Infection, inflammation, and immunity strike a delicate balance throughout a person's life. When that balance is upset by toxins, allergens, nutritional deficiencies, stress, and various other things, the natural healing process can be transformed into a destructive force that causes progressive cell damage and leads to degenerative diseases.
"Swelling in a finger is inflammation, and that is good because it means your immune system is fighting the infection," says Andre Ballesteros-Tato, Ph.D., an associate professor of medicine in the department of Inflammation, Immunology, and Immunotherapies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "There should be a big response initially, and then it subsides. If the inflammatory response persists, that's bad. It creates stress in the body and can cause damage over a period of time."
Combining the studies of infection, inflammation, and immunity (I3) is a new but rapidly growing field of research, with programs starting up all over the country.
"The bottom line is that the three Is are interrelated and have huge impacts on one another," says Ryan O'Connell, Ph.D., an associate professor of pathology and co-director of the Immunology, Inflammation, and Infectious Disease Initiative at the University of Utah. "So, to study one of the Is without the other two is not seeing the big picture. Engaging in research that integrates all three is going to make a huge difference in how we think about and treat human disease."
I3 in Action
The immune system is the body's Department of Defense. In an "acute" immune response, the antibody soldiers and other forces spring into action when tissue is injured or attacked by bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, toxins, and other foreign substances. They also seek out and destroy aberrant cells that have ceased to function properly, such as cancer cells.
Inflammation marks the battlefield. Messenger molecules called cytokines trigger inflammatory responses. Blood vessels dilate to facilitate transport of antibodies and healing factors to the area, turning it red and warm. Fluid is procured to flush out the casualties and cushion the affected area. Pain signals transmit a need for the area to be protected. When the invader has been neutralized, different cytokines trigger anti-inflammatory responses to return the area to normal.
Problems arise when the inflammation sticks around. This "chronic" inflammation is typically marked by the cytokine network going haywire. In some cases, antibodies attack healthy cells, causing autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. Chronic inflammation also results in cell dysfunction that can lead to heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's, and all other degenerative diseases.
"With inflammation, you want the Goldilocks effect — not too little and not too much," says O'Connell. "When inflammation persists, it can spread through the whole body and cause organ systems to stop working properly. The more we learn about the pathogens and how the many different parts of the immune system work, the better we'll be able to modulate the inflammation."
Roy Duncan, Ph.D., a professor of virology in the department of Microbiology and Immunity at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, notes that "chronic inflammation leads to tissue damage, which leads to more inflammation, which leads to more tissue damage. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle."
Over time, the damage is felt in symptoms that often include fatigue, achy joints, digestive distress, headaches, brain fog, insomnia, and/or weight gain or loss. Because those symptoms are common to many ailments, the underlying cause can be hard to pinpoint.
"One problem is that there are a million potential causes," says Duncan. "We're not just trying to treat chronic inflammation but also understand it. It's done on a case-by-case basis, so we have to find out if you are allergic to wheat, or if it is a microbiome imbalance, or if there's something in your laundry detergent that is causing a problem like eczema. The more we understand what triggers inflammation and what continues to drive it, the better we'll be able to target the therapy."
While there are drugs that can tone down an overactive inflammatory response, it is a very tenuous balance.
"The problem is that you need your immune system, and you can't dampen it too much because you will become more susceptible to infections," Duncan tells Newsmax. "We still have a very unclear, imprecise understanding of all of the inflammatory factors involved and how to control them."
Living a healthy lifestyle is important but no guarantee that you won't wind up with some degree of chronic inflammation.
"Along with proper hygiene, diet and exercise, getting vaccinated, and all of the other good health practices, I think it's important for people to try to understand how the immune system works," O'Connell tells Newsmax. "Knowledge can lead to better decision-making."
You should also be aware that the inflammatory triggers could be well hidden. Periodontal disease can harbor low-grade infections that are asymptomatic but cause systemic inflammation over time. Toxic mold exposure, food and airborne allergens, heavy metal contamination, candida overgrowth, parasites, and microbiome imbalances are examples of other common conditions that you may have without realizing it, and any one of them can destroy I3 balance.
Surprisingly, better hygiene in recent decades may play a role.
"One of the theories is that we are keeping our babies too clean," says Ballesteros-Tito, a father of two toddlers. "Their immune system is not being trained to differentiate between pathogens and other environmental factors, so it overreacts to things like pollen or dust mites."
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