Inflammation: Friend or Foe

Last week I gave a talk to a group about the role of your immune system in pain and inflammation.

It’s easy to forget that the immune system that is responsible for fighting germs and illness is the same immune system that produces the inflammation that heals sprained joints or causes arthritic joint pain.

Acute inflammation vs chronic inflammation

It’s also easy to forget that inflammation in of itself is not good or bad. It’s a response from specific cells and systems in the body in response to a perceived threat.

While chronic inflammation can have negative effects on your heart, arteries, and brains, we need acute inflammation to help heal from injuries and to fight off infectious diseases.

A key lynchpin to an appropriate immune and inflammatory responses goes back to the brain and nervous system.

Acute inflammation acts like a reflex not much different than when a doctor taps on your knee to see if it kicks. If you have a cut or scrape, your immune system will kick into gear to wall that area off from germs and create heat and swelling and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s embedded into our physiology.

These responses allow your body to clean up and repair damaged tissue while also containing germs trying to get in and invade the body during injury. Acute inflammation can be painful and uncomfortable, but it is a marvelous example of how we evolved to survive injury.

On the flip side, chronic inflammation is a maladaptive response where the body’s immune system isn’t shut down. It can occur in a variety of ways including:

  1. An underlying infectious process is never fully dealt with
  2. The presence of antibodies that attack the body’s own tissues (Lupus, Grave’s Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis)
  3. A dysregulated stress response
  4. Inappropriately primed immune cells from brain injury or gut barrier problems

These processes can predispose people to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer, on top of just not feeling well on a day to day basis.

In order to beat the causes of chronic inflammation, we have to address the reasons that body creates inflammation.

It’s through this understanding that we have the ability to help address some of the chronic inflammation that leaves us susceptible to the chronic diseases of aging.

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