What is Inflammation?
As you can tell from my last post, inflammation has become one of those 4-syllable (as opposed to 4-letter) health science “dirty words”, like cholesterol. And like cholesterol—a substance the body makes and which every cell needs lots of to sustain life—inflammation is an essential part of the body’s immune system. But these days, it seems most of us have too much of both. In fact, the reason excess cholesterol is harmful is that it is superimposed on a background of chronic, excess inflammation.
As I see it, there’s a lot of confusion—even among health and science professionals—about what is inflammation really is all about, except that it seems to be responsible for most things that make people sick and die these days, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. The main reason for ignorance about inflammation is that it has been largely ignored by the field of immunology itself.
The body’s immune system may be divided into two functional parts: innate immunity and acquired immunity. Innate immunity is the ability to resist infection non-specifically; a generalized reaction to destroy whatever sort of invading micro-organism might enter the body. Much more specific and precise is acquired immunity; central to which is the immune system’s ability to make antibodies that specifically target particular microbes. That’s the basis of vaccinations, for example. And that was also the great mystery that absorbed all the attention of immunologists for decades: How can the body—with it’s library of DNA fixed at conception—actually learn the molecular signature of specific pathogens to which it has never been exposed, and thereby acquire specific immunity to them?
That mystery has largely been solved, while the much less glamorous innate immunity has largely been passed over as being of little importance. But it turns out that innate immunity is critically important in the ability of individuals to survive infections, like bubonic plague, a disease that wiped out millions at a time. Innate immunity is actually the immune system’s first line of defense against infection. The cells that do the work are called macrophages, ameba-like cells which actually gobble up and kill bacteria, infected cells, cell debris and other particles rather indiscriminately.
Not only do the macrophages comprise the majority of white blood cells (mainly those called neutrophils), but most every tissue and organ in the body has a resident population of its own macrophages that act as local security forces in the lungs, the liver, the skin; even the brain.
Whenever they are activated by some relatively nonspecific chemical signal that, for example, bacteria are present, the macrophages swing into action. They start gobbling up everything in sight and producing peroxides and other products toxic to normal cells and bacteria alike. They produce chemical signals that activate other macrophages and attract them to the local area, making capillaries leaky so more macrophages can enter the affected area, and they do a lot of damage to normal tissues, too, all in an effort to kill whatever invader might otherwise kill the body. The activated macrophages thus cause the classical symptoms of redness, swelling, heat and pain, and immobility when around a joint. In short, the macrophages are the effectors of inflammation.
So the key question these days is, why are so many people suffering from chronic excess inflammation? The medical and scientific consensus is building that chronic inflammation in arteries can cause heart disease and stroke, around joints: arthritis, and cancer just about anywhere. My own research has shown that even inflammation that is still considered normal is not really normal. For example, aches and pains attributed to age or strenuous exercise, the peeling and blistering of sunburn; even the pain and swelling accompanying an injury such as a sprained ankle simply do not happen to a body whose immune system receives proper daily nutrition. And the most common nutrient that is deficient is the simple nonessential amino acid, glycine. Without adequate glycine, macrophages become activated too easily, and often become chronically activated at the site of an old injury, even long after it has healed. By supplying 8 grams per daily serving, Proglyta supplies the missing glycine and turns just about any diet into an anti-inflammatory diet!
I’ll have more to say about why the typical American diet is glycine deficient in my next post.