Most of us are probably familiar with the inevitable swelling that comes after stubbing a toe, or the hot, puffy patch of skin that made contact with a hot pot, or the red, sore, and tender muscle aches that follow intense exercise or a day of heavy lifting. As painful and uncomfortable as these bothersome experiences may be, they are all a result of acute inflammation, which is a healthy, protective response to wounds and injuries. While our first instinct is to try and get rid of the dreaded pain, swelling, redness and heat of inflammation through creams and oral pain-killers, acute inflammation is actually an essential part of your body’s natural repair process. It is a signal that your body has recognized the damage done to it and that it is delivering the compounds necessary to initiate its own healing.
However, the medical community is now becoming concerned with a very different kind of inflammation, one that seems to be afflicting more and more people who may not even be aware of it. That’s because this form of inflammation creeps up gradually, could persist over many years, may have no noticeable symptoms, and worst of all, can lead to much more dangerous and deadly outcomes.
Today, I want to raise awareness about this kind of inflammation – chronic inflammation. While chronic inflammation often begins as quite a harmless condition, we are now beginning to understand that it could be the underlying thread among some of the most common disease epidemics and leading causes of death around the world, such as arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and even cancer. And the scariest part is that you could be experiencing some form of chronic inflammation right now – and could have been experiencing it for many years – without even knowing it.
Acute inflammation and chronic inflammation involve similar biological processes, but differ in terms of their long-term effects and eventual outcomes. Acute inflammation is a short-term protective measure that your body turns on once it recognizes a problem, initiating immediate repair and then turning off once the healing process is sufficiently complete. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, has no OFF switch – in short, it is the healing process gone wrong, unable to shut down because your body is unable to eliminate whatever the source of the problem is, or is unable to repair the damage being done.
Chronic inflammation can result from:
Whatever the cause, the chronic inflammatory response results in a body that’s on “self-defense” mode all the time. It causes pro-inflammatory cells to continually be released in low-grade yet compounding streams throughout the body, scouting for the unknown “culprits” of the problem and blindly attacking anything in their path. Not only does this continuous strain on the immune system drain the body of energy, it can leave it in a more weakened and vulnerable state of health. Eventually, this persisting inflammation starts to eat away at the healthy parts of your body, attacking healthy cells and increasingly damaging vital tissues, such as the blood vessels (leading to heart disease), joint tissue (leading to rheumatoid arthritis), the intestines (leading to digestive disorders), the pancreas (leading to diabetes), and etc.
A growing mound of research is showing how other consequences of chronic inflammation could be behind mysteriously spreading disease epidemics, such as Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. A University of Bonn study recently published in the scientific journal Nature revealed that Alzheimer patients tend to have higher-than-average levels of particular enzymes and genes associated with chronic inflammatory reactions. Startlingly, when these pro-inflammatory enzymes and genes were de-activated in Alzheimer-suffering mice, the brain “plaques” characteristic of Alzheimer’s were reduced, the inflammation in their brains ceased, and so did their memory loss.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology set out to understand the suspected link between chronic inflammation and cancer, performing two separate studies that showed how chronic inflammation in the body can lead to abnormal cell division, harmful internal by-products, and damaged DNA. All of these factors severely increase one’s risk of developing tumors and cancer. Even more directly, scientists at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center observed how high levels of interleukin-15, a hormone-like molecule created by the body to promote inflammation, directly caused large granular lymphocytic leukemia, a fatal form of cancer.
While chronic inflammation is increasingly coming to be known as the silent mass murderer of our age, it may also be one that we are each capable of taking on individually. By stopping it cold in its tracks, we can significantly lower our risk for all of the many dangerous outcomes and deadly diseases that it precipitates.
Perhaps the most soothing part of this inflammatory tale is the fact that there are several things we can do to reduce major causes of chronic inflammation, and to naturally prevent it from becoming a persistent condition in our bodies.
While science continues to unearth the scary links between some of the greatest death epidemics of our time, take comfort in the fact that, very often, the ultimate universal link behind many modes of our own demise seems to be our own choices. Remember how powerful a role they actually play in the shaping of your health and your future.