Inflammation- A Universal Function and Experience

A Universal Function and Experience

Inflammation is the heart of a wide range of experiences, from mosquito bites to arthritis.

Every person alive has had some experience of inflammation.  And, as it is at the heart of so many troubles we all experience, I thought it would be interesting to share what we know about it.

What is inflammation?
The word inflammation means just what it sound like, to catch on fire.

The idea is that all complex living organisms, from algae, to plants, to insects, to us, need some way to destroy dangerous cells, to protect our own cells.   All of such life actually monitors every square inch of living tissue at all times, and when a germ, or an errant cell appears, the body stands ready to zap it.

What does zapping it mean?  It means delivering compounds that literally burn the unwanted germs and cells.  
Our immune system makes high powered peroxides and other such compounds that actually deliver oxygen to an unwanted material as surely as a fire delivers oxygen to wood.

But here's the problem.  It's very powerful to have a cellular flame-thrower handy to obliterate intruders, but how do you keep that fire from burning your self?

That's the key problem, the most important balance inherent in inflammation- how to keep the destruction available at every place in the body, ready to burn at any moment, keep the destruction off when not needed, and only focused on the harmful when on. 

Good inflammation
Inflammation is vital to some of the most basic of functions of life- healing, recovery from infections, and even cancer prevention.  

Any time we get a cut, it is inflammation that largely destroys the germs that pour into the cut.  Without that protection, no cut would heal, every infection (including colds) would be fatal, and we would all have many cancers at a much younger age.  How does inflammation protect us from these fates?

The most important function the immune system plays is to identify who is friend and who is foe.  The immune system looks at every cell, at every compound, in the body and asks, at every moment:  is this cell or material me or not me?

The ability of the immune system to be present in every place and at every time is what allows us to be protected in every spot of the body, no matter when.

Consider a cut.  A cut breaks the seal the skin makes to keep literally trillions of bacteria out of our body.  So when we have a cut, bacteria pour in, right there, right then.  Only because our immune system is ready to go on the attack anywhere and anywhen, any cut is controlled.  Cuts can get infected, but over 99% do not, even without doctors.   This is an essential mechanism for healing.

Infections are all examples of germs, typically viruses and bacteria, finding a way past such defenses and getting a foot hold in our tissues.  Uncontrolled they can destroy vital organs and pose a dangerous threat. 

Perhaps the least well known and least appreciated powers of inflammation is to eliminate our own cells, cells that have gone astray.  The most dramatic example of this gift from inflammation is the control of emerging cancer cells.  It is our own immune system, and ultimately, its powers of inflammation that keep a very large number of cancer cells from ever getting the chance to grow and spread.

Short-term bothers from inflammation

Nearly every misery from cold and flus, stomach flus, insect bites, irritating plants, and injuries, comes from inflammations.  These sorts of bothers are short-term inflammations, they only happen during the illness, irritation, or injury.  Once the cold, or poison ivy, or bruise, is gone, the symptoms of the inflammation go away too.

One of my favorite illustrations of short-term inflammation is the mosquito-bite.  I actually hate them like everyone else, but they contain all the features seen in all short-term inflammations:
1.  Something happens to provoke inflammation- the mosquito bites you
2.  The inflammation only happens where the provocation occurs- at the site of the  bite and nowhere else.
3.  The classic signs of inflammation are all present:  swelling, pain or itch, redness, warmth.
4.  Once the irritation of the bite goes away, so does the inflammation- that is bites clear in a short period of time.

The exact same sequence is seen with colds:
1.  Something happens to provoke inflammation- the virus infects you
2.  The inflammation only happens where the provocation occurs-
       if the virus infects the nose- a runny nose
       if the virus infects the throat- a sore throat
       if the virus infects the lungs- a cough
       the exception is that viruses can cause inflammation to release chemicals that a cause a couple of body wide troubles-  tiredness, aches and pains, and fever.
3. The classic signs of inflammation are all present when it is active:  swelling, pain or itch, redness, warmth.
4.  Once the irritation of the virus goes away, so does the inflammation- fever, aches and pains, tiredness, runny nose, sore throat, cough-  all go away completely once the virus goes and the inflammation heals.

The same sequence is seen in every short-term inflammations- including the bruises, stomach flus, and other short term illnesses, including migraine headaches.

Long- Term Inflammation

In contrast to the short-term inflammations, the long-term inflammations persist, linger, and sometimes last a lifetime.  We do not understand how such long-term inflammations get started, and we certainly have no idea how they get sustained.

A bigger contrast to the short-term inflammations is that nearly all long-term inflammations serve no good purpose.   They represent the darker side of our ability inflame.  They hurt, they cause suffering, and cause damage to the body, all for no very good reason.

Familiar examples include the chronic, recurring inflammations of the gut (e.g., Crohn's disease), brain (multiple sclerosis), insulin producing cells of the pancreas (diabetes), joints (arthritis), lungs (asthma) you get the idea.

Perhaps the most benign of the long-term inflammations are the allergic variety.  They can cause much suffering, but tend to be intermittent, and cause no actual long-term damage to the body in most instances.  And, in contrast to the other long-term inflammations noted, there are often good treatments with few side effects available for allergy-related inflammations.

What Role Should Inflammation Have in our Life?

It is tempting to hope that one day we will eliminate inflammation, and rid ourselves of all the awful diseases long-term inflammation cause.  Not to mention all the miseries the short-term inflammations bring to us.

But keep in mind that inflammation is a necessary weapon to protect our bodies from infections and even cancers.

So the goal will ultimately be to have some fine tuning control over the mechanisms of inflammation in our body.  That fine tuning would turn off attacks on the valuable, healthy parts of our body, and eliminate the suffering such attacks create, but would leave intact, and even enhance, the power of our body's inflammatory mechanisms to keep us free of infection and cancer.

This is a very tall order, but one of the reasons for this tour of inflammation is to help us be familiar with one of the great powers of our body, to understand how it works for us, and how so much of what causes our health to be challenged is related to this particular power we all carry inside, inflammation.

1.  Everyone has heard of inflammation, but it is helpful to understand a bit more about just what it is.
2.  Inflammation is the power of the body to attack, and literally burn away, threats to our health.
3.  Inflammation is vital to keeping our body clear of infection, and surprisingly, of cancer.
4.  Short-term inflammations cause the universal bothers of viral symptoms such as runny noses, malaise, aches, fever, diarrhea; the itch of insect bites and plant reactions; as well as the pain of bruises and migraine headaches.
5.  Long-term inflammations are the more serious challenges to health that come from uninvited and unwelcome, sustained attacks on our own bodies, such as seen in Crohn's disease, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
6.  Science right now is working on preserving and even strengthening our protective uses of inflammation, and preventing or turning off unwanted flares of this powerful mechanism.

To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin

*Disclaimer* The comments contained in this electronic source of information do not constitute and are not designed to imply that they constitute any form of individual medical advice. The information provided is purely for informational purposes only and not relevant to any person's particular medical condition or situation. If you have any medical concerns about yourself or your family please contact your physician immediately. In order to provide our patients the best uninfluenced information that science has to offer,we do not accept samples of drugs, advertising tchotchkes, money, food, or any item from outside vendors.

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