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Inflammation and the Immune System

The Immune System

Our immune system is one of the most incredible and complex parts of the human body.  The immune system is able to recognize foreign substances such as viruses and bacteria that might do our body harm.  Inflammation and the immune system is responsible for many of our health issues today.

There are two main parts of the immune system.  First is innate immunity and you are born with it totally intact and its job is to protect you against outside threats through its protective barriers like mucus and stomach acid.  Fevers and the cough reflex are some other examples of antigens that the innate immunity handles.

The second type of immunity makes up the adaptive immune system and it’s constantly developing as you develop in life.  Every time you are exposed to a germ or illness, your adaptive immune system keeps a record of it and helps your body build up a pre-programmed defense.  Ideally, it won’t make you sick the next time you come into contact with it.  This adaptive immune process involves a complex system of chemicals, cells, and biological pathways that make up one of the great wonders of the human body.

The immune system and inflammation go hand in hand, and causing an inflammatory response is one major way the immune system responds to a threat and starts to fight off bacteria or tissue damage.

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation is a totally normal bodily function.  It is generally triggered by the immune system when it recognizes an invader or damage to tissue that must be kept under control.  The immune system stimulates different cells and proteins, like white blood cells, to help eliminate the threat of an outside invader and repair any damaged tissue.   Inflammation is instigated by chemical mediators called cytokines that act as signals to recruit more parts of the immune system to help with healing.

Inflammation is an important part of the healing process; it is a crucial part of wound healing and a useful mechanism for destroying invading microorganisms.  It allows for helpful antibodies to enter the space and stimulates other important parts of the immune response to aid in healing.  If we did not have an inflammatory response we would be in trouble.

Inflammation is definitely not a new concept and has been well-described and diagnosed throughout history.  The telltale signs of inflammation were noted in the Roman encyclopedia of medicine and other historical texts written thousands of years ago:

  • Heat (calor)
  • Redness (rubor)
  • Swelling (tumor)
  • Pain (dolor)

Inflammation is also associated with a loss of function in the inflamed area.  The inflammatory response is a series of  defense mechanisms and signals that recruit anti-inflammatory cells to the area of damage, and then those trigger other  cells that trigger other protective mechanisms and so on.  Before you know it you have pain and swelling, which are really just and over-amplified reaction to harm or threat.  Amplification is an important concept to understand when talking about inflammation, because if the inflammatory response is not tightly regulated, it can start to be a problem for our bodies.

When is Inflammation Problematic?

Short answer – when the immune system gets out of control and causes excessive inflammation, or when it triggers the inflammatory response when it’s not necessary.

Long answer – one of the most important abilities of the immune system is its ability to differentiate between “self” and “non-self”.  It does this by reading and interpreting substances on the surface of different cells.  One of our body’s own cells’ will display a signal (a protein called an antigen) that the immune system can read, interpret and then know not to attack it.  If the cell is a potentially harmful bacteria or virus, the immune system will read the signal, know that it is an outside invader, and respond accordingly.

Immune system dysfunction occurs when the immune system loses some of its ability to distinguish between itself and the outside world.  When the immune system is overactive and starts attacking the body’s own tissues, it leads to autoimmune disease.

While inflammation is normally the way to protect itself, when the immune system is faulty or overactive it can cause a lot of damage.  In the case of autoimmune disease, components of the inflammatory response that are meant to attack and destroy invaders turn on the body’s own tissues and cells.

Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation

Understanding the difference between acute and chronic inflammation is the key.  Acute inflammation occurs within a few minutes to a few hours and symptoms will be obvious like swelling and pain.  Some examples are when you sprain your ankle or when you have a sore throat from singing.  In this case, the redness, swelling and pain you experience is usually a contained response and will go away as the tissue heals.  Here inflammation is a signal that the body is repairing itself well.

Chronic inflammation is very different; the onset takes days and the signs are much less obvious.  This type of inflammation will stick around for a long time and is more likely to lead to severe and progressive tissue damage and inflammatory diseases.  Conditions that are related to chronic inflammation include asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Symptoms of Chronic Inflammation

We know that chronic inflammation plays an important role in a lot of common ailments.  How do you know if you have chronic inflammation?  Here are some signs that inflammation might be affecting you:

  • Frequent headaches and brain fog
  • Bloating and other digestive problems
  • Joint pain
  • Rashes
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Gum disease
  • Mood issues

If you are experiencing any of these issues or suspect you have chronic inflammation, contact us below and we can set up a consult to start to decipher what is happening and what you can do to reverse the issue.  We can give you solutions and help you start feeling better!  We look forward to talking with you.

Next up:  Stay tuned for Allergies and Inflammation



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