The word inflammation comes from the Latin word inflammare, to set on fire. In the context of our immune system, heat, redness, pain and swelling form as a reaction to either injury, or a perceived threat in the body.
If you’ve ever hit your thumb with a hammer, you can see how inflammation normally occurs. In terms of illness, such as colds and flu, the swollen glands and puffy eyes and nose that most of us experience in response to those viruses clearly show the immune system at work trying to banish the disease from the body.
However, in some cases, the immune system can get confused. Inflammation can cause the immune system to start attacking various parts of the body that it sees as a threat. In turn, that inflammation can lead to damage and leave you open to more illness and even disability.
Picture what happens when you hit your thumb or get a cold happening all over your body, all day, every day. What could the health consequences of persistent chronic inflammation be?
Inflammation has now been linked to many serious illnesses, including:
- Heart disease
- Various forms of cancer
- Arthritis, especially rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and gout
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Thyroid conditions that can lead to hypothyroidism (slow thyroid), which can make sufferers gain even more weight
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is one example of the effects of inflammation in the body being clearly visible. With RA, the body attacks the tissue that lines the inside of your joints, known as the synovium. RA causes the synovium to thicken, causing swelling and pain around and inside your joints.
The synovium create synovial fluid, which helps lubricate your joints and keep them moving like a well-oiled machine. If the synovium are damaged, the joints are not lubricated properly, leading to pain, swelling and friction, which in turn leads to more pain. Due to the friction, the cartilage and bones can even become damaged if RA is not treated effectively. If you’ve ever seen someone with gnarled and twisted looking fingers and hands, you can clearly see the effects of RA on the body.
In Multiple Sclerosis (MS), the immune system starts to attack the myelin sheaths that protect our nerves. If these get damaged, it is like wires short-circuiting, leading to a range of symptoms all over the body, including:
- Blurred or double vision
- Trouble concentrating
- Lack of coordination and muscle strength
- Loss of balance
- Numbness or tingling in a foot, arm or leg
RA and MS are just two examples of the effects of inflammation. As we have said, most forms of arthritis, heart-related illness and cancers are linked to inflammation. There are many more illnesses in which inflammation has been discovered to play a key role.
Our immune system is therefore a delicately balanced system, with inflammation being a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be helpful in keeping germs under control so we do not get sick. On the other hand, if the immune system gets confused, inflammation will increase as the body starts to attack itself. Studies have shown that inflammation can affect almost every system in the body.
Fortunately, you can reduce inflammation by avoiding foods that trigger inflammation, steering clear of harsh chemicals, reducing your stress, stopping smoking, and exercising more. Focus on reducing inflammation and see what a difference it can make to your health.