What is inflammation and when is it harmful?
Inflammation is the immune system’s response to a potentially harmful stimulus. This trigger can take the form of bacteria colonizing a wound or a thorn piercing your finger.
There are many different causes of inflammation, but the most common include:
- Bacteria, germs or fungi
- External injuries to your body
- Chemicals or radiation
When the immune system is combatting a high-risk stimulus, it can become highly active and require a great deal of energy, diverting energy from other bodily functions. Why? Because if the rate of metabolism is higher, more defence substances and immune cells can be produced. This explains why when inflammation is severe, it may cause reactions in our bodies which lead to feelings of sickness, exhaustion and fever.
What happens when you have an inflammation?
There are many different immune cells involved in an inflammation, which release different substances, called inflammatory mediators. These include the hormones bradykinin and histamine that cause the narrow blood vessels in the injured tissue to expand, allowing more blood, and so more defence cells, to reach it – helping with the healing process. This is why an inflamed area turns red and can become hot. Bradykinin and histamine can both irritate nerves, directing pain signals to the brain .
When inflammation causes disease
But inflammation is not always helpful. In certain diseases, the immune system targets its own cells, causing harmful inflammatory responses. This reaction is known as an autoimmune disorders, which can include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
This is a condition in which many joints throughout the entire body are permanently inflamed. This causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. The condition appears to have a genetic component, but is also linked to smoking, a lack of vitamin D, and other risk factors such as stress, which may exacerbate the inflammation that causes pain.
Psoriasis is an inflammatory condition that occurs when the immune system causes skin cells to grow too quickly. Although psoriasis is a genetic condition, lifestyle factors such as prolonged stress, often trigger it, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. One 2013 study published in JAMA Dermatology indicates that losing weight could help alleviate the condition, since obesity contributes to inflammation.
- Asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis
When inflammation occurs in the lungs, it can cause fluid accumulation and airway constriction, making it difficult to breathe. Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are all characterized by inflammation in the lungs. Smoking, exposure to air pollution and being overweight, have all been linked to lung inflammation.
Inflammation in the brain can even be linked to depression. Inflammation is associated with symptoms including low moods, lack of appetite, and poor sleep patterns. In line with this, research has found that people with depression have higher levels of inflammation in their blood.
Chronic inflammation has been associated with faster cell aging as well as playing a role in the formation of wrinkles and several other external signs of aging.
But is inflammation reversible and are the conditions preventable? The answer is yes. Read on to find out more…
Causes of inflammation
Obesity is a major cause of inflammation, so naturally, weight loss is one of the most effective ways to fight it. However, some of the effects of chronic inflammation can work against weight loss and make achieving a healthy weight more difficult. Chronic inflammation can increase hunger hormones and slow down metabolism, stimulating people to eat more while burning fewer calories. Inflammation can also increase insulin resistance, raising your risk for diabetes, and has been linked with future weight gain.
Chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response, a research team from Carnegie Mellon University discovered in 2012. The research emphasises the effects of psychological stress on the body’s ability to regulate inflammation, and the power of stress to promote the development and progression of disease.
How does stress cause inflammation?
A natural part of our body’s response to stress is the increase of the hormone cortisol. This springs our body into “fight or flight” mode to help us deal with demanding situations. Cortisol can be useful in short bouts to motivate us to hit deadlines and perform under pressure. However, when stress is prolonged and cortisol release is continuous, things can get messy.
Inflammation is partly regulated by cortisol. The problem is that prolonged stress alters cortisol’s ability to control the inflammatory response. Stress decreases tissue sensitivity to the hormone. When this happens, immune cells become insensitive to cortisol’s regulatory effect and inflammation can get out of control. This runaway inflammation can promote the development and progression of many diseases.
Chronic stress has been linked to increased biological ageing as well as chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, processes known to cause cellular and genetic damage. Scientists refer to chronic, low-level inflammation as “inflammaging”, which is associated with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stress, depression and a weakened immune system.
Reversing the effects of inflammation
The good news is that we can reverse the causes of inflammation naturally by making smart choices every day when it comes to our diet, lifestyle and environment.
Another study found that a three-month yoga retreat reduced inflammation and stress in the body. Levels of protective anti-inflammatory signals increased after the retreat, while harmful pro-inflammatory signals decreased. Participants felt less depressed, less anxious, and had fewer physical symptoms. These studies suggest that yoga could decelerate the harmful effects of chronic stress both psychologically and physically.
There are many basic yoga breathing techniques that can help reduce your stress levels, just by practicing at home for as little as a few minutes each day. Other established methods for alleviating inflammation include aerobic exercise, eating specific anti-inflammatory foods such as Omega-3 and getting adequate amounts of sleep – but we’ll delve into those in another post.
For more information about treating inflammation, there are health cash plans or insurance policies that can help you get diagnostic treatments paid for from a private doctor or consultant.