We read about it all the time, diseases caused by inflammation, auto immune diseases, allergies, ulcers, and a host of other diseases (including mental illnesses) are thought to have the involvement of inflammation in their development!
Well, if inflammation is so bad, if it is involved in the causation of so many illnesses, then why does it exist?
Inflammation in and of it self is not bad. It is a process that our white blood cells carry out to protect our bodies from foreign invaders and repair our bodies after injury. If our immune system didn’t function, we would all have to live in a bubble like the “bubble boy” who had no immune system and therefore could not fight off any infections or repair the smallest of injuries.
When we cut our finger, our white blood cells rush there, an enzyme called Bradykinin actually opens up holes in the blood vessels in the cut’s vicinity so that immune cells can get to the site of the cut!!! Bradykinin binds to mast cells (another of our immune cells) that have just come to the site of infection from the opened blood vessel. It is these mast cells that release the mediators of inflammation such as histamine, heparin, prostaglandins, leukotriene and other compounds. All these molecules are needed in the process of repairing the cut finger. If this process wasn’t functioning well or at all, we would not be able to repair damage to out own bodies.
Also when we have a viral or bacterial infection, our immune system again fights off the virus or bacteria. We have macrophages in our immune cells that will phagocytize (ingest) the bacteria or the cells that have been infected by viruses. Neutrophils and leukocytes are also involved here.
Also the immune system can recognize cancer cells that arise in your body. Yes, the immune system recognizes and destroys cancer cells. But cancer cells are wily, they use cloaking devices to hide from our immune system, so they can establish themselves and grow. But our immune system kills many, many cancer cells before one cell escapes it and becomes a tumor.
So the above is an extremely abbreviated description of what inflammation is and what it does. Inflammation is carried out by our immune cells, which are the armed forces of our body.
It is when these armed forces turn the ammunition against us, rather then against invading bacteria and marauding viruses, that the trouble with inflammation starts.
Take allergies, they happen when your immune system erroneously thinks that, for example, tree pollen is a dangerous invader and reacts against it like it would against Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague. The tree pollen in and of itself is not a problem, what is a problem is your immune system reacting against it as if it is something dangerous. The runny nose, sneezing, fatigue, sinus headaches/infections are the direct result of your immune system’s mistaken and hypervigilance.
Even more dangerous are the deadly nut allergies so frequently seen these days. For example, peanut allergies. In this, our immune system sees peanuts and thinks danger! All systems go, the production of histamine happens at such a high level that it closes up out breathing passages and throat. This is anaphylaxis. You can’t breathe, and unless you get an epinephrine shot, which will cause vasoconstriction, an elevated heart rate and bring you out of anaphylaxis, you will die! Steroids will also help, but they have to be administered before the anaphylaxis reaction starts.
Now to autoimmune illnesses, here the immune system finds something in your body, such as in your joints in rheumatoid arthritis, that it thinks is foreign. So perhaps a protein in your joints looks like an invader to your immune system, so it unleashes its full deadly response against this protein. The trouble is that it is not an invader, it is a protein in your joint, and your own immune system is destroying your own body! In rheumatoid arthritis it is joints and connective tissue. In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, your immune system is attacking your thyroid. In autoimmune diabetes, the immune system destroys the beta cells of the pancreas. And there are many, many more autoimmune diseases, where your own body is erroneously attacked by your own immune system.
All the reports I see and post about steroids being able to stop the development of mental illnesses, of the immune system’s involvement in mental illness… who knows, we may ultimately find the immune system is intimately involved in the manifestation, and the development of mental illness.
In summary, inflammation is a critical process that is needed to protect and rebuild from pathological invasion and injury. When this inflammatory response us turned against ourselves, autoimmunity, that is when the trouble starts.
What we have to do is somehow stop our immune system from turning upon our own bodies. Why is it happening more and more these days? Peanut allergies were unheard of not so many years ago! Is it the chemicals with which we douse our food? Chemicals in the air, in our water? If our immune system sees a poison sprayed on an apple as we are eating this apple, and it reacts against the poison in conjunction with the apple, then when we eat only an apple (no poison spray), will our immune system then react to the apple as well? Is that perhaps how all these food allergies started? Possibly. More ideas, more thinking and more research is needed.