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What Is Inflammation?

Learn what happens when the body's defense system fights against its own cells by mistake.
What Is Inflammation?

In this article:

  • Understanding the basics of inflammation
  • Acute vs. chronic inflammation
  • Impact of chronic inflammation
  • Identifying chronic inflammation in the body
  • Inflammation of the thyroid gland
  • Ways to reduce inflammation 


Our immune systems are incredibly complex. Inflammation, in particular, is one of the more perplexing processes in our bodies. Under normal conditions, inflammation protects our tissues from injury and infection. This same process that serves as the body's internal defense system can also turn on us and cause chronic health conditions. When you get to the bottom of it, inflammation is generally behind every ache, skin breakout, itch, and medical condition.


Understanding the basics of inflammation


Inflammation is the body's response to something irritating, such as a tear in the skin, exposure to toxins, or a pathogen. When your immune system senses that something is wrong, it sends an army of white blood cells to the damaged area. The white blood cells begin fighting any germs and healing tissues. The damaged area becomes swollen with increased blood flow, which carries inflammatory mediators that allow white blood cells to pass through your vessels more easily. They also send hormones to irritate your nerves so that your brain knows to protect the area from further harm.


Generally, the signs of inflammation are:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Heat
  • Pain
  • Loss of function


All five symptoms will not always occur at once. Indeed, inflammation can even be silent, in that you have no symptoms at all. 


Acute vs. chronic inflammation


There are two different types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Most of us are well acquainted with acute inflammation as it happens when we cut our skin, twist an ankle, or lose our sense of smell when we have a cold. Acute inflammation is where our body has an immediate response to some harm or invasion. Inflammation from an acute injury or infection goes away rather quickly, depending on the severity of the insult on your tissues. 


Chronic inflammation, however, is where things get a little bit muddy. People can have chronic inflammation with tissues that won't heal, like a torn rotator cuff. However, your immune system can also go rogue and attack its tissues, causing chronic inflammation. This type of inflammation can be silent for many years before you start to experience symptoms. Things like long-term exposure to environmental toxins and irritants, untreated causes of acute inflammation, or autoimmune disorders (also known as inflammatory diseases) can cause chronic inflammation.


Examples of inflammatory diseases include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Crohn's disease
  • Hashimoto's thyroiditis
  • Asthma


Impact of chronic inflammation


When chronic inflammation goes unmanaged, it can lead to other chronic health diseases along with autoimmune diseases. Essentially, your immune system starts attacking its healthy cells and organs. With time, your tissues can become scarred, your DNA may become damaged, and you may even have tissue death. Examples of chronic inflammatory diseases include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and Alzheimer's. 


Sometimes, chronic inflammation has no apparent underlying cause in some people. Thus, it can be challenging to diagnose and treat. Yet, we know that identifying the cause of inflammation and treating it is essential for preventing long term damage and increasing longevity and quality of life.


Identifying chronic inflammation in your body


The symptoms of chronic inflammation are not always straightforward. Indeed, people often don't experience any symptoms, which makes chronic inflammation a "silent" problem for many years. Still, some common signals indicate a person is struggling with inflammatory issues. 


Gastrointestinal distress 

Irritable bowel syndrome is a common manifestation of chronic inflammation. Indeed, GI upset like diarrhea, bloating, and constipation can all signal a more significant problem when they become longterm problems. Chronic inflammation may come from a condition where the gut is highly permeable ("leaky gut"), allowing toxins from food to escape your GI tract.  


Mental challenges

People with chronic inflammation frequently struggle with mental health symptoms like depression, anxiety, and brain fog. It is not uncommon for people to feel like they have trouble focusing, lack of mental clarity, and inability to think clearly. Research suggests that inflammation may decrease serotonin (your "feel good" neurohormone), responsible for your mood and sleep regulation. 


Skin Issues

Our skin is sometimes a window into our overall health. Acne, rosacea, eczema, and rashes can all indicate that your immune system is hyperactive.


Stress

High levels of stress over a long time can lead to elevated cortisol levels in your bloodstream over a long period. Eventually, excess cortisol (along with its effects such as high blood pressure) can cause chronic inflammation.


Autoimmune diseases

People who have an autoimmune disease are more likely to have more than one. This condition is called polyautoimmunity. For example, people with Hashimoto's may also have rheumatoid arthritis.  


Fatigue

Chronic unexplained fatigue is one of the most debilitating symptoms experienced by people with autoimmune disease. This symptom may signify that you are experiencing chronic inflammation that is slowly damaging your tissues and organs. 


Aches and pains

Joint pain is a common manifestation of chronic inflammation. When there is no exact identifiable cause, muscle aches and joint pain can signify hyperactivity in the immune system.

Inflammation of the thyroid gland

Thyroiditis is the general name for inflammation of the thyroid gland. Antibodies that attack the thyroid are cause most types of thyroiditis, making it an autoimmune disease like those listed above.

Doctors aren't entirely sure why some people make anti-thyroid antibodies. Some believe that a virus or bacterium might trigger the response, while others think it may be a genetic flaw. A combination of factors — including heredity, sex, and age — may determine your likelihood of developing thyroiditis. Drugs such as interferon (used to treat certain cancers) and amiodarone (used to treat certain types of irregular heartbeat) can also damage thyroid cells and cause thyroiditis.


Thyroiditis can present in several ways, including:

  • Hashimoto's thyroiditis, the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States
  • Postpartum thyroiditis, a common cause of thyroid problems after giving birth
  • Subacute thyroiditis, a common cause of pain in the thyroid gland


Ways to reduce inflammation


Identify the root cause

Identify the underlying causes of inflammation if there are any. Keep track of any symptoms you may be experiencing (like brain fog, fatigue, GI upset, etc.) and present your log to your doctor. Many autoimmune conditions run in families, like Hashimoto's. Be sure to let your doctor know your family's medical history. Blood testing can identify biomarkers that indicate chronic underlying inflammation and diagnose medical conditions.


Manage stress

Stress management is critical to managing chronic inflammation. If stress goes unmanaged, it worsens inflammation, which in turn increases stress. It is truly a vicious cycle. Therefore, adopting strategies for lowering stress is crucial. For example, some studies suggest that meditation signals the brain to reduce interleukin-6, an inflammatory cytokine.


Eat an anti-inflammatory diet

Diet is essential for improving your overall health, but especially for curbing inflammation. Research suggests that your gut makes 90% of serotonin, whereas your brain makes only 10%. Thus, when you eat an unhealthy diet or have poor gut health, you are more likely to struggle with symptoms of inflammation like mood swings or poor sleep. Increase your intake of anti-inflammatory foods like leafy vegetables, berries, and omega-3's and try to eliminate foods that may trigger inflammation like gluten and dairy. 


Supplement your diet

Try anti-inflammatory supplements that can help naturally reduce inflammation. L-Glutamine and Ashwagandha are dietary supplements that may reduce inflammation. Probiotics can also help restore balance to your gut microbiota, thus reduce inflammation in the GI tract.  

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Move your body

Regular physical exercise has tremendous benefits for the mind and body. From weight control and blood sugar regulation to giving you a hearty dose of endorphins, exercise can help prevent diseases caused by chronic inflammation and improve symptoms like fatigue, moodiness, weight gain, and joint pain.


A note from Paloma Health

Chronic inflammation increases your risk of several serious diseases. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing signs of inflammation. Medication, supplements, and eating an anti-inflammatory diet can help you reduce your risk.

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