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Inflammation: An Evolutionary Friend or Foe?

Updated: Jan 14

-Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC

March 26, 2023



The truth about inflammation is not all inflammatory responses are the same.


In helpful inflammatory processes the body naturally responds to a wound, fungus, bacteria, or virus, to help with healing. Inversely, if the inflammatory response is misfiring, inflammation can lead to corruption of the system, leading to more of a pathogenic or chronic disease state.


The literal meaning of inflammation from Latin means, "to set on fire". What's described as the five cardinal signs of inflammation include: heat, redness, swelling, pain, and loss of function. While some researchers are in the business of fighting the pathogenic state of inflammation, others in the medical profession remind us that inflammation is here for a reason.


"Inflammation is part of the body's defense mechanism. It is the process by which the immune system recognizes and removes harmful and foreign stimuli and begins the healing process. Inflammation can be either acute or chronic" (Pahwa, Goyal, & Jialal, 2022). Inflammation is a vital part of the human body's natural defense system, and necessary for survival.


The Two Types of Inflammation


Acute inflammation is a quick response from the body to restore the health of the injury or infection. It "rears up suddenly, lasts days to weeks, and then settles down once the cause, such as an injury or infection, is under control" (Shmerling, 2022).


On the flip side, chronic inflammation may develop for no "medically apparent reason, last a lifetime, and cause harm rather than healing" (Shmerling, 2022). This type of inflammation contributes to many conditions, such as: diabetes, excess weight, cardiovascular disease (including stroke and heart attacks), certain infections, autoimmune diseases, joint pain and arthritis, chronic kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, malignancy, allergies, Alzheimers and other types of dementia, as well as psychological and physical stress.



Dr. Mark Sundred, an immunology biologist and professor acknowledges the necessity of inflammation, but is also in the camp of researchers who are working towards finding cures for chronic inflammatory conditions. "Inflammation is one of the most devilish diseases we all tackle at one time in our lives" (Sundred, 2021). Sundred is one of many researchers working on ways to manage disease states from inflammation through medication.


Friend or Foe? Well, both, actually.


The National Institute of Health also looks at the epidemiology of chronic inflammation. "Chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death in the world" (2022). While a number of chronic diseases are accompanied by inflammation, and treatment for inflammation is important, it is not the source of all diseases.


Unchecked inflammation certainly contributes to many long-term health consequences however, "inflammation is not the direct cause of most chronic diseases" (Shmerling, 2022). Inflammation can be bidirectional. "For example, blood vessel inflammation occurs with atherosclerosis. Yet we don’t know whether chronic inflammation caused this, or whether the key contributors were standard risk factors (such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and smoking — all of which cause inflammation."


Inflammation is necessary in our lives, and is one of the major reasons how we have evolved and survived. But chronic inflammation needs to be managed so that it does not lead to damage.


Inflammation is complex; there is no immediate fix. "While acute inflammation is your body’s natural, usually helpful response to injury, infection, or other dangers, it sometimes spins out of control" (Shmerling, 2022). As commonplace as it is to feel helpless against the painful chronic inflammatory processes, some steps can be taken to contain the flames of inflammation.


Become an Inflammation Fire Fighter


While science works towards treating the underlying cause of pathogenic inflammation, continuing to battle the havoc inflammation can cause; there are steps people can take to reduce a chronic inflammatory response.


Increase water intake, an essential component of the human body. Hypohydration (dehydration) is highly correlated with increased pain sensitivity and inflammation due to the increase in cortisol levels in the blood (Rondanelli et al., 2018).


Reduce intake of sugar and increase intake of anti-inflammatory foods. Eating whole grains, natural foods, seeds, nuts, fruits such as avocados, berries, apples, and cherries, plenty of vegetables, kale and other green leafy vegetables, legumes, and fatty fish like salmon, olives and olive oil, are known to contribute to some reduction in inflammation.


Engage in physical activity to maintain optimum weight and reduce risk for cardiovascular diseases, dementia, and other chronic illness, and to strengthen the heart, muscles, and bones. Just start where you are, without comparison and without judgement.


Sleep longer (ideally 7-8 hours) to help the body restore. Do what you can to allow your body to rest.


Manage stress and anxiety to provide the body with optimal opportunity to help heal itself rather than stress contributing to more of a disease state through increased cortisol and additional inflammation. Mindfulness, yoga, meditation, and journaling are some ways to reduce the impact of stress each day.


Cut out unhealthy habits of smoking, vaping, using alcohol and other drugs.


Minimize the intake of antibiotics and NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). "The use of antibiotics, antacids, and NSAIDs should be avoided as it could harm the microbiome in the gut causing inflammation in intestinal walls known as leaky gut which in turn releases toxins and triggers chronic, body-wide inflammation" (Pahwa, Goyal & Jialal, 2022). Reducing antibiotics (with doctor guidance) and NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, can assist in breaking the cycle of chronic inflammation.




Wired for Survival


Human beings have been able to survive thanks to the healing power within the acute inflammatory response. With a wound, the human inflammatory process works immediately to repair tissue.


Because of this healing power, it may seem counter-intuitive that chronic inflammation can be so destructive. "However, sometimes inflammation persists, day in and day out, even when you are not threatened by a foreign invader" (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021), at which point inflammation can seem like an enemy.


It's vital we work towards fighting chronic inflammation without destroying the super power of the body's natural defenses.


As in any battle, it is important to be strategic and intentional to defeat the enemy. Working towards reducing chronicity of disease, joint damage, pain, and returning the body to homeostasis can lead to more balance and peace, and less risk for depression, anxiety, dementia, heart disease, diabetes, and so much more.


Your own healing super power may require immediate attention. What spark can you ignite within to ensure you give yourself the firepower to win the battle against the searing impact of chronic inflammation?


 


Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing teresa@steppingtowardserenity.org, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting https://www.steppingtowardserenity.org


 



References


Harvard Health Publishing (2021, November 16). Foods that fight inflammation. Retrieved from


Pahwa, R., Goyal, A., and Jialal, I. (2022). Chronic Inflammation. NCBI Bookshelf, National Library of

Medicine, National Institutes of Health.


Rondanelli, M., Faliva, M.A., Miccono, A., Naso, M., Nichetti, M., Riva, A., Guerriero, F...Perna, S. (2018).

Food pyramid for subjects with chronic pain: foods and dietary consistent as anti-inflammatory

and antioxidant agents. Nutrition Research Reviews. dot:10.1017/S0954422417000270.


Shmerling, R. H. (2022, March 16). Why all the buzz about inflammation -- and just how bad is it?


Sundred, M. (2021, September 15). Cracking the code of chronic inflammation. The Front Row/Scripps

Research.

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