes sense that inflammation would somehow be implicated. Because inflammation is so closely tied to the immune system, any behavior outside the norm is bound to cause illness. For now, We're learning and exploring the ways it creates an adaptation to our bodies, for better & worse.
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