How Inflammation Can Affect Immune Function
The immune system is the body’s first line of defense against pathogens. It works hard to make sure that you are healthy and free of anything that can cause chronic disease. Within the immune system, there are various processes that create the protective army of cells designed to keep your body safe. Once such process is inflammation.
When many people hear the term inflammation, they immediately associate it with something bad. While that can be true, inflammation is a much more complicated part of how the human body functions. So, what is inflammation, exactly? And what’s the lowdown on how inflammation can affect immune function?
What is inflammation and what is its connection to the immune system?
In the simplest terms, inflammation is the body’s reaction to a certain type of threat. Anything that qualifies as an irritant will set an inflammatory response in motion. Things that cause inflammation include pathogens such as bacteria and viruses; injuries such as cuts or scrapes, or larger wounds such as punctures; and chemical damage or radiation.
Certain health conditions can also cause inflammation in the body. Typically, medical conditions that have the suffix -itis are caused by inflammation. Examples include dermatitis, bronchitis, and cystitis.
When areas of the body become inflamed, it can lead to redness, swelling, pain, and even loss of function. While all these symptoms may appear bad, they actually occur because the inflammation is trying to fight off the cause or heal the area that is under attack.
How does inflammation affect the body?
When inflammation occurs, there are many immune cells involved. They work against the threat by releasing substances known as inflammatory mediators, which are needed to help rid the body of the irritant or pathogen. For example, if you experience an allergic reaction, a substance known as a histamine is released to help curb the reaction. When the substances are released, they need to travel fast, and so blood vessels in tissues dilate, which gives a wider opening for blood and immune system cells to get to the injury and start the healing process. This part of the inflammation process is why the affected areas often become red and hot.
Because of the release of hormones in the inflammatory process, certain pain signals are sent to the brain as the hormones irritate certain nerves. It’s designed to alert you to an issue that needs to be addressed by telling your brain that something isn’t right. Pain is part of the inflammatory message designed to tell you that you need to protect that area of your body.
Inflammatory mediators also play a role in getting immune cells into the affected tissue. When there are more immune cells in the affected tissue, more fluid enters, which is why there is often swelling. A good example of this is when you have a cold. The inflammatory response causes the mucous membranes in your nose to become inflamed, thus creating more mucous in the nose to help flush out invaders.
Does inflammation affect the immune system function?
Since inflammation is an immune response, it might seem counterproductive to say that inflammation affects how the immune system functions. After all, inflammation is what drives immune cells to heal or fight off whatever is causing harm to the body. There are some instances, though, when inflammation isn’t a good thing for the body at all.
For example, having too much inflammation in the body for too long, otherwise known as chronic inflammation, can actually lead to chronic diseases. This is because the body’s immune system sends inflammatory signals that are not needed, thus prompting the inflammation to fight off the body’s own cells instead of pathogens.
These types of health conditions are referred to as chronic inflammatory diseases. Some examples include rheumatoid arthritis, which is permanent inflammation of joints in the body; psoriasis, which affects the skin; and inflammatory bowel diseases, which effect bowel function. Some types of chronic inflammatory diseases can even hinder the immune system’s ability to fight against actual pathogens.
Does the immune system fight inflammation?
The immune system does not fight against inflammation because it requires inflammation to do its job. As mentioned above, inflammation is designed to be a protective response to irritants, injuries, and other outside substances that can cause harm to the body. There is no issue with a proper inflammatory response. It’s when that response becomes too high and begins to attack the body’s own cells that it becomes a problem.
When this happens, the body puts itself into a constant state of defense as it tries to get rid of the “bad” substances. This can cause damage to vital organs such as the heart and brain. When inflammatory cells are hanging around longer than they should in the blood, it can also lead to plaque buildup, which the body recognizes as foreign. Because the plaque is considered a threat, more inflammatory cells are sent. This creates a vicious circle of problem inflammation.
Overall, though, inflammation is actually a good thing! It’s a sign that your immune system is doing what it’s supposed to be doing to protect you. As with most things, too much of a good thing can actually be bad, but in most cases, a little inflammation goes a long way in keeping you healthy.