The word inflammation gets spoken of a lot, but many people don't actually know what inflammation is, or why it occurs. Generally, it is the symptoms of inflammation, such as pain, redness, heat and swelling, that are most well-known, but that is where the understanding of inflammation quite often ends.
It is helpful to know what, why and how things occur in your body, so that you are better equipped to deal with what your body presents to you, and have a greater understanding of possible underlying causes of dysfunction in the body.
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is one of the body's natural, innate defence mechanisms. The body's natural inflammatory response occurs when trauma is inflicted on the body via physical injury, or via harmful substances that come into contact with the body, or when the body is being invaded by pathogens such as viruses, detrimental bacteria or fungi. The inflammatory response to these types of threats on the body's ability to maintain equilibrium, is designed to assist the body to "mop up" and remove unwanted debris from the site of injury or infection, clearing the way for repair mechanisms to take effect.
The pain that is often associated with inflammation can serve the purpose of making sure the affected site is immobilised whilst repair mechanisms take place. It is for this reason that sometimes it is not of benefit to the body's healing processes, to take drugs that suppress symptoms such as pain and inflammation, just so you can carry on as normal, which to do so would be to the detriment of assisting the body's actual needs whilst healing is taking place.
When Does Inflammation Change from the Good Guy to the Bad Guy?
As much as inflammation initially serves a beneficial purpose within the body, if it continues long-term or gets out of control, its effects on the body tissues and systems becomes not so beneficial.
During an inflammatory response the body produces chemicals such as histamine and cytokines which cause increased blood flow to the site of injury or infection, and increased blood vessel permeability, allowing fluid from the blood to enter the tissues. These effects can cause the redness, swelling and pain associated with inflammation. As much as these reactions initially serve a purpose, once that purpose is served, the body's " response dial" needs to be turned back down. If it is not, the inflammation becomes excessive and out of control like a bush fire in the wind. This is where the anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands, comes into effect. It helps to modify the immune response accordingly once the trauma or infection has been dealt with by the immune system, and it has an anti-inflammatory effect, i.e. it helps to "put out the fire" after an inflammatory response has served its purpose. However, if a person's adrenal glands are fatigued, that person may struggle to produce adequate adrenal hormones, including cortisol, hence the "fire continues to burn". This is why the healthy functioning of the adrenal glands is highly necessary for normalisation of the immune and inflammatory responses.
People quite often get prescribed corticosteroid drugs for diseases with an inflammatory element to them, These drugs produce an anti-inflammatory effect that is similar to that of the naturally produced cortisol within the body, but the down-side to using corticosteroid drugs is that they down-regulate the body's natural production of cortisol due to a negative feed-back system in the body, whereby the body thinks it has plenty of cortisol due to the use of the corticosteroid drugs, and therefore reduces its own natural production of cortisol. This is why people who use corticosteroid drugs often experience a return of their inflammatory and over-active immune symptoms when they cease taking the cortisol-mimicking drugs because a) the strong anti-inflammatory effect of the drugs is no longer present, and b) their own innate anti-inflammatory response mechanism has been down-regulated and the body can take a period of time to get back to producing adequate amounts of cortisol, which is even more pronounced if there is any degree of adrenal fatigue. Hence the importance that good adrenal health plays in maintaining equilibrium in immune and subsequent inflammatory responses.
So key points to note when trying to reduce excessive inflammation in the body are:
- assist the healthy functioning of the adrenal glands
- assist the healthy function of the lymphatic system
- reduce toxic over-load in the body via detoxification and avoid exposure to toxins
- assist healthy functioning of the digestive system, repair "leaky gut"
- reduce stress levels and improve adaptability with adaptogens
- address underlying causes of chronic inflammation rather than just suppressing symptoms