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What's Up Magazine

Inflammatory Rhetoric

Dec 12, 2011 11:18PM ● By Cate Reynolds
Amidst a host of ominous diagnoses in this age of health awareness, one in particular has scorched a path through medical records and health forums alike: Inflammation.

Chronic inflammation is the evil sibling to its acute counterpart, a vital division of the immune system’s militia. Acute inflammation acts as both a clean-up crew and a repairman, ridding the body of foreign bacteria and substances and mending broken equipment. The heat of a fever or the swelling of a burn site are easily identifiable symptoms of this state of arousal, which lasts only until the threat has been eradicated.

A bit more subtle in appearance but considerably more dangerous is chronic inflammation, which occurs when an inflammatory response isn’t entirely extinguished even when the hazard ceases to exist. If the body is continually on the defensive, an excess of inflammatory compounds will circulate throughout the body and cause damage to healthy, functional cells. If left unmonitored, chronic inflammation can set nearly any bodily structure aflame and potentially cause serious damage. In cases of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and eczema, for instance, chronic inflammation is a typical suspect, but it’s often the hidden culprit behind a host of other health concerns from congestion to obesity.

Despite its buzz-worthiness, chronic inflammation and its telltale signs are often misconstrued for other ailments and, therefore, often mistreated. Nearly all the symptoms of chronic inflammation can be attributed to other diseases or infections—which explains why many sufferers have trouble finding relief. Stiffness, swelling, and indigestion are commonly associated with chronic inflammation; but dry eyes, diarrhea, and recurrent infections are infrequently identified as symptoms but can nonetheless involve inflammation.

Relentless deployment of inflammatory cells results when the body’s two branches of the immune system, the innate and the acquired, communicate ineffectively. The innate immune system is, well, innate. Human bodies are born with an automatic ability to fend off bacteria and patch up wounds. The acquired immune system is, believe it or not, acquired. Exposure to toxins, bacteria, and external threats varies by environment; the body adapts its battle strategy based on its surroundings. The acquired immune system is much more complex than the innate, but both are indispensible to health maintenance and protection and each is designed to complement the functions of the other. The systems are in constant contact, detailing where on the body a problem is occurring and what inflammatory substances should be employed to rectify it. When the systems send mixed messages, or no messages at all, one or the other may continue combat—even when the war is over. All that fighting is rather draining, and pretty soon you may feel as tattered as a battlefield.

Many supposed solutions to restoring the system’s balance circulate throughout the medical world, most in the form of prescription pills. More and more medical professionals are advising their patients to swallow a tablet of baby aspirin each day—which may seem like a safer, friendly approach to dealing with inflammation, but that may not be the case. Age and gender play a big role in the body’s response to aspirin, which may cause intestinal and digestive problems over time. And many prescription anti-inflammatories generally damper some or all inflammatory responses, which puts the body at risk for infection and other problems.

What we do to cause chronic inflammation and what we can do to prevent it

It is suspected, for instance, that many artificial food additives and preservatives act as toxins to the body and throw the immune system out of whack. Simply eliminating processed foods laden with trans fats and chemicals has a profoundly soothing effect on not just the immune, but all bodily systems. Moderating or eliminating other typical suspects—red meat, salt, caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol—also helps tremendously. Replace these foods and substances with those high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and botanicals. Eat salmon frequently, as well as walnuts, yogurt, sweet potatoes, spinach, and raisins…and research recipes using ginger and turmeric—these two spices are terrific at fighting inflammation.

And, at the risk of beating the same old drum, don’t forget getting adequate sleep and exercise. Adopting these most wholesome of practices can have a similar effect to the diet changes.