Inflammation seems to be the buzzword among the health conscious. Everything ailment and every disease is directly or indirectly linked with inflammation. But is it really that bad to have an inflammation? Especially when inflammation is actually an integral part of our body’s natural healing mechanism and no infection or injury can be healed without it. We all are familiar with inflammation in one form or another. Ever cut a finger or had a sore throat? Well, there you are. All the pain, swelling and heat is because you are experiencing inflammation.
Inflammation happens when our immune system responds to any external stimuli (viral or bacterial attack) or internal stress (malignant formation, oxidative stress etc). There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic inflammation. 
When our body is facing any microbial attack or physical trauma such as burn, surgery or injury, our immune system signals powerful chemicals and proteins to rush to the site of injury or infection, causing signs of inflammation such as pain, swelling and redness. This type of response is called acute inflammation – the kind of response that protects and repairs and heals the body immediately after an injury or infection. A cut or scrape, sprained ankle, sore throat, tonsillitis and appendicitis are some conditions that triggers our immune system to initiate a chain of events leading to acute inflammation.
Important events in the acute inflammatory response phase
- Blood vessels dilate to allow for increased blood flow to the inflammation site.
- Capillaries become more permeable, allowing the migration of white blood cells,
fluid, proteins, hormones and nutrients to move to the spaces between the cells.
- White blood cells, most prominently neutrophils and macrophages, are the first responders to reach the sites of infection and injury. These immune cells not only destroy and ingest invading germs but also digest cellular debris resulting from dead and damaged tissue.
- Specific cells in the immune system secrete cytokines, a large group of proteins that act as chemical messengers and mediate immunity and inflammation. There are different types of cytokines – chemokines, interferons, interleukins, lymphokines and tumor necrosis factor – that carry out a bewildering range of functions that do not fall in the scope of this article. But simply saying that these signaling molecules activate other immune cells and direct macrophages, Natural Killer cells, hormones and other proteins to the site of injury will not do them full justice. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Cytokines work in different ways to regulate immune-modulatory response such as by reducing the replicating capability of the pathogen, promoting the synthesis of certain molecules with anti-viral properties and are believed to activate several genes that express anti-viral proteins, helping protect uninfected adjacent cells and preventing the infection from spreading.
- With the onset of acute inflammation, a range of outcomes can be seen such as tissue healing and repair, pus formation and of course the dreaded chronic inflammation.
All of these events taking place in the acute inflammatory phase manifest in the form of swelling, redness, heat, pain and in some cases immobility. These side-effects are short-term and are in fact signs that our body is in the fighting mode. At this point, it is important to appreciate that the cells of the immune system communicate and collaborate in a much more complex technique than this. It is only recently that scientists have begun to fully understand the underlying complex mechanisms and the role of various immune cells of diverse origins involved in an inflammatory cycle. For example, cytokines can be both anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory, complicating their functions and effects in various conditions.
The cascade of biochemical events during acute inflammation makes the site of injury ready for repair, renewal and healing. It is an amazing process, and though associated with pain, heat and swelling it is a critical part of our body’s natural healing mechanism. Ideally, when our immune system has finished dealing with triggers and the threat of an infection no longer exists, the inflammatory response stops. The problem starts when this temporary phase turns chronic. How does it happen?
Sometimes, the body is not able to completely eliminate the inflammatory agent. Or recurring bouts of acute inflammation may drive our immune system to give abnormal responses, resulting in chronic inflammation. Our modern lifestyle also contributes towards many triggers that may throw our immune system off balance.
What drives our immune system to an overdrive?
- Unhealthy diet—consisting of sugar, processed foods and saturated fats and lacking whole foods.
- Lack of physical activity and exercise
- Stress and poor sleeping patterns
- Chronic, persistent microbial infections caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, yeasts or parasites
- Persistent allergens, chemicals and toxins coming from food and environment; for example pesticides, pollution, silica dust, metal exposure
- Inappropriate response of our immune system, for example in auto immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis
- Excessive alcohol consumption
Risks of Chronic Inflammation
What happens when our body is threatened by such stressors on a regular basis? Naturally, our immune system springs into action but this time it stays in an alert mode, continuously sending immune cells to combat these threats. As a result there is an ongoing influx of more immune cells, hormones and other proteins, particularly at the site of inflammation, triggering the body to launch and relaunch a never ending inflammatory response. In a nut shell, when we are continuously facing certain triggers, our body’s biochemical arsenal also adopts an active, aggressive mode – leading to chronic inflammation.
Sometimes our body fuels an inflammatory response to a supposed threat that simply doesn’t need such a response. As expected, the event makes the white blood cells rush to the site but in the absence of any real threat to attack, they eventually begin to attack and damage the body’s own tissues. Instead of being the mighty warriors designed to protect us, these misguided white blood cells now trigger autoimmune diseases such as allergies, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.
So, the real challenge is not how our body responds to an immediate injury, infection or a trauma but the raging, long-term inflammation that slowly destroys the fragile cellular structures such as proteins, DNA and fat cells. Chronic inflammation, also known as low-grade or systemic inflammation, is considered as the root cause of many diseases and conditions such as asthma, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, eye disorders, cancer, diabetes and very possibly neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. 
Conclusion: So, is inflammation good or bad?
We would like to reemphasize that inflammation plays a far more puzzling and mysterious role in our body, some good, some bad and some downright ugly. There is a lot about inflammation that needs to be explored and understood. Inflammation is a highly complex phenomenon that involves intricate changes in the usual functioning of many organs, which alter their biosynthetic, metabolic and catabolic operations whenever the body reacts to any kind of stress and launches an inflammatory response.
As a mesh of intertwined networks that work in tandem, our body is a highly evolved and complicated piece of machinery. In this view, it would be too simplistic and possibly dangerous to understand the process of inflammation in such a simplistic manner. It is not always correct and even useful to categorize and perceive acute inflammation as good and chronic inflammation as only bad. Researchers believe that in both situations, the body is on our side, trying to protect us from an underlying threat and creating symptoms that we see or feel as signs of inflammation. The idea is to tune into what our body is trying to tell us through its intelligent network rather than simply suppressing the symptoms.