What is inflammation?
Let’s get this one straight right off the bat. Inflammation is a normal, adaptive response of the immune system to a stimulus that is perceived as threatening in some way to the body. Inflammation is a self-preservation response. The immune system’s job is to initiate a chain of events that marks the offender as being foreign and, if everything goes right, ends in the offender’s destruction. In functional medicine, we call the various pieces of this process the “defense and repair” system. It’s crucial to our survival; without it, humans have no hope of living much past birth, let alone for the umpteen generations it’s taken us to develop the advanced human civilizations we have today.
When you hear people talk about needing to use anti-inflammatory drugs to control “conditions of inflammation”, they’re half-right. Here’s the rub: inflammation is supposed to happen. It’s intended as an adaptive response; we need it to survive. If inflammation is happening, then something is provoking it. If someone is suffering from an “inflammatory” dis-ease (which they virtually all are in some form), that’s inflammation gone awry. If inflammation has gone on long enough to cause prolonged sickness or nagging symptoms, then one of two (or two of two) basic things are out of whack: either the thing that’s telling the body to initiate an inflammatory response isn’t going away, or the body doesn’t have enough of the right resources to complete the all-important last step of the inflammatory process: resolution.
Here’s what should happen when inflammation goes right: some trigger (e.g., an injury, a virus, an allergen) exerts its influence on the body. The immune system, sensing something out of sorts, sends out a battle cry, which in turn summons a militia of exceedingly competent soldiers (in the form of antibodies, cytokines, and all manner of immune system-generated messengers) for a short-lived battle of swift resolution. It should be an acute event, lasting minutes, hours, or in some circumstances, maybe a few weeks—but rarely (if ever) longer. Like any battle, it does cause damage. However, it is followed by an equally competent team whose job is to call the victory, stop the fighting, and clean up the mess. Yes, it’s a bit ugly, but it’s over so quickly that the body can handle it, usually without leaving any permanent damage. All good inflammation ends with resolution and return to baseline. And yes, in its intended design, inflammation is good.
More and more, however, because of the sheer number and diversity of challenges presented to our bodies in our daily lives, inflammation doesn’t occur that way. All the little stresses, the subtle nutrient deficiencies, the nights where we don’t quite get enough quality sleep, the extra little exposures to allergens, the tiny blips of anger we feel driving on the freeway, the non-toxic but unnatural chemicals (not to mention the toxic ones) we get exposed to—they cumulatively serve to make our bodies work much harder to keep homeostasis. Our paleolithic bodies get depleted by living in this modern world.
So instead of being swift and resolute, the battle that is the inflammatory response is drawn out and uncoordinated. The initial alert is lackluster, and the soldiers summoned are inefficient. They make a big mess, but don’t really solve the problem. The fight continues, but to little avail, and in desperate attempt to get the robust response that’s needed, the signal keeps going out. So inflammation keeps going. Collateral damage abounds. The soldiers get worn out. More responders are called in, but they’re no more skilled. More havoc. The problem doesn’t fully resolve. The repair crew can’t keep up, and they’re not exactly all stars either. Collateral damage keeps accumulating—eventually enough that it starts causing some symptom or illness that you notice—anything from the mildly annoying to the extremely distressing. THIS is what inflammatory dis-ease is.
(Why do I keep doing that weird thing with the word “disease”? Click here.)
The power to stop this vicious cycle may just be at the end of your fork! Read on to Part 2 to find out how.