You don’t need a doctor to associate inflammation with an ailment. When inflammation rears its painful head, for some people, their minds tend to be all over the place, thinking they’re coming down with something soon. Inflammation may flip your worry switch this way from time to time, but however you feel at the moment, know this: inflammation often starts as a precaution. A precaution whose aim is to keep you alive. Therefore, it’s really not a bad thing.
Inflammation is a restorative process. It’s your body’s defence mechanism, the tool your body uses to protect itself. What is it protecting you from? What is inflammation anyway, and why does it occur? These are very valid questions to which we shall provide answers in no time so that you can understand and recognize the signs, and take necessary actions if need be. But first, understand that this body system’s defence mechanism occurs in two forms: one temporary, the other recurrent.
This is the inflammation you’re quite familiar with, the ‘defender of the body’s internal universe’ that swings into action when you bang your knee against an object, stub your toe, cut yourself, twist an ankle badly, or when you have a little infection inside your body. And how do you know when this mechanism kicks in? Through the five cardinal signs of acute inflammation, these symptoms characterize the Process of inflammation. They are:
- Heat occurs in the body extremities (arms or legs), and it’s because of the increased movement of blood through vessels dilated enough to get enough blood around the injured area and kick-start the healing process.
- Redness: This is because of the increased flow of blood (red blood cells, also known as erythrocytes) to the injured area.
- Swelling: this occurs as a result of the increased flow of fluids from dilated blood vessels into the tissues surrounding the site of inflammation. Also known as oedema, this swelling usually occurs in the body’s extremities.
- Pain: this is the consequence of the pressure of the swollen tissue against nerve endings, which is interpreted by the brain as pain or discomfort. So long as the pressure persists, the discomfort continues.
- Loss of function: This means simple loss of mobility at the site of inflammation, e.g. joint, or refers to the replacement of normal functional cells at the inflammation site with scar tissue.
But how does my body carry out this restorative healing using inflammation?
Ever heard of a terrorist situation in a territory, resulting in a breakdown in law and order? For a state of emergency like this, distress calls are made to the governing authorities, and soldiers are promptly moved in to contain the situation and restore order. Acute inflammation replicates the above scenario. Here’s how.
When your body encounters a harmful ‘alien’ in the form of a virus or bacteria, or you suffer a minor injury in the line of daily duty, it activates your immune system. How does it do that?
This activation can be started by the release of chemical signals from the injured tissues. Or by the release of Cytokines, small protein peptides, which is a means of communication between cells, by the first immune cell that spots the pathogen or injury. This is communicated to other immune cells and non-immune cells or organs in the body, informing them of the ‘alien’ in town, and the need for an immune response. The immune system response? You guessed right. Inflammation.
In response to the call for arms, vasodilation of blood vessels occurs, causing blood vessels to become dilated and porous, allowing blood containing white blood cells to leak into the surrounding injury-damaged tissue, or where the infection is taking place.
In comes the battalion of ‘foot soldiers, a type of white blood cell known as Neutrophils, usually the first group of immune cells to show up at any inflammation site of the body to fight infections, or repair damaged tissue, starting the healing process.
In a few days, or a few weeks max, you get better and you live happily ever after. This is so because acute inflammation only occurs to fight simple body infections. And it does an excellent job for your body.
Well, most times.
Unless there’s an underlying cause that refuses to go away. And now is the time your anxiety may be justified because when acute inflammation fails to recede, it becomes chronic.
CHRONIC INFLAMMATION: SHOULD I BE WORRIED?
Yes. Because if what you’re feeling is not acute inflammation, it may be trickier. While it’s natural to take comfort in the healing properties of acute inflammation and its temporary nature, this may not always be the case.
Remember how the immune system rises to the challenge by responding to the body’s signals concerning a foreign agent or damaged tissues?
Problem is that the triggering agent may not be totally eradicated, or the resolution process of acute inflammation may be interrupted. This causes the immune system to keep sending inflammatory cells like neutrophils and monocytes (the white blood cells) to the site of the inflammation. This leaves the body in a continuous state of alert, which may last a long time. In the long run, it might cause a breakdown in your health, due to a negative impact on your organs.
Common causes of Chronic Inflammation include:
- unresolved cases of chronic inflammation due to injury or infection.
- repeated exposure to foreign agents (chemicals or environmental pollution, e.g. air)
- Smoking, an action that introduces many harmful substances, into the body.
- Presence of an autoimmune disease, a condition in which your immune system mistakes a part of your body as a foreign agent, thereby sending fighter cells in the blood to attack it.
Symptoms of Chronic Inflammation
While symptoms of acute inflammation are quite easy to spot, chronic inflammation symptoms are quite subtle and easy to miss and may last for months or years. Here are a few symptoms:
- Recurrent infections
- Body pain
At this point, you can agree with us that your body is well equipped to protect itself. But sometimes, protection can be inadequate.
SO HOW CAN I DEAL WITH INFLAMMATION?
As we have stated above, if you have acute inflammation, just relax and let your body deal with it. In a short time, you’ll be rid of it. But if your inflammation doesn’t quit, it might be an excellent time to speak with your healthcare provider.
But in the meantime, what can you do to avoid inflammation?
As general pain and discomfort are what you feel during inflammation, you may be tempted to choose over-the-counter (OTC) medications to get rid of the pain. And nothing does it better than Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids (powerful anti-inflammatory medications that mimic the naturally occurring hormone cortisol).
These drugs are known to do magic when it comes to making the pain disappear. But there’s a catch. These ‘magical’ drugs, especially corticosteroids, have side effects if used for an extended period. So what does that leave you with?
Lifestyle changes and diet.
Being on the move has its benefits, especially for body weight. Research has shown that visceral fat in the abdomen, the fat that surrounds internal organs, secretes a high level of an important inflammatory molecule (Interleukin-6) into the portal vein blood. Therefore, when we suggest you do a couple of runs on the treadmill, we suggest it from a place of love.
Moving away from a sugary diet is also an excellent idea.
Here are foods with anti-inflammatory properties that you can incorporate into your diet:
- Fish, e.g. salmon
- Vegetables, e.g spinach
- Olive oil,
- Fruits, e.g. oranges, berries
As you well know, processed foods, e.g. refined carbohydrates, do more harm than good when eaten on a regular. Because they cause inflammation, processed foods are an absolute no-no, so kiss them goodbye for the sake of your health.
With inflammation as a tool, we can agree that the human body is a genuine wonder. But when the said tool becomes problematic for your body…….well, now you know what to do.