Inflammation: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Inflammation in the body is a two-edged sword. It can protect us, or hurt us. It is useful to understand the various roles played by inflammation.

Inflammation is the body’s response to threats. Those may be stress, toxic chemicals, or infection. When one of these dangers is detected by the immune system, it activates proteins to protect the cells and tissues. Inflammation is most visible when it is working to repair an injury or fight off illness. Signs of inflammation include a fever or swollen glands, as often happens with a cold, or swelling, redness and warmth around the site of a wound. That is a sign your immune system is directing white blood cells and immune cell-stimulating growth factors to the affected area. These effects are meant to be temporary. When the threat subsides, the effects disappear.

Inflammation also occurs in response to emotional stress. The body sends inflammatory markers called C-reactive proteins into the blood stream. They are part of the “flight or fight” response that floods the body with adrenaline. Ongoing stress, in which the C-reactive proteins remain at a high level over time, are a factor in many health problems.

Inflammation can harm your gut. The intestines are a center for the body’s immune cells, as well as the place where many of the neurotransmitters used by the brain are manufactured. Trillions of healthy bacteria live in the the intestines, and the immune system is generally non-reactive to them. However, in some people the immune cells start reacting to the bacteria, which creates chronic inflammation. In inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the immune cells actually attack the digestive tract.

Inflammation in the joints can cause real damage. This occurs in rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder. People who suffer RA have pain and stiffness in their inflamed joints. Because the reaction is not limited to joints, these people are also at greater risk overall.

Inflammation plays a key role in cardiovascular disease. When the insides of blood vessels are damaged by the formation of plaque, that triggers chronic inflammation. White blood cells rush to the plaque, which grows larger and sometimes forms blood clots, leading to heart attacks.

Inflammation is also linked to an elevated risk of cancer. It has been implicated in lung, esophageal, cervical and digestive tract cancers, among others. We know that obesity and unhealthy eating increase inflammation and raise the risk of disease. A 2014 study at Harvard found obese teens with high levels of inflammation were at 63 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer in adulthood.

It may also sabotage healthy sleep, although studies thus far are only suggestive. We do know inflammation in the lungs can cause an accumulation of fluid and a narrowing of airways. Inflammation of the lungs is presented in lung infections, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Among the factors that increase inflammation in the lungs are smoking, air pollution, exposure to chemicals, overweight, and even eating cured meats.

Inflammation also damages gums, and inflammation of the gums has been linked to heart disease and dementia. It interferes with weight loss by triggering hunger signals and slowing down metabolism. It increase insulin resistance, raising the risk of diabetes. It can also damage bones, affect skin, as in psoriasis and visible signs of aging. Inflammation is also linked to depression; research shows people with depression have higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood.