You may hear the term “inflammation” being used frequently to describe many conditions in the field of medicine and health. What really is inflammation?
Inflammation is a process by which the body’s white blood cells and substances they produce protect us from infection caused by foreign organisms, such as bacteria and viruses. It is the body’s survival mechanism to help trigger a process to heal and repair affected tissue.
The Key Signs of Inflammation are the Following:
- pain on the affected area which is a protective function triggered by hormones.
- redness due to an increase in blood supply as blood vessels dilate to allow defense substances to easily be transported to the area
- difficulty in performing normal function of the area
- swelling due to the build-up of fluids in the area
- affected area warm to touch
Often, only a few of these symptoms are present.
Inflammation may also be associated with general flu-like symptoms including:
- Fatigue/loss of energy
- Loss of Appetite
- Muscle Stiffness
However, there are instances when these signs are not visible but the person presents with the above symptoms.
Types and Causes of Inflammation
There are 2 types of inflammation namely acute and chronic:
Acute inflammation usually occurs for a short (yet often severe) duration. It resolves in two weeks or less. Symptoms appear quickly and only involves the localized affected area. The inflammation usually subsides within a few days along with quick healing as it responds accordingly to treatment of the symptoms or its root cause.
Chronic inflammation on the other hand is a slower and generally less severe form of inflammation. It typically lasts longer than six weeks. It can occur even when there is no injury, and it doesn’t end when the illness or injury is healed. Low levels of inflammation over a period of time causes your white blood cells to attack your own healthy cells, tissues and organs. This inflammatory process is destructive to the body as it contributes to the development of many diseases.
Several things can cause chronic inflammation, including.
*untreated causes of acute inflammation such as an infection or injury
*an autoimmune disorder, which involves your immune system mistakenly attacking your healthy tissue.
*Lifestyle, diet, environmental factors, family history and others as they play a role and identifying these contributing factors which is as crucial in treating and managing chronic inflammation.
Noticeable signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation are the following:
- Generalized pain
- Chronic fatigue and difficulty in sleeping
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Weight gain or loss
- Frequent infections and high levels of indicators in blood or urine tests
Inflammation and Cardiovascular Disease
Several landmark clinical studies have been done on the role of chronic inflammation in the incidence of heart attacks and strokes. The findings in the studies show that a sustained low level of inflammation promotes the accumulation of cholesterol or plaques in the arteries. This can trigger an inflammatory response. These plaques are then perceived by the immune system as abnormal and foreign which they then respond by creating a sort of a barrier. Once this happens, loose plaques and blood clots may cause heart attacks and strokes. This can happen to those even with low blood cholesterol levels but who have elevated levels of inflammatory markers in the blood.
A recent clinical trial called CANTOS proved that targeting inflammation without changing cholesterol levels can have a significant impact in reducing the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes by 15%.It also decreased the need for major interventions such as angioplasty and bypass surgery by 30%,proving that addressing inflammation to prevent heart disease is essential.
Inflammation and Diabetes
Diabetes is a complex metabolic disease affecting the body’s blood sugar status. There are several pathways of inflammation’s role in the development of Diabetes considering there are two types of Diabetes, each with different etiologies. But generally, it has an effect on the source of insulin production which are the Pancreatic beta cells. Several immune cells are activated with chronic inflammation and they are potentially toxic to the beta cells which could either manifest as a loss in function of the beta cells or worse, cell death.
How a person can have chronic inflammation that develops to Diabetes?
Researchers have found that cytokine levels are elevated inside high fat tissue. Excess body fat especially in the abdomen causes continuous (chronic) low levels of abnormal inflammation that alters insulin’s action and contributes to the disease.
Inflammation and Cancer
Chronic inflammation’s role in Cancer development is very well established as it is believed that one in five cancers are believed to be caused by it. One reason is that chronic inflammation may damage the DNA. The inflammatory process also produces molecules called cytokines, which stimulate the growth of blood cells that bring oxygen and nutrients to the tumor. These inflammation side effects may help sustain and fuel cancer growth.
An example would be chronic inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. They have a high risk of developing colon cancer.
Inflammation and Degenerative Brain Diseases
There is increasing recognition that inflammation plays a critical role in major degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. These diseases are characterized by progressive dysfunction and loss of neurons and axons in the central nervous system. Neurons and axons are vital components of the nervous system. Their environment greatly affects all aspects of their functions and subsequently, brain function. Normally, neurons can create an immune response for inflammation to occur in order to benefit its normal functions such as clearing debris and eliminating infectious agents. However, chronic activation of immune responses has negative effects of inflammation that can alter its function and cause damage to nerve structure. A myriad of symptoms depending on the specific regions and circuits of nerves that are destroyed may arise to define the degenerative brain disease. Inflammation outside of the brain has also been found to be a causative factor.
What is supposed to be a normal defensive and protective function of our body can actually be the cause of our own demise once undetected and uncontrolled. Knowledge of our body regulations such as inflammation and other functions is very important along with the awareness of many risk factors that can alter or affect it. Paying attention to our bodies, even as seemingly harmless as an inflammation, will pay off in the end.