Inflammation Part 1: What is Chronic Inflammation Anyway?
As a writer, before I ever put pen to paper (like I actually use pen and paper), I spend a great deal of time researching topics to ensure that information I share is accurate and supported by science or experience. Websites, podcasts, scientific journals, books – think of me as Scooby’s friend Velma and my computer as the Mystery Machine.
Throughout my research of topics relating to health, one word in keeps popping up over and over again.
Normally I think, “Oh, that’s horrible, it causes inflammation!” or “Hey, this reduces inflammation, I better eat it!” or “I bet my pants don’t fit because of inflammation!” but then I realized something.
I don’t know what “inflammation” really means. Or why I should care so much about it.
I’m banking on the hope that others have the same question; otherwise I’ve just publicly revealed that I’m an idiot.
I realize that when I hit my shin on the open dishwasher door (an event that occurs far too often), not only do an array of choice words come spewing forth, but typically the area develops a bump, becomes sensitive to the touch, and develops an unsightly bruise after a day or two.
There it is: Inflammation.
But that’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the bigger concept of inflammation that has become the center of conversation regarding its role in overall health. Is this really a thing? Does that mean our organs are red and swollen and we don’t even know it? Do I have internal scabs? Is it just a fancy buzzword that really has no scientific basis whatsoever?
So I decided to make inflammation the target of my next investigation.
White Blood Cells and Their Role in Inflammation
Inflammation is the body’s defense system against harmful stimuli such as toxins, disease, or infection. Inflammation is, without a doubt, an absolutely essential part of human life. Without it, we would be unable to prevent infection or heal from even the simplest of injuries.
Human blood contains four components: Red blood cells, plasma, white blood cells, and platelets. Red blood cells are transporters of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Plasma is more like a river, acting as a liquid pathway to transport cells, nutrients, hormones, and other molecules around the body. Platelets’ primary role is clotting, while white blood cells are responsible for immunity.
White blood cells are also the key player in inflammation.
White blood cells are like soldiers, constantly patrolling the body for threats. When they sense a harmful intruder, they go into action. The troops gather at the site of concern and begin destroying and consuming the foreign invaders. We want them to do this. They stop the agent from spreading and initiate the process of healing.
Where inflammation becomes a problem is when white blood cells go into overdrive.
Free Radicals: Defender or Offender?
Like soldiers, our white blood cells use various weapons to attack and destroy harmful invaders. And they do this is a variety of different ways.
There are five different types of white blood cells in the human body: Neutrophils, Lymphocytes, Monocytes, Eosinophils, and Basophils. While each one has a role in defending the body, the way each does do so varies. Like pretty much every cellular action that takes place in humans, immunity is a complex process that involves big words I can’t even pronounce. Since I’m trying to make this explanation easy to follow, I’m going to use the blanket term “white blood cells” from this point forward. But do know that my explanation is over-simplified for the sake of those of us who compare biology and chemistry to water boarding. For everyone else, here is a great video that illustrates the different types of white blood cells and the role of each.
One such weapon that white blood cells use to attack the enemy is free radicals. These molecules are released with the specific purpose of destroying harmful or damaged cells. And they do a good job of it.
But sometimes free radicals go rogue.
And that’s when problems begin.
During the process of destroying invaders, free radicals can begin attacking healthy tissue surrounding the area of concern. Now that healthy tissue is under attack, the body responds by releasing more white blood cells to combat this new enemy using – ironically – more free radicals. This cycle then continues to repeat itself. Suddenly the troops are occupying an area far longer than expected or needed.
And now you have chronic inflammation.
Free radicals, put simply, are molecules having only one electron. As it turns out, electrons prefer to be in pairs, and are desperate to find a mate when that isn’t the case. Since there isn’t an online dating site for single-electron molecules (not yet anyway), they steal one from a nearby molecule that already has an electron couple. Now that victimized molecule, devastated by its single status, goes on to steal a second electron from some other nearby pair, leaving another desperate single-electron molecule in its wake. And the process can go on and on.
Did I just describe a soap opera?
Anyway, this continuous process of stealing electrons damages cells and their components – including DNA – leading to a growing list of chronic and often life-threatening diseases.
The Link Between Oxidative Stress and Inflammation
Fortunately, the body has Special Forces in place – called antioxidants – that eliminate free radicals. Antioxidants freely give one of their electrons to free radicals, placating their need to steal from others. Once a free radical has two electrons, it is no longer a threat to cells.
Think of antioxidants as philanthropists of the body; we want a lot of them hanging around so there is no shortage of donations. The more antioxidants we have, the fewer free radicals we have. Fewer free radicals mean less damage to healthy cells. And healthy cells = healthy people.
However, free radicals can exceed the amount of antioxidants available, meaning the body has more free radicals than it has philanthropists to donate electrons. This imbalance is called oxidative stress. Studies show that ongoing oxidative stress leads to chronic inflammation.
And chronic inflammation has been connected with serious health concerns such as heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and even depression.
An Example of Inflammation and its Role in Artherosclerosis
The relationship between chronic inflammation and disease is complicated and still a relatively new discovery that continues to be researched. Despite now understanding the role of inflammation inside our bodies, how white blood cells and free radicals cause disease might be less clear.
Let me provide an example of how inflammation can sometimes do more harm than good.
Most of us know that plaque can build up in our arteries, but there’s more to the story than this. See, when the body senses this plaque embedding itself into the artery wall, it immediately sounds the alarm that a foreign invader is present. As we learned earlier, when this happens, white blood cells are released to the site to do away with the enemy.
However, a problem occurs when white blood cells come into contact with plaque. As one Harvard Health Publication described it, when white blood cells attack plaque they “turn into foamy cells that ooze more fat and cause more inflammation.”
By the way, it turns out that “foam cells” is a clinical term used by the medical community. It’s actually a real thing. Who knew?
Anyway, once these foam cells come onto the scene, other cells respond by creating a barrier around this foamy area – sort of like a scab (so we really DO have scabs on the inside!). This now traps the plaque and makes the artery wall thicker because of it. Blood cannot flow through as freely as it once did (which is what causes high blood pressure).
When blood flow needs to increase (during exercise or high moments of stress, for example), it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on that scabby barrier covering the plaque. That pressure can cause the barrier to rupture, allowing fragments of plaque to seep out – potentially causing a blood clot.
And in case you didn’t know, a blood clot can kill you.
Here’s a thrilling video illustrating the dangers of artherosclerosis in the event I did a horrible job trying to explain it.
Why Chronic Inflammation Should Matter to You
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2015 the top three leading causes of death in the U.S. were heart disease, cancer, and chronic lower respiratory disease.
Chances are pretty good that one of these illnesses will affect you or a loved one, if it hasn’t already.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In fact, there is a lot we can do in our everyday lives to combat the risk of inflammation. It doesn’t even have to include medical intervention or medication. In fact, some of it is downright easy.
And that’s Part 2 of this series.
So come back and check it out, dear reader, or you might never know how to prevent an untimely death from inflammation. And that would be a bummer. Because we like our readers.
Do you have questions about inflammation? Post below and let us know. The Mystery Machine and I are always at the ready to provide health-related information in a way that even simpletons like me can understand.