Your body can do all kinds of amazing things, including protect itself. And that’s exactly what inflammation is: one part of the complex, biological response of bodily tissues to a variety of what the body deems “harmful” stimuli, including pathogens, damaged cells or irritants.
However, in recent years inflammation’s gotten a bad rap. It’s been implicated in myriad ailments, from heart attacks to cancer, Alzheimer’s to mood disorders. A proliferation of anti-inflammatory diets have made their way onto the health scene, and various clinical studies have cited concern when an inflammatory response gets out of control.
So which is it—friend or foe? Here’s everything you need to know before you start freaking out over inflammation.
1. Sometimes inflammation can be a really good thing for your body—in fact, it’s a fundamental function of your immune system.
“Think about what happens when you get a splinter. Some bacteria can get in there, it may start to feel a little bit hot, get red, and could swell up,” Andrea Loewendorf, Ph.D., an immunology research scientist at Huntington Medical Research Institutesin Pasadena, California, tells SELF. That’s an example of a great inflammatory response—your body is literally defending itself by sending immune cells to kill the bacteria or pathogenic invader. Specifically, this is what’s known as an acute inflammatory response, signs of which include redness, heat, pain, swelling, and loss of function. However, because the response is acute, it should only last for a few hours max while your body is working to repair itself.
An extreme version of acute inflammation? Swelling around the brain after injury. Of course, not a great thought, but again, it’s a clear example of how inflammation is a bodily response designed to protect—not harm—our own bodies.
2. Our bodies are always in some kind of inflammatory state.
“Inflammation is a part of our immune system,” says Loewendorf. “It’s the immune system at work.” Things like open wounds healing, swelling around broken bones and even a fever when you’ve caught a virus are all examples of the inflammatory response at its finest, making sure to repair what needs fixing, she tells SELF.
Nutritionist and holistic health coach Amanda Goldfarb, R.D., of Pawley’s Island, SC, concurs. “Despite the buzz around the ‘anti-inflammatory diets,’ you can’t kill the bodily function entirely—your body is always going through some sort of inflammation,” Goldfarb tells SELF.
3. But if our immune systems start to overreact, that’s when problems could kick in.
“The first sign of your immune system going above and beyond is allergies,” says Loewendorf. Let’s say you’re allergic to peanuts: If you eat one, your immune system overreacts causing an allergic reaction, which, depending on the sensitivity of your allergy, could even kill you, she notes.
“Diseases like lupus or multiple sclerosis, both autoimmune conditions, are when the immune system is unable to differentiate between what’s dangerous and what’s not,” Loewendorf tells SELF. “When you have one of these diseases, your immune system doesn’t understand that ‘This is myself, this is me.’”
While the mechanism may be clear, there are no cures for the majority of autoimmune diseases, just palliative medications to keep a condition in check. “With type I diabetes, which is an autoimmune disease, the body turns on and destroys insulin-producing cells,” says Loewendorf. “You can’t make insulin anymore. You have to inject yourself daily.” Rheumatoid arthritis is another example of an autoimmune disease, which causes painful swelling in the lining of the joints. The chronic inflammation can also affect other parts of the body, such as the lungs, nerves, and blood vessels.