Inflammation: What is it? Is it all bad news?


What is inflammation?

That word is getting thrown around a lot lately and most of the explanations I see are accompanied by biochemistry charts and words like cytokines and prostaglandins. 

Which is cool. 

To me. 

Because I'm a nerdy doctor who's into all that complex and very interesting detail.

But you? I'm pretty sure your eyes glaze over or you go into a rage because WTH PEOPLE?!? Really?

So let me tell you about inflammation in words that you are way more likely to understand and don't make you feel stupid, mmkay?

Inflammation is a necessary and awesome process that our amazing bodies can and must perform. It's our body's way of rallying the troops when there is an invasion until our immune system gets the message and sets up a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, if necessary. (That's usually not necessary, by the way.) Otherwise that toxin can get out of hand and wipe out the whole unit with dysentary...or something.

Until the late 18th century, acute inflammation was regarded as a disease. John Hunter (1728–1793, London surgeon and anatomist) was the first to realize that acute inflammation was a response to injury that was generally beneficial to the host: ‘But if inflammation develops, regardless of the cause, still it is an effort whose purpose is to restore the parts to their natural functions.’
— Concise Pathology, 3e

Say a bee stings you--it triggers the inflammatory cascade to come protect you from the Evil Poison of The Bee. The area around the sting swells, gets red and warm, hurts, and sometimes loses some mobility. These are traditional signs of acute inflammation and YOU WANT THIS TO HAPPEN.

Yay! Inflammation! My body is protecting me!

Another thing you want is the inflammatory process to end. You get stung, it hurts, you ice it or leave it alone and it's fine in a relatively short period of time.* (Don't worry, we won't talk about the way you were flailing around screaming like a little girl trying to get away from that bee...) No more redness, swelling, pain, heat, or loss of function. No more inflamed skin. Your immune system has taken over and determined there is no need to panic and all is well. The appropriate inflammatory response did its job. You forget about it--until you see another bee, but that's a different reaction. ;)

Yay! No more inflammation! My body has no fear of attack anymore!

That's the way it's designed to happen anyway.

Inflammation should turn on when needed and off when its job is complete. However, most of us are living in a state of constant low-level inflammation and THAT is when inflammation becomes a problem. It starts causing damage to healthy tissue instead of protecting it. Cue irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, headaches, joint pain, anxiety, depression, heart disease, autoimmunity, and even cancer. 

Yeah, I said it. 

Almost everything can be traced back to inflammation gone wild. It's is a sign that your body isn't functioning quite properly and maybe you should investigate the root cause(s) of the dysfunction.

Here's the deal: you can decrease the amount of inflammation in your body. 

Seriously. It doesn't always take a prescription for steroids, in fact, stay away from that crap if you can and look at the signals your body is showing you. 

  • Do you get a headache after you eat some specific food, every damn time? 
  • Do your neck and upper back hurt and you just happen to sit hunched over a desk all day long and never get any exercise? 

Connect the dots. 

Analyze your lifestyle and food choices. 

Think about your genetic heritage (but don't get crazy--genetics is only 20% of the story and you can alter that too!). 

Then take the simplest action to remedy the cause. 

  • Stop eating that food that makes you headachey. 
  • Improve your posture at your desk during the day. 
  • Start moving more. Purposeful movement is directly correlated to decreased inflammatory blood markers. 
  • Cut the top well-known inflammatory foods from your diet for 10 days and see if you feel better. (Ooo, sounds like a future post, doesn't it?)

Don't buy the lie that you can't do anything about a pain or disease that is caused by something you are doing. (credit to Sachin Patel for the wording of that concept)

Simply becoming more aware of what is going on can make a huge difference. It doesn't always take a diagnosis and a prescription to fix what ails you. There is another way. 

I have significantly less joint pain, more emotional stability, and more energy when I stay away from wheat, dairy, and most importantly, sugar. Add daily yoga to the mix and I feel downright good! It took me a long time to figure this out, and even longer to actually start implementing the changes that I need to make. I'm a work-in-progress. Be gentle and kind to yourself and others on the journey. Just because something is simple doesn't mean that it's easy.

Next week I'll be covering some ways to decrease unnecessary inflammation by tweaking some things in your lifestyle, so if you're looking for more specifics, keep your eyes open for my next post!

Until then, remember that you've got this, I've got your back, and there is always hope.


*Bee stings can cause anaphylactic shock, which is a violent and dangerous allergic reaction to a toxin--this is more than inflammation and this is when you call 911 and grab the epipen.


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