The Wellness Library

Why ‘Inflammation’ Isn’t a Terrible Word

by | Jul 6, 2022 | Autoimmune

a woman sits across a round white table with her doctor at a computer

Inflammation! Aw the infamous word. We hear the word quite often on podcasts, on social media, in health journals, and in our discussion with our friends. Even without knowing too much about what inflammation is, somehow we always associate it with a negative context.

We hear in conversation that sugar or gluten are inflammatory, and that we should avoid foods like these. We hear that conditions such as Hashimoto’s or Ulcerative Colitis are identified as inflammatory, and that we should work to address inflammation. We hear that we can have inflammatory relationships, and that we should create better boundaries. We might hear a doctor saying that when the ankle we twisted in a game of volleyball is red and swollen, it’s inflamed.

Yeah, we know the word inflammation, but do we really know what inflammation is? It seems that it can mean a lot of things but at the same time, nothing at all. So, let’s break it down.

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What is inflammation?

Inflammation is a broad spectrum word. It is used to describe the body’s immune reaction to an irritant as a means to protect the body from invasion, damage, or infection. It does so by alarming a complex immune system response to initiate the removal of an invader, clean up any damage, and initiate the healing process. Without it, morbidly, we might not make it alive very long. Basically, it can be an amazing protective mechanism allowing us to survive what might come our way.

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Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation

The most pronounced, probably most formal, presentation of inflammation is in its acute form. The red, hot, swelling, pain, or impaired function that we think of when we get a sore throat, get a bruise, or sprain an ankle. It’s a generally rapid response mechanism to heal the body and get you back to your day-to-day tasks.

Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is a longer lasting form of inflammation that is associated with lingering irritants that have failed to be managed or removed. This would include conditions that end in “itis” such as ulcerative colitis, autoimmune thyroiditis (AKA Hashimoto’s), or dermatitis. This would also include conditions like diabetes, endometriosis, or Celiac disease.

RELATED: An integrative approach to healing Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Inflammation symptoms are varying in degree from condition to condition, ranging from abdominal discomfort, constipation or diarrhea, low energy, itchy or dry skin, obesity, pelvic pain, joint pain, and more. Often chronic inflammation is not life-threatening initially, but it can decrease the quality of life for an individual, and over time can increase the potential for other, higher-risk conditions of the kidneys, pancreas, heart, and liver. 

What About Autoimmune Conditions?

Autoimmune conditions are also identified under the chronic inflammation category, and is where the body’s immune system initiates an inappropriate response and attacks healthy cells within the body. The cause of autoimmune conditions are often unknown, but many theories have been discussed.

Can I Test for Inflammation?

The simple answer is YES. The complex answer is that it is not so black and white (a true integrative medicine response, right?!).

There are general screening blood labs such as CRP or ESR, liver enzymes (AST or ALT), hemoglobin A1c, or ferritin. There are labs that might be chosen based on presentation such as thyroperoxidase antibodies (TPO- Ab) or thyroglobulin antibodies (TG-Ab) to assess for Hashimoto’s,  ANA + ANA cascade with rheumatoid factors (RF) factors to look at other inflammatory conditions such Sjogren’s, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or scleroderma, or transglutaminase IgA antibodies for Celiac disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Other conditions are best assessed with appropriate procedures or imaging, such as irritable bowel disease or endometriosis.

Can you see the complexity? The point of listing those all out isn’t to provide you a guide to take to your doctor—it’s to show that each inflammatory condition requires specific bloodwork to identify, making “inflammation” a tricky thing to nail down.

If you aren’t tangled in the mess of inflammation already, there is an additional layer to be discussed. There are oftentimes symptoms or conditions that are identified as inflammatory, but might not have “formal testing,” that are founded based on presentation and backed by purely knowledge of biochemical presentation that is taking place. This could include symptoms of fatigue, acne, hair loss, weight gain and pelvic cramping, or conditions such as PCOS or estrogen dominant imbalances. 

Again, complex.

Can I Address Inflammation?

YES! Of course! We may not have the power to change our genes, but you can impact how genes are expressed and how you support your body’s function by adopting healthy diet and lifestyle habits. It is recommended to work with your provider to help provide a personalized plan for your needs and goals, but starting with the foundation of healthy sleep hygiene, sunshine, laughter, drinking water, and packing in your meals with nutritious foods is a fabulous place to start.

How to Prep for a Doctor Appointment About Inflammation

If you are concerned with inflammation or how inflammation could be impacting your health, consider these before your first appointment with your provider:

  • List out your current health concerns. What symptoms have been most prominent? Meditate on timeline, frequency, and severity. 
  • Document and collect family health history to help prepare for preventive strategies.
  • Come prepared with personal past medical history and a list of current medications. 
  • Assess sleep patterns, exercise patterns, water and diet intake, alcohol intake, use of recreational drugs or tobacco use, stress, chemical exposures.

The Best Way to Deal with Inflammation

If reading about inflammation (and seeing its prominence allllll over social media and medical blogs) freaks you out, take a deep breath. Overhauling your diet and lifestyle based on non-specific information you came across online isn’t what’s best for you. What’s best for you is working with a provider who listens to your symptoms, hears your whole health picture, and creates a you-specific plan to address your concerns. That’s what we do at MIMC, whether we’re treating inflammation or we identify a different health condition.

Bottom line: Don’t let inflammation become a terrible word in your vocabulary!

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