Science has proven that chronic, low-grade inflammation can turn into a silent killer that contributes to cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and other health conditions. It is estimated that three out of five people around the world die from a disease linked to inflammation and this fact raises serious red flags. Thankfully, there is plenty we can do to fight back.
Inflammation is the body’s protective response to tissue injury, infection (e.g. bacteria, viruses), and other harmful stimuli/agents. It involves an increase in blood flow and the recruitment of immune cells (e.g. white blood cells) to remove the harmful agent, prevent further tissue damage and promote healing.
Inflammation as a short-term, proportional response to injury (i.e. acute inflammation) is often beneficial and helps recovery. When inflammation is excessive or persists for a long time, it is referred to as ‘chronic inflammation which can cause damage to the body.
What happens during acute inflammation?
There are typically 4 main processes with regards to acute inflammation:
1. Recognition of a harmful stimulus (e.g. an invading microorganism, toxic substance, damaged cell).
2. Activation of inflammatory pathways.
3. Release of inflammatory molecules.
4. Recruitment of immune cells.
For instance, if you were pricked on your thumb by a thorn while on the field and bacteria found their way into the wound. Immune cells in your body will quickly recognize foreign molecules (bacteria). In response, the immune cells activate cell-signaling cascades (or pathways) that switch on the production of various inflammatory molecules. These inflammatory molecules include cytokines. In turn, cytokines go onto to attract other white blood cells to the wound area/injury site. Once they have arrived, white blood cells can then destroy and neutralize the bacteria. Characteristically, a type of white blood cell called a neutrophil is recruited in acute inflammation. Neutrophils are also classed as phagocytes, cells that engulf and destroy bacteria, foreign particles, and dead cell debris. As well as recruiting white blood cells, cytokines switch on the liver’s production of proteins called acute-phase proteins, which support the process of inflammation.
The acute inflammatory response also causes local blood vessels supplying the wound area to dilate (a process called vasodilation), allowing greater blood flow to the area. This facilitates the entry of immune cells and beneficial proteins (e.g. fibrin, which helps to plug the wound) to the injury site. Incidentally, the increase in local blood flow is the reason why inflamed tissue is often red and hot to touch. In addition to increasing local blood flow, the inflammatory response makes blood vessels and capillaries more permeable. This allows fluid containing various proteins to leak out and move into the injury site. It’s for this reason that we develop swelling around inflamed tissue.
Inflammatory cytokines such as IL-6 also stimulate pain receptors, causing inflamed tissue to feel painful. This is a beneficial response, as pain prevents us from further moving or touching the inflamed area, which may otherwise lead to further tissue damage or contamination. Importantly, after the harmful stimulus has been cleared (e.g. after invading bacteria have been successfully eliminated), the acute inflammatory response is suppressed. This process is called resolution. In some cases, however, the inflammatory response fails to be suppressed and persists for long periods. This is known as chronic inflammation.
Why is chronic inflammation bad for our health?
During chronic inflammation, white blood cells called macrophages produce a class of molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS are examples of substances termed free radicals – atoms and molecules with unpaired electrons, which makes them highly reactive and capable of damaging cells. Macrophages produce ROS that reacts with and damage DNA, protein, lipids, and other important biological molecules. While this may help to destroy harmful agents e.g. bacteria; in chronic inflammation, several macrophages are recruited and ROS is overproduced, leading to wider damage to healthy cells and tissues. Our body does have some defense mechanisms against damage by ROS. For example, we produce molecules called antioxidants, which sweep up and neutralize ROS molecules. In chronic inflammation, however, the rate at which we produce ROS overwhelms the rate at which we generate antioxidants. This imbalance is known as oxidative stress. Therefore, by allowing ROS to accumulate, oxidative stress leads to damage of various tissues, including blood vessels, liver cells, nerve cells, etc. Moreover, oxidative stress can also further trigger and perpetuate inflammation, causing more tissue damage. On this note, both chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are thought to be heavily involved in the development of various diseases, including Type II diabetes, cardiovascular (e.g. atherosclerosis), and neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease).
Some proven steps to fight inflammation
Step #1: Proper Diet: Although many “anti-inflammatory diets” are not grounded in science, consistently keeping check of your diet can go a long way to contribute to fighting inflammation.
Step #2: Exercise: You’d be surprised to know how much aerobic exercise is effective for lowering inflammation levels — but keep in mind that ’too much exercise’ may provoke an inflammatory response.
Step #3: Weight management: work on the simple strategies to help you zero in on reducing abdominal fat — the kind that produces pro-inflammatory chemicals and also reduce sugar level in your diet.
Step #4: Get enough sleep: Inadequate sleep not only robs you of energy and productivity it also elevates inflammation—which is especially hazardous to cardiovascular health. Always try to make time to rest as the body needs that to ‘repair itself.
Step #5: Limit alcohol use and stop smoking: When it comes to inflammation, alcohol can be either your friend or foe. A little alcohol may be helpful but since you may not know how much is over the line, I would advise staying off to keep inflammation in check. As for smoking, experts say that kicking the habit can result in a dramatic reduction in inflammation levels within just a few weeks.
Step #6: Chronic stress management: Chronic stress can spark the development of inflammation and cause flare-ups of problems like rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, depression, and inflammatory bowel disease.
In conclusion, chronic inflammation increases your risk of several serious diseases. Medication, supplements, and eating an anti-inflammation diet can help you reduce your risk of inflammation. Avoiding smoking and alcohol, and maintaining a healthy body weight can also help lower your risk, along with reducing your stress levels. Whether you’re aiming to prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, or other conditions connected to chronic inflammation, the sooner you incorporate these steps into your life, the better! Stay safe.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst.(2018) Understanding and Managing Chronic Inflammation. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/chronic-inflammation
Inflammation and IL-6 - FitnessGenes®(2020) Retrieved from https://fitnessgenes.com/blog/your-inflammation-and-il-6-trait/
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