Inflammation is currently a popular topic, and I must admit that I’ve fallen into the trap of vilifying this natural physiological phenomenon. Simply put, inflammation is our body’s response to infection, injury, or insult. Heat, redness, swelling, pain, and pus signal that you are injured or sick and provide the necessary feedback to seek treatment or avoid further injury.
Human nature often leads us to categorize things as either good or evil, but the reality is that the optimal balance is usually found somewhere in the middle. Excessive or insufficient inflammation can be problematic, but in moderate and controlled amounts, inflammation promotes healing and resilience. If you catch a cold or get a paper cut, a normal inflammatory response and subsequent cascade promote the healing of damaged tissues.
So, what has led to inflammation being labeled as the new “boogie man”?
Well, over the past few decades, study after study has suggested that nearly all diseases associated with modern lifestyles are related to an excessive amount of a good thing. Diseases associated with excessive inflammation, also known as “TMI” (Too Much Inflammation), include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, allergies, lupus, and the list goes on.
Understandably, the knee-jerk response is to consider how we can reduce the intensity or extinguish the fire. However, it turns out that the immune system is more complex, and sometimes, just like in real life, we need to fight fire with fire itself.
Let’s extend the analogy further:
Water: When the fire is intense or our disease is flaring, such as in an asthma exacerbation or lupus flare, we need to extinguish it quickly to prevent total devastation or organ failure.
Example: Rescue medications such as systemic corticosteroids.
Sprinkler system: The fire (inflammatory disease) is still relatively contained, and we want to keep it that way.
Example: Disease-modifying drugs, topical corticosteroids, immunotherapy. These treatments may take weeks to months to take effect and are generally continued long term to prevent flare-ups.
Fighting fire with fire: Just like a controlled burn, moderate and controlled doses of inflammatory stimuli help build resilience and restore balance, making flare-ups less likely over time.
Example: Exercise, setting and working towards goals.
Flame retardants: If we want to prevent the onset and flares of TMI conditions, we need to create an environment less prone to ignition.
Examples: A whole food plant-predominant diet, sufficient sleep, clean air, spending time in nature, minimizing chronic emotional stressors, and nurturing strong supportive relationships.
Wired for pleasure and survival, humans have demonstrated our tendency to fall into the trap of too much of a good thing, and diseases associated with TMI follow that pattern as well. After a few generations of relative neglect, we need a multi-pronged approach to turn the tide and start caring for our immune systems better—one day at a time.
Kara Wada is a board-certified academic adult and pediatric allergy, immunology, and lifestyle medicine physician, Sjogren’s patient, certified life coach, TEDx speaker, and Dr. Midwest 2023. She can be reached at Dr. Kara Wada and on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn. She is a national expert, sought-after speaker, advisor, and host of the Becoming Immune Confident Podcast. She is CEO and founder, The Crunchy Allergist and the Demystifying Inflammation Summit, and serves as the director of clinical content for Aila Health.