Inflammation 101Inflammation 101

By Dr. Daoshing Ni, D.O.M., L.Ac., Ph.D, Dipl.C.H.

Thousands of articles have been written about fighting inflammation, so we are likely to assume that inflammation is a bad thing. But what is it exactly, and how can inflammation hurt us?

Inflammation is a natural, normal immune system response to injury and infection. When we sprain our ankle or have a sore throat, get a cut on our knee, or a splinter in our finger, our body signals our immune system to defend us against harmful viruses and bacteria and repair the damage. Without this response, sore throats and injuries could fester, resulting in a deadly infection.

These are examples of good inflammation; they are short-term (acute) and occur at the exact location where the problem occurred. Blood vessels are signaled to dilate, blood flow increases, and white blood cells swarm the injured area to promote healing. The signals, called cytokines, rush in hormones, immune cells, and nutrients to fix the problem, sometimes resulting in redness and swelling that goes away as the body heals.

The "bad" kind of inflammation is long-term (chronic) inflammation that can have a harmful effect on the entire body. It is low-grade, persistent, and triggered by our body's perception of a threat, even when there isn't a disease to fight or an injury to heal. The immune system gets involved, white blood cells swarm, and have nowhere to go and nothing to do, so they can start attacking normal tissues.

Chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease and stroke, cancer, and auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, IBF, and lupus, in which our immune system damages our organs and tissues or cells. When our joints are involved in chronic inflammation, we may experience redness, swelling, pain, stiffness, and loss of joint function accompanied by flu-like symptoms like fever, chills, and fatigue.

We are not always aware that chronic inflammation has affected our internal organs because many of our organs do not contain nerves that sense pain. Examples include inflammation of our heart (myocarditis), inflammation of the bronchioles that bring air into our lungs (bronchiolitis), inflammation of our kidneys (nephritis), inflammation of our eyes (iritis or uveitis), our muscles (polymyositis), or blood vessels (vasculitis).

The upshot is that acute inflammation is normal and helpful, but chronic inflammation can compromise our health. The good news is that we can modify our diet, lifestyle habits, and environmental exposures to promote healthy immunity. Anti-inflammatory diets have become popular in recent years; they are similar to the Mediterranean diet, which includes eating plenty of fish, fresh fruits and veggies, healthy fats, and drinking red wine in moderation.

An anti-inflammatory diet also means staying away from foods that promote inflammation: minimize saturated and trans fats like red meats, dairy products, and foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils. Limit sugary foods and refined carbs like white rice and bread. Cut back on the use of cooking oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as corn, safflower, and sunflower oils.

There are currently no prescription drugs that specifically target chronic inflammation, although acupuncture and the gentle movements of tai chi and qi gong can help with joint pain and mobility. Traditional Chinese healers have always stated that a healthy lifestyle promotes good health. We know what we need to do to have a healthy lifestyle … we just need to DO it.



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