As we settle into the summer months and the bugs emerge in full force, think back to the last time you got a bee sting or a bug bite (maybe you’ve already had that honor a few times this year). After the initial pain, it only takes minutes for the area to become red and slightly swollen. That familiar inflammation, as we all know, is the first sign the immune system is doing its job. In fact, the process provides protection for the body by isolating the area that sustained the wound, and by calling immune cells to the site to start the healing process. Without this inflammation, in fact, that bug bite (or cut, sting, splinter, whatever) would never heal.
Of course, you can also have too much of a good thing. There’s a big difference between the reaction above and the kind of long-term inflammation that takes a major toll on your immune system, leading to the possibility of chronic illness, such as heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.
Types of Inflammation
To understand the danger of long-term inflammation, let’s break down the two different types:
This is the type of inflammation described in the above example. When the body experiences the injury, it moves plasma proteins and white blood cells from the blood to the injured tissues. Your blood vessels dilate – which allows more blood to reach the wound – and become more permeable than normal, which allows even more immune cells to pass through the walls to reach the site. These actions are what cause those familiar symptoms like redness, swelling and pain.
However, acute inflammation is only temporary. When the healing begins, the inflammation also goes away.
Unlike acute inflammation, this type is caused when the immune maintains the attack. This may occur as a result of an ongoing irritant (such as pollen or cigarette smoke), a low-grade fever that can’t be resolved, or healthy tissue that’s being mistakenly perceived as a foreign threat by the body.
Instead of clear, visible inflammation, this type is usually more subtle and may only be detectable by sensitive tests.
Dangers to the Immune System
“Inflammation is thought to be an important basis not just for cancer, but for insulin resistance and diabetes and atherosclerotic disease and any number of other conditions. There is a lot of research going on into what role inflammation plays in a lot of the chronic degenerative diseases that our society falls prey to.”
In fact, long-term inflammation is connected to a number of serious illnesses, including:
- Crohn’s disease
Inflammation and Cancer
The connection between inflammation and cancer is often very direct. For example, cigarettes irritate the lung tissue, and that leads to inflamed lungs, which may develop into lung cancer. HPV leads to a chronic infection, and that inflammation may lead to cervical cancer. And those who suffer from chronic inflammatory bowel disease are at least five times more likely to get colon cancer.
The connection can also be more indirect like obesity. It’s been well-documented that obesity is a major risk factor for cancer, but many scientists believe the inflammation that comes with obesity is one of the major causes of cancer. For example, obesity can cause an inflamed liver, which can lead to a higher risk of liver cancer. Obesity can also cause inflammation that increases the overactivation of a particular signaling pathway that may lead to colon cancer. Mason at Tufts University believes this overactivation plays a crucial role in cancer development:
“It takes a number of different pushes from different directions to finally get the ball rolling where cells just finally decide that they are going to become cancerous. Some of us think that they get nudged a little bit by these pro-inflammatory cytokines.”
Put Out the Fire
So how do you prevent or at least reduce this dangerous chronic inflammation? There’s no silver bullet; instead, the steps to healing from chronic inflammation are those necessary – yet sometimes difficult – lifestyle changes:
You can also stock up on foods that are full of antioxidants, and make small diet changes that encourage a healthier immune system. And if you need a reason to treat yourself, research shows that even just 45 minutes on the massage table can lower your level of those pro-inflammatory cytokines. I can definitely appreciate that!