Inflammation and its role in disease has been studied for decades, but more recently new technology is unraveling how it starts at your cellular level.
Research in the past decade has found, for instance, that inflammation anywhere in your body is not an automatic reaction, but an assembly of “molecular structures” called inflammasomes that are then released in the aftermath of an injury to help it heal.
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury, irritation or infection, an acute healing process of neutralization. It’s beneficial. But when it becomes chronic as the result of constant irritants, research has found it can harm tissues and extend an injury. It has also been associated with chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, depression, heart disease, many forms of cancer, and even dementia.
This “metainflammation” differs from “classic” inflammation in important ways. One study says it is “low-grade, causing only a small rise in immune system markers, is persistent and results in chronic, rather than acute loss of bodily equilibrium.”
It also produces homegrown antigens, or substances that cause your immune system to produce antibodies against them. This response in turn prompts inflammation.
“In essence, although classical inflammation has a healing role in acute disease, metainflammation, because of its persistence, may have a mediating role, helping to aggravate and perpetuate chronic disease,” the study says.
“In recent years, we've come to accept that inflammation plays a role in many chronic diseases, but it's about an imbalance — too many pro-inflammatory chemicals and not enough anti-inflammatory ones," Moise Desvarieux, an inflammation researcher at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, told U.S. News and World Report.
Cancer, which globally kills more than 8 million people a year, has become a particular focus of research on the connection between inflammation and disease, according to Robert A. Weinberg of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. He writes about this change in research direction in his influential textbook, “The Biology of Cancer.”
It’s probably not surprising to you that too much stress in your life can cause health problems. That connection has emerged in many studies. You may not know, however, that the link between stress and disease is inflammation, specifically the body’s inability to regulate the inflammatory response.
This goes back to the imbalance that leads to chronic inflammation, harming the body in ways that are invisible except to the most astute doctors using modern technology.
Although there are many different theories and many different results from studies, most agree on one thing: diet and nutrition also play a key role in reducing your body’s chronic inflammatory response, including its role in cancer. Some researchers believe the weight loss and exercise help as well.
One review of natural substances that can fight chronic inflammation notes that flavonoids are “nearly ubiquitous in plants… They are rich in seeds, citrus fruits, olive oil, tea, and red wine.” These so-called phytochemicals, the review notes, may hold the most promise for the prevention of chronic inflammatory and allergic diseases, “as well as coronary artery disease and breast cancer.”
There is always the pharmaceutical route, sometimes by accident. Research has found, for example, that the effectiveness of statins in reducing heart disease probably lies in the side effect of reducing inflammation rather than in reducing cholesterol. More and more prescription drugs are being used for “off-label” treatments. Ask your doctor about any drugs that have been approved for use against chronic inflammation.
September 14, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA