Friend or Foe?
Want to know why you get cancer? According to the national media there’s a clear villain – it’s inflammation.
Heart disease? Same cause. Inflammatory bowel disease? Check. Blood clots in the brain? Check.
Inflammation is getting such a bad rap these days you have to come to its defense. Because inflammation is absolutely necessary for survival.
The Regenerating Body
Life is fast. Most of you is rebuilt in a few weeks. Most of your heart gets replaced within three days.
You need inflammation to get that work done. Inflammation is clean-up. Mopping up. It’s necessary preparation for all that rebuilding and renewing that keeps life going.
Much of the time simple processes manage the job. Ubiquitins flag proteins that can’t be repaired. Autophagy – cellular garbage finding and reprocessing – takes care of old stuff that simply no longer functions.
But sometimes heavier lifting is required.
If you fall and hurt your skin and connective tissue, inflammatory cells arrive. They tag the debris and help pull it out. Other cells come in to help clean out debris, simultaneously sending off signals for other helpers to appear.
The newcomers will erect the scaffolding that makes for new muscle cells. New connective tissue cells. New tubes to help construct new veins and arteries.
You can’t do any of that without inflammation.
And then there are illegal immigrants.
Foreigners and Invasion
You’ve got ten trillion human cells. There are 100 trillion bacteria in your gut alone.
Much of the time they’re commensals. We help them. They help us.
We give them food. They help digest ours. They also reset our immunity, helping us keep out other foreigners we might not like as much – like some nasty viruses.
But it all depends on context – time, place, environment. There are plenty of bacteria in the gut – like clostridium difficile – that cause us no trouble at all.
Until there are too many of them in the wrong place. Then they start eating us up or creating terrible toxins.
Inflammatory processes keep them in the right place. We need our inflammatory cells to police bacteria, fungi, viruses, prions, ricketsettia, mycoplasma and other critters so that all these varied living communities co-exist with us. We need the same inflammatory cells to tag or kill the innumerable tumors we form – almost all of which we will never know were there.
But inflammation needs to be controlled, too.
Rebuilding the City
You can think of your body as analogous to another rebuilding ecosystem – the human city.
Much of the time, cities stay in motion. Garbage men take out the overflowing plastics and food waste that build up and pull it somewhere else. Traffic lights and traffic cops help transport flow.
Cities grow, fall apart and rebuild. And then there are less predictable events.
A hurricane may hit, wrecking buildings and streets. Bulldozers and people have to come in to pull out the debris so that rebuilding can start anew.
That’s the sort of thing inflammation does inside your body.
But sometimes the inflammatory system overdoes it. It takes out too much. Then it puts in something new that doesn’t fit.
Kind of like a city where the bulldozers pull out rubble and simultaneously wreck perfectly fine, functioning buildings. Or where an old main highway is rebuilt, but with a giant 46 story Krispy Crème stuck across the central lanes, blocking its main intersection.
And too many people come to buy doughnuts, stopping many cars from passing through.
So transport tries to get around the blockade, moving elsewhere. But the Krispy Crème edifice just keeps getting bigger and bigger, blocking more and more intersections.
Until most people can’t get their car into the city.
And sometimes the inflammatory cells can’t knock off new invaders. A group of Pol Pot inspired guerillas marches in and takes over city hall – just as meningococcus can invade and cut directly into your brain.
If your inflammatory system doesn’t work right, survival is jeopardized.
Inflammation – Necessary and Faulty
Inflammation is necessary for regeneration, for life itself. Without it we can’t rebuild our body effectively – which it needs to do constantly so that we can live.
But like any system inflammation can become under or overutilized. Every organism or ecosystem has its limits.
Pour too much fertilizer into the water and algae can bloom. Then too many algae reproduce, and oxygen disappears from the water.
Dead zones appear – as in the Gulf of Mexico.
Inflammatory systems are no different. They need to be aided and nurtured so that they’ll work right.
Your body is an ecosystem, too – a relatively well-colonized and varied ecosystem. Live the way it’s built – in how you eat, move, rest, socialize – and it should work the way it should.
And then your inflammatory system can do its job – cleaning up unwanted garbage and helping the entire system rebuild.
The right way.
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