Inflammation is a normal function of the body but when it becomes chronic it can cause many diseases and allergic conditions. These can range from hayfever to cancer and even Alzheimer’s. It’s also a major factor in premature ageing. So what’s going on and what is inflammation?
Here Fleur Borrelli gives us an understanding of what inflammation actually is.
Inflammation is a word that often has negative connotations, but is it really so bad? It is always best to look at our immune system to see what happens if we are injured or under attack; it has evolved over millions of years to ensure our perpetuation as a race; it is an incredibly complex system designed to protect us from danger. It is with the immune system and how it responds to ‘danger’ that the answer lies.
What exactly is inflammation?
Contrary to what we are led to believe, inflammation is actually a healthy and necessary response when we injure ourselves. If all goes well, the inflammatory reaction should be able to heal all wounds no matter how big or small. The problem is that a necessary part of this process is that we experience some unpleasant side effects of redness and swelling, particularly in the initial phase of injury i.e. the first three or four days. Our immune system needs to make sure that we are protected against possible side effects of the injury such as potentially lethal infections. This may produce some collateral damage in addition to the original wound but it should not be a problem as the immune system will go onto repair everything.
Why does this sometimes go wrong?
Evolution has not quite caught up with our modern day lives. In the last two hundred years our environment has changed rapidly. This means that danger signals are no longer lions and tigers but computers and mobile phones, cars and mortgages. This in turn means that unlike escaping from a wild animal or fighting a virus, danger can last for years and years. Our immune system is very robust and will fight this long term challenge in the same way as it would a microbe. This response would be fine if it did not go on for too long but the trouble is the longer it lasts, the more damage is done to the body. This can cause inflammation affecting the whole body – known as systemic inflammation.
What modern day conditions can make this worse?
If there is a local wound, the local inflammatory response is helped along by the ‘stress axes’. These are connections from the brain to all the organs that are involved in helping the inflammatory reaction. Modern day conditions such as having more of a sedentary lifestyle, eating too much and too often, frequent use of mobile phones and mortgages mean the stress axes are activated all the time. This can cause systemic inflammation, mentioned above, and may mean that at a local level injuries do not heal very well – this can also be another pathway to systemic inflammation.
Can we do anything about it?
The solution lies with diet and lifestyle. We should make sure that we are eating a healthy diet with plenty of omega 3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory. We should take steps to reduce the amount of stress we put ourselves under and make sure that we incorporate movement into our daily lives. New research shows that rather than eating little and often, we should eat only three times per day which puts less strain on the body and is much more in accordance with what we were originally designed to do.