Inflammation

Inflammation

Put simply, is the body’s biological response to irritation or injury. It generally involves redness, swelling, and warmth, and can occur as a result of infection, damaged cells, or other irritants.

As the immune system’s natural response, inflammation is not inherently problematic. Rather, it is a necessary, natural element of the body’s survival process. Inflammation arises when the system comes into contact with a potentially harmful stimulus, ranging from bacteria infecting a wound to a wood splinter or other external particle, to more chronic illness and injury.

When inflammation occurs in the body, immune cells begin to release substances known as the inflammatory mediators. For example, these cells can release hormones such as bradykinin and histamine, which cause the blood vessels in the tissue to expand, thus bringing increased blood flow to the injured tissue. This is what causes the area to become red and hot. Along with the blood, more defense cells are brought to the infected area to aid the healing process. The hormones released can also trigger nerves to send pain signals to the brain, which brings attention to the injury or illness and causes the body and mind to naturally protect the inflamed area. The inflammatory mediators also increase the permeability of blood vessels, allowing for the defense cells to carry more fluid into the affected tissue, therefore explaining swelling that may occur. In some instances of inflammation, for example, in the event of a runny nose, mucous membranes release fluid as a way of quickly emitting viruses from the body.

 

 

Historically…

Recorded studies on inflammation date back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. In the fifth century BC, Hippocrates introduced terms to describe inflammation, which he regarded as an early component of healing from tissue injury. Aulus Celsus, a Roman writer who lived between 30 BC and 45 AD, explained the four signs of inflammation: redness, warmth, swelling, and pain, and Galen, the physician and surgeon of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, has been credited with introducing the fifth symptom of inflammation, or loss of function in the affected tissue. The earliest concepts of inflammation were largely derived from intuition, with careful scientific observation of the immune system’s response developed later, in the 16th-20th centuries. With the invention and subsequent development of the microscope, more detailed descriptions of blood flow changes in inflamed tissues were recorded. More recently, vast developments in the understanding and medical treatment of inflammation have arisen from the fields of molecular biology and immunology, with modern medicines used to both treat and prevent inflammation. There are also many herbal and all-natural remedies for both inflammation as well as the diseases and ailments that cause chronic inflammation, as understood by the ancient system of health from India, Ayurveda, and by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). According to practitioners of these health systems, the following herbs can be used to remedy inflammation:

  • Turmeric, and its active compound, curcumin, have been shown effective for rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Curcumin has also proven to have limited benefits for patients with psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, and inflammatory eye diseases.
  • Boswellia, one of the most ancient and respected herbs in ayurvedic healing, commonly known as frankincense, has been researched as a potential anti-inflammatory, used to treat diseases including arthritis, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease. Boswellia has been shown to inhibit the synthesis of proinflammatory mediators including prostaglandins and leukotrienes.
  • Calendula, commonly known as gold-bloom or marigold, serves as an antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiparasitic and painkilling agent for minor injuries and topical infections and irritations. It is available in creams, eyedrops, teas, and tinctures. Calendula effectively inhibits cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), a key enzyme mediating inflammation. It reduces the inflammation that causes pain in bowel diseases, and has been demonstrated in German studies to prevent the hormonal reactions that produce swelling and inflammation in the stomach lining, thus relieving symptoms of gastritis.
  • Comfrey, a European perennial also called black root, blackwort, bruisewort, slippery root, and wallwort, is used in traditional herbal medicine to relieve pain and inflammation caused by injuries and degeneration, particularly the symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders. Comfrey has been proven to relieve muscle pain (myalgia). Tea made with the leaves of this plant can be combined with calendula to alleviate gastritis.

Inflammation can occur over both the short and long term. Short term inflammation, also known as acute inflammation, happens most often as a result of sickness or injury, such as a cut, scrape, burn or bruise. It can also result from a trauma like a head injury, as a response to soreness after exercise, or from a minor sinus infection or cold. It generally results in a brief, at times, intense, healing process, and can appear as the five symptoms previously mentioned (redness, heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function). Loss of function includes both physical (i.e., when an injured limb can no longer be moved) and sensory (i.e., when sense of smell is worsened during a cold). Not all symptoms appear with every inflammation. Some forms of inflammation can even occur silently, without any such symptoms appearing at all. More severe inflammation may result in arduous reactions and symptoms including feeling generally ill, exhaustion, fever, and changes in the blood.

Long term, or chronic, inflammation, happens when the immune system is overworked from long-standing irritation. It is similar to the body being in a constant state of low-grade infection, as the immune system is never able to fully rest. In certain diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, the immune system even begins to mistakenly fight against its own cells, resulting in harmful inflammatory response that can last for years. Symptoms, both physical and mental, that have been credited to chronic inflammatory conditions include acne, allergies, Alzheimer’s Disease, anxiety, asthma, attention deficit disorder, bloating, cancer, celiac disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, dermatitis, depression, eczema, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, gallbladder disease, gastric ulcers, heart disease, hepatitis, irritable bowel syndrome, infertility, kidney disease, liver disease, migraines, pancreatitis, Parkinson’s Disease, thyroid disorders, diabetes (type 1 & 2), and vertigo, among others.

There are various known causes of inflammation, both short term and long term. Common causes of short term, or acute inflammation include:

  • A skin lesion (i.e., a cut or scrape)
  • Foreign objects (such as a thorn in the finger)
  • Joint, tendon, or ligament injury (for example, a sprained ankle)
  • Acute bronchitis (inflammation of the bronchi)
  • Otitis media (middle ear infection)
  • Tonsillitis
  • Appendicitis

On the other hand, long term, or chronic inflammation often occurs as a result of long-lasting conditions including:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lupus
  • Allergies (both environmental and food related)
  • Asthma
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Crohn’s disease

Chronic inflammation can also result from habitual or environmental influences such as smoking, stress, poor diet, lack of exercise, pollution, excess weight, poor oral health, and excess alcohol consumption.

Regardless of the cause and symptoms of inflammation, inflammation is the body’s natural healing mechanism. Often times acute (short term) inflammation is perceived as better than chronic, long term inflammation, simply because it doesn’t last as long and can be easier to treat. Acute inflammation, while at times more severe in the occurring symptoms, is the body’s response to a sudden illness or injury, whereas long term inflammation is the underlying response to a long-standing unbalance, whether that occurs from a chronic disease, such as of the bowels or skin, or as a result of environmental or lifestyle factors. Either way, if not addressed properly, inflammation can impact the immune system’s ability to respond to threats. For example, chronic inflammation has, in some cases, led to autoimmune disorders, where the body’s cells begin attacking its own parts, essentially due to an impaired ability to discern between foreign invaders and itself. For this reason, it is important to understand inflammation as the body’s mechanism for telling us something is wrong, tap into the signals that the body strategically sends, and address inflammation when it arises.

 

 

References:

 

Balch, Phyllis A., CNC. (2012). Prescription for Herbal Healing: an Easy-to-use A-to-Z Reference to Hundreds of Common Disorders and their Herbal Remedies—2nd ed. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

 

Granger DN, Senchenkova E. (2010). Inflammation and the Microcirculation: Chapter 2: Historical Perspectives. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53379/

 

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Healthcare. (2015, January). What is an inflammation? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072482/

 

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2015, January). Ayurvedic Medicine: In Depth. Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/ayurveda/introduction.htm

 

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2013, October). Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth. Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/chinesemed.htm

Szalay, Jessie. (2015, September). Inflammation: Causes, Symptoms & Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/52344-inflammation.html

White B, Judkins DZ. (2011). Clinical Inquiry. Does turmeric relieve inflammatory conditions? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21369559