Not All Inflammation Is Bad! 3 Ways the ‘Good’ Kind Helps Your Body
It's a vital part of our immune systems.
These days, the word “inflammation” is enough to make anyone nervous. A growing body of research associates it with diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and more — leading us to buy anti-inflammatory supplements and eat antioxidant-rich foods. Many of these supplements and eating habits are healthy, but there’s an important point that we’re missing: Good inflammation also exists, and it’s very important for our bodies. Here’s why.
1. It helps detect infections.
As explained in a 2018 Oncotarget research paper, “inflammation is a biological response of the immune system.” And it gets useful when an infection enters the body.
Certain signaling molecules in the immune system will recognize foreign molecules in the body as pathogens. When this happens, the molecules issue an “alarm” to innate immune cells (which recognize certain molecules on many different pathogens — think of them as general fighters), which begin attacking the infection. This response results in inflammation, which takes the form of fever, chills and sweats, sinus congestion, and other symptoms.
2. It helps clear infections and toxic compounds.
While innate immune cells do a good job of attacking infections, they aren’t the best equipped for targeting specific pathogens. That’s where T and B cells come in. (Think of these as specialized fighters). T cells either target specific pathogens and infected cells or help control the immune response. B cells create customized antibodies (proteins) that attach to pathogens in order to help destroy them. T and B cells take longer to respond to an infection, but are crucial to clearing it out of the body.
In addition, the immune system can recognize toxic compounds that enter the body or sit on top of the skin. This recognition process causes an inflammatory response (such as swelling or redness). With time, specific cells help clear the toxic molecules to prevent them from causing further damage to the body.
3. It helps heal damaged tissue.
If you’ve ever scratched your leg or twisted your ankle, you’re familiar with the inflammation that follows. The body sends blood, fluid, and white blood cells to the injured area to start mitigating the damage and begin repairs.
While pain, redness, and swelling aren’t pleasant, they’re an important step in the healing process. Without an inflammatory response, our cuts and bruises would never heal.
When Inflammation Turns ‘Bad’
The key difference between good and bad inflammation appears when an inflammatory response becomes chronic. Acute inflammation is generally good, because it’s a useful response to immediate injuries or infections. Chronic inflammation, however, occurs when the inflammatory response goes on for too long, or the response is too great.
Examples of this include allergic reactions, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease. During an allergic reaction, the immune system inaccurately detects an allergen (like peanut butter) as a foreign invader and mounts a response so huge that it harms the body. In heart disease, sustained, low levels of inflammation can irritate blood vessels and promote the formation of plaque. And in rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the lining of the joints.
The takeaway? Finding ways to reduce chronic inflammation is a good thing. Just remember that “good” inflammation happens for a reason.