ur bodies face constant daily assaults from pathogenic microbes, environmental toxins, industrialized food, not to mention all the stresses of modern life wearing us out.
Mammalian bodies evolved a complex suite of specialized immune cells and signaling molecules whose sole purpose is to identify and eliminate chemical and biological threats, isolate any cells that’ve been damaged beyond repair by those threats, destroy those compromised cells, get rid of the cellular debris that results and then orchestrate the processes that build new tissue to replace the old.
We call that process inflammation. Life as we know it would not be possible without it.
Think of inflammation as a quiet fire the immune system uses to burn up intruders or damaged cells. That’s actually not far from the truth, because both fire and inflammation involve a chemical process called oxidation.
These inflammatory processes were designed to be temporary. An immune challenge arises, the body deals with it, and then things are supposed to return to normal fairly quickly.
That doesn’t seem to happen today.
Modern life doesn’t give our immune systems much of a break. Unpredictable combinations of over 85,000 man-made industrial chemicals assault our immune systems daily. Many assume these chemicals have been tested to assess their safety, but the reality is that only a handful have ever been transparently tested for their health effects on humans.1 These chemicals can incorporate themselves directly into our cells and their membranes, altering their activity and their shapes. It’s these changed shapes which alert the immune system that something’s gone wrong, compelling it to react.
These immune challenges come from several different directions.
Modern industrialized food often carries the residues of herbicides and pesticides which may have been thought safe for human consumption in trace quantities but which can still kill off friendly bacteria within the gut that help keep inflammation under control.2,3,4,5,6
Another factor keeping immune systems aroused: chronic low-grade infections. When immunity isn’t strong enough to eradicate an invading pathogen completely or when the damage it causes can’t be fully repaired, that damage can keep the immune cells permanently activated, creating chronic inflammation.7,8,9
The stressful pace of life today also takes its toll. Adrenal glands secrete a substance called Secretory IgA (SigA) which helps keep gut immunity healthy. Micronutrient deficiencies10 and prolonged stress can both weaken SigA,11 setting the stage for “leaky gut,” another route to chronic inflammation. This issue is amplified when our diets are full of high-carbohydrate processed foods like the sugars added to so many packaged products, or proteins that are difficult for digestion to process like the gluten in wheat.
We can divide the immune system into two parts. One is called adaptive immunity. Adaptive immune cells are like a smart bomb: created to target and destroy one specific type of invader. This is the part of the immune system vaccinations are designed to train. It can take a week or two for this part of the immune system to gear up to respond in force once it’s been alerted to the presence of an invader. We call that an incubation period.
The other part is called innate immunity. This part of the immune system responds immediately when it detects a pathogen or cell gone rogue. The innate immune system is like a small town full of gossips. When a stranger comes to town it’s not long before everyone knows. If something stirs up innate immune cells in the gut (for example, like food poisoning) those cells start releasing messenger molecules (cytokines) that tell innate immune cells elsewhere in the body that they need to be prepared to attack. It’s not long before the whole body becomes inflamed.
This is what happens when we catch a flu. The headache, joint pain, fatigue and generally lousy mood we experience in the early stages of a flu are the effect of cytokines activating innate immunity throughout the body.
Again, this system is designed to detect something deserving of attack, destroy it, get rid of the waste and then initiate the process of repair. Before we started living in cities and polluting the biosphere with industrial waste, that system got to do its job from time to time and then take a break until the next toxic or microbial assault.
Constant stress, unhealthy diets, chronic infections and toxic exposures can all combine to keep our innate immunity in a continuous state of activation. That keeps us chronically inflamed.
And all that chronic, low-grade inflammation can makes us miserable, triggering pain and setting the stage for all the diseases of aging. For at least ten years it’s been understood that chronic inflammation sets the stage for cardiovascular disease,12,13, cancer,14,15,16 dementia,17,18 neurodegenerative diseases19,20,21 and more.
There’s one more factor to consider. Both innate and adapative immunity work by examining shapes on the surface of every cell and microbe they encounter. If they’ve learned the shapes they detect are characteristic of our own cells or friendly microbes, all is well. But if the shapes they encounter resemble the shapes they’ve learned to associate with invaders deserving destruction, they go on the offensive.
It’s possible for this system to become confused. Sometimes the shapes that trigger immune activity bear an uncanny resemblance to shapes that occur naturally on the surfaces of our own cells.
Then a process called molecular mimicry occurs. When we take into our bodies, for example, proteins that require enzymes humans don’t possess for their full digestion (gluten being a prime example22,23) the protein fragments that result first poke “holes” in the gut lining, allowing the bacteria that live there and protein fragments themselves into the bloodstream. This is another, very powerful way to trigger innate immunity and create more inflammation.
But innate immunity doesn’t stop there. Remember that very gossipy town? When one set of innate immune cells becomes agitated enough, it’s not long before all of them are agitated, releasing chemical messengers that get the whole system riled up and inflamed.
And if those immune cells are attacking what they think are foreign invaders by targeting specific shapes on the surfaces of those invaders, and if our own body’s cells possess similar shapes, then we’re off to the races with autoimmune disease. Our own immune system starts laying waste to our own tissues and organs.
Hello arthritis, heart attacks and strokes. Hello Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.
That’s why it’s so important to learn about all this … and then to take action to get inflammation under control.
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