What is inflammation?
Inflammation is part of our body’s natural, protective response to a dangerous invader (like a bacteria, virus, or toxin) or damage to our body’s own cells.
Our immune system does not discriminate between pathogenic or toxic invaders and physical trauma. Proteins called pattern recognition receptors detect both dangerous invaders and physical cell damage, and our immune system responds in the same way to both types of attacks.
When these threats to our survival are perceived, our immune system goes into high gear in its effort to remove the harmful stimuli and begin the healing process. Within moments, blood vessels dilate and increased blood flow makes the area of injury or infection feel warm and appear red. Capillaries become permeable, allowing white blood cells to move from the bloodstream to the injured area. This causes swelling, which helps to isolate the invaders or damaged cells from the rest of the body.
The functions of the inflammatory response are to:
1. Isolate the dangerous invader or damaged cells
2. Clear away dead cells and other damaging substances
3. Begin the repair process
Whenever I hear the word inflammation, I immediately translate that in my head to “immune system response.” This reminds me why it’s happening: because the body is in defense mode. If inflammation is occurring, that means that the cells in our body are detecting something that might be harmful to us.
There are two different types of inflammation:
Localized inflammation occurs at the site of an injury or infection. A sprained ankle that is swollen and painful, or an infected cut that is red and swollen, are both examples of localized inflammation.
Systemic inflammation occurs throughout the body. This type of inflammation can be triggered by external sources including viral and bacterial infections, allergens or toxins in the food we eat and in our environment, smoking, and alcohol consumption. It can also be triggered by internal states including stress, obesity, autoimmune conditions, and genetic variations. (I’ll discuss why all of these things cause inflammation in an upcoming post!)
When localized or systemic inflammation is acute, or lasting just a few days, it is a good thing. We rely on this critical function of our immune system to heal our injuries and keep us protected from dangerous invaders.
Unfortunately, sometimes inflammation becomes chronic, lasting months or years. Inflammation can become chronic when the cause of inflammation continually occurs, when acute inflammation doesn’t resolve the situation, or when an autoimmune condition sets in.