Systemic or chronic inflammation has a domino effect that can seriously undermine your health.
The term, inflammation has been thrown around quite a bit in the last few years. This is, in part, where the craze for antioxidants stemmed from. Inflammation is thought be involved in ageing, depression, PMS, excessive fatigue, obesity and pain. As you can see, it is quite easy for inflammation to get a bad name.
When working efficiently, inflammation is a favourable response. It is a protective process that is mounted by the immune system in order to neutralise a threat and restore function to the body. This protective process is significantly important, and is usually as short-lived as the threat.
If the process of inflammation is extended, or if the process is not working efficiently, havoc can erupt in the form of chronic inflammation.
Many different immune cells take part in the process of inflammation. Each immune cell has its own vital function in a heavily intricate and detailed process that can be likened to a 47-piece orchestra. Each immune cell works in harmony and dutifully with each other, creating a masterpiece of team work and symmetry. As with an orchestra, if one person is out of tune, or underperforming, it can significantly impact the effect and the beauty of the whole.
When the inflammatory response becomes disrupted, prolonged or misbehaved, problems can occur.
Which came first?
Inflammation has been identified in numerous conditions and illnesses, ranging from asthma, and arthritis, to eczema and PMS. Often the inflammation and the illness are so closely connected that it can often be a question of which came first, did the inflammation cause the illness, or the illness cause the inflammation? In addition to this, is the inflammation prolonging the illness, or is the inflammation causing more damage than the actual illness?
These are still questions that need to be asked when assessing each case and cause of inflammation.
What causes inflammation?
There are two types of inflammation; acute and chronic.
Acute inflammation is classically confirmed via pain, redness, heat and swelling, and is often short lived, disappearing within a few days. This is a perfect example of the body’s defense system as it protects against harmful or foreign invaders, and begins the healing process.
Chronic inflammation can last for months or years, and is the result of a failure to eliminate the cause of the inflammation, or the result of minor repeated exposure to the inflammatory agent.
Why does inflammation cause pain?
When a person has inflammation is often hurts, they feel pain, stiffness, discomfort, distress and perhaps agony, depending on the severity of it.
The reason for this pain can be linked to the swelling that often occurs as a result of the inflammatory process. The 47-piece orchestra of inflammatory cells tend to be present at the site of the inflammation, causing a swelling on the area, as they work to isolate the cause and start the healing process. This swelling can lead to increased pressure and if there are nerve endings at this location, the stimulation of these nerves can cause variable amounts of pain.
Can inflammation affect internal organs?
Yes. Whilst inflammation can be linked to pain, pain does not need to be present for inflammation to be present. Many organs do not have pain-sensitive nerves, and as such, internal inflammation can be present, without the tell-tale symptom of pain. Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis) may cause shortness of breath or fluid retention, inflammation of the lungs may also cause shortness of breath, and inflammation of the kidneys can result in high blood pressure or kidney failure.
What about chronic inflammation?
Chronic, low grade inflammation, particularly of the internal organs, often does not have any symptoms, and can go unnoticed for a substantial amount of time.
Scientists are still working to understand the implication of chronic inflammation on the body’s health, but it is clear that it affects the body in a myriad of ways.
Chronic inflammation can be linked to cardiovascular disease via inflamed blood vessels, diabetes via interfering with insulin signalling, asthma and lung issues via swelling and blockage, bone health via interference with the bone remodelling process, depression and moods, possibly via interference with hunger signals, and likely with a myriad of other illnesses, with the mechanism of interference yet to be identified.
Does menopause affect inflammation?
Research into the interplay between inflammation and hormones is still in its infancy. In particular, the sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, appear to have an important, but complex effect on the body’s inflammatory response. In a small study of 21 postmenopausal women, oral synthetic equine oestrogen therapy showed an increase in inflammatory markers and a reduction in anti-inflammatory cells. However, the same women taking transdermal oestradiol (the same oestrogen the Australian Menopause Centre prescribes) showed no worsening of the inflammatory markers or dampening of the anti-inflammatory cells(1). Whilst the relationship between joint pains, inflammation and oestrogen is not quite understood, it is known that oestrogen has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body.
In addition to oestrogen, progesterone, which also declines with perimenopause and menopause, is a natural anti-inflammatory hormone. The decline that comes with menopause removes the natural inflammatory protection, bringing rise, and often awareness of body aches and pains.
Most women find that their pain eases when their hormones are returned to balance, though for some, this is only one piece of the picture.
What can I do about it?
If your inflammation or pain started with peri-menopause, it is worthwhile assessing your hormonal balance. A re-balancing of your hormones can often mean a dampening of your aches and pains via a damping of the inflammatory process.
If you are suspecting or experiencing chronic inflammation, you must remember that this occurs by a failure to eliminate the cause of the inflammation, or is the result of minor repeated exposure of an inflammatory agent. A thorough investigation into the cause of the inflammation is warranted.
Further to this, it is recommended that you assess the following:
- Start at the ground up – evaluate your exercise, injuries, bed and even your work station – is this causing the inflammation?
- Evaluate your digestion – poor digestion and poor food choices can lead to digestive inflammation and eventually systemic inflammation. How well do you digest your food?
- Eat a diet rich in natural anti-inflammatory foods. Be sure to include nutrient rich fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and omega-3s. How clean are your food choices?
- Consider a detox. Toxicity can add to your body burden and increase inflammation. When was your last detox?
- Evaluate your stress. Consider stress relief techniques, me-time and deep breathing. Stress utilises your cortisol, making it unavailable for its potent anti-inflammatory benefits. When was the last time you made time for yourself?
- Ask for help. Speak to your GP, a naturopath or if you feel it is hormonal, the Australian Menopause Centre.
- Vongpatanasin W, Tuncel M, Wang Z, Arbique D, Mehrad B, Jialal I. Differential effects of oral versus transdermal estrogen replacement therapy on C-reactive protein in postmenopausal women. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2003;41(8):1358-63.