Underlying almost every chronic disease known to man is one common process: inflammation. But it’s not all bad—inflammation serves a critical function, in its proper place. Without it, we would be unable to heal from even the most minor injury.

Our bodies are incredibly smart, and are designed to heal themselves. Here’s how inflammation contributes.

What Inflammation Is: When All Goes Well

When you get injured, or your body encounters a foreign substance, bacteria, virus, fungus, or parasite, the inflammatory process begins as part of the non-specific phase of your immune response (check out this article for more on the non-specific and specific responses.) In other words, inflammation means healing has commenced. Here’s what happens during the non-specific immune response:

  • White blood cells in the area (including mast cells) release chemicals like histamine, bradykinin, and eicosanoids.
  • These chemicals cause the arterioles (tiny arteries that supply blood to the injured area) to dilate, bringing more blood flow to the area. They also increase the arterioles’ permeability, allowing more white blood cells to enter the fray (including neutrophils, basophils, eosinophils, macrophages, and monocytes). These help to break down microorganisms.
  • The result: the area turns red, swells up, and hurts (because the chemicals released can irritate the nerves).

Typically this should only last for a few days. After that, if the immune system wins and the injury is healed or pathogen is dead, the next stage is called suppuration (formation of pus). Pus is the carnage after the confrontation is over: it contains dead white blood cells, and debris from the fallen bacteria. The body generally gets rid of pus on its own, followed by granulation, or formation of healthy tissue in the area of injury.

But sometimes, the immune system loses. That’s when the trouble starts.

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is characteristic of many, many, many recognizable diseases. It occurs when 1) the immune system fails to overcome the causative agent in acute inflammation, 2) if an irritant persists or is continually re-introduced into the body, or 3) if the immune system gets confused and turns on itself (autoimmunity).

Now, the body’s tissue is either under direct attack, as in autoimmunity, or it bears collateral damage as the immune system contends with the irritant or invader. Ultimately this leads to fibrosis (thick and scarred connective tissue), and tissue destruction.

Here are just a few examples of how this plays out in familiar illnesses:

  • Arthritis: inflammatory cytokines are responsible for the destruction of cartilage.
  • Autism: I’ll probably write another article about this soon, but according to this composite article, inflammatory cytokine IL-6 is looking like a very strong possible causative agent.
  • Heart Disease: inflammation causes oxidative damage, which leads to cardiovascular plaques.
  • Autoimmunity (of all kinds): often due to molecular mimicry, in which the immune system becomes sensitized to certain self antigens by a food or a pathogen.
  • Fibromyalgia: inflammation often due to either leaky gut syndrome and food allergies or toxicity.
  • GERD: inflammation generally due to food allergies leads to gastric juices splashing back up the esophagus.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome: inflammation in the gut, often due to food allergies or dysbiosis
  • Eczema and Psoriasis: a breach in the skin barrier due to histamine release, often triggered by food allergies or exotoxins released by normal skin bacteria.

The Upshot

If your inflammation is in chronic overdrive, the question is, why?

Also, don’t be too hasty to try to bring down acute inflammation unless absolutely necessary, lest you impede the healing process.