Chronic Inflammation: What It Is, Why It’s Harmful, and What You Can Do About It
This is the first post in a series of posts exploring inflammation, how it plays into common conditions, and natural ways to ease inflammation.
Inflammation is present inside all of us, even if we can’t feel it. While acute inflammation is a normal biological response to injury or infection, it can also persist (which makes it chronic), contributing to serious medical conditions. You could even argue that 8 of the top 10 causes of death in the United States can be linked to chronic inflammation.
What is Inflammation?
Like firemen to a fire, inflammation in response to injury or sickness is necessary and beneficial. The signs of inflammation that we can see and feel--pain, redness, swelling, and heat--combined with inflammation’s effect on behavior signal us to rest and take care of ourselves. Inflammation is one of the many mechanisms that contribute to the body’s homeostasis, or desire to be in balance when faced with disturbances. Inflammation in this sense is good because it heals anything from a sprained ligament to the common cold.
In the body, an injury or pathogen--a harmful virus, bacteria, or other microorganism--triggers a series of chemical messengers that initiate inflammation which is intended for healing and repair. You can visualize this process by thinking about what happens when a building catches on fire: there is a distress signal, firemen and first responders arrive, the fire is put out, and debris is disposed of. Sensing these chemicals, phagocytes--immune cells that gobble up microorganisms and cellular waste--arrive at the site and get to work. These chemicals cause your blood vessels to dilate which allows oxygen and nutrients to reach the area faster. In the liver, these chemicals initiate the production of proteins, some of which help with clotting to stop bleeding, and others that attack pathogens.
But inflammation is supposed to be a short-term response. When it becomes chronic, it causes harm. Think about what would happen if firemen kept fighting a fire that was already extinguished: they would end up flooding the rooms and hallways, ultimately damaging the building more. The initial, local problem would soon have far-reaching consequences. This is exactly the scenario that plays out in the body when inflammation becomes chronic.
Why Chronic Inflammation is Harmful
With chronic inflammation, protective processes spiral out of control, causing further damage locally and in other areas of the body. For instance, proteins that help stop bleeding can stick together and build into a mass that makes blood flow to the injured area more difficult, thus slowing down the healing process. Likewise, breaking down a small amount of muscle for tissue repair is beneficial but continued muscle breakdown can result in reduced muscle mass and strength.
Chronic inflammation can also impair mood and cause weight gain. Some inflammatory chemicals alter the levels of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in the brain that influence appetite, energy, motivation, and mood. This helps explain why individuals with infections or other inflammatory conditions like autoimmune disease often develop mood disorders.
Chronic inflammation is like a silent tornado, building up speed and increasing in size as each inflammation site affects other areas of the body, creating more inflammation and more sites of damage. Fortunately, there are ways to ease inflammation, no matter its origin. The next posts in this series will explore how chronic inflammation contributes to common health conditions, and discuss natural anti-inflammatory foods and practices.
Maria Capecelatro is a Master Nutrition Therapist at Dream Nutrition in Denver, CO. She started Dream Nutrition to help those struggling with Depression, workout/injury Recovery, Energy, Anxiety, and Mood feel like themselves again through nutrition and lifestyle changes. These five issues can get in the way of being our best selves and achieving our dreams. IF we let them. Contact Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website.
Photo by: JoAnne Capecelatro Photography