There’s no shortage of info out there about inflammation’s being the root cause of most of what makes people sick and die these days–from arthritis to diabetes to cardiovascular disease to cancer—and what to eat and not eat to put your body into an “anti-inflammatory” state.
But there is a shortage of real knowledge about inflammation itself: What its proper role is in the body and why it is so often out of control. Once you know that, the rest is easy.
Back in the day (some 35 years ago), I studied immunology at NYU Medical School as part of my graduate training in Basic Medical Science. You would think that inflammation, as a major function of the immune system—innate immunity, to be precise—would occupy a substantial proportion of the course material. Nope! Everyone in the field, it seemed, wanted to win the Nobel Prize for figuring out acquired immunity: How does the body figure out how to make a specific antibody against the chemical signature of a microbe it has never encountered before? That was one of the great mysteries of the day; the principle behind vaccination and all manner of specific immunity. Well, that mystery was eventually solved, and I don’t even remember who got the credit. Are we making better vaccines and saving more lives because of it? You be the judge.
But if you go back to the days when infectious disease killed most people; when great plagues swept through human populations with some regularity, it wasn’t acquired immunity that saved most of the survivors. It was innate immunity. After all, acquired immunity takes weeks to develop after the first exposure, and the body can succumb to infection in a few days. So the real life saver is the first response system, the aggressive, non-specific attack against the offending microbes. Of course, such attack can and does do lots of damage to normal tissues in the process, but it might just save your life.
It’s really just like society’s first responders; like the fire department. When your fire alarm detects a fire, the fire department is summoned, and quickly the firemen show up with their axes and their hoses. They put the fire out, all right, but they do lots of damage in the process. Once the fire is out, you bring in the repair contractor to fix the damage. In your body, once the threat of infection has been neutralized, healing begins.
But for some odd reason, inflammation—the basic operation of innate immunity—is still viewed by the medical and scientific community as part of the healing response. In fact, the opposite is true: it inhibits healing quite effectively.
Two years ago, this is how Wendy Weber, A National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (one of the NIH Institutes) program director, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal (wsj.com; the section entitled “The Informed Patient”, article author Laura Landro). ‘”You need to have inflammation when you have a wound and the immune system goes in to heal it. Yet we don’t want too much inflammation in our system causing damage to our arteries” and other harm’.
The prevailing dogma, unfortunately, does not really distinguish the separate roles of immune defense and tissue repair.
To take a simple example, say you sprain your ankle. It gets all swollen and painful and immobilized from what process? Inflammation. In fact, everyone knows that the immediate treatment of choice is to put ice on it. To do what? To suppress inflammation!
Why? Because the inflammation prevents healing from taking place.
OK, so why does inflammation happen at all when you sprain your ankle? Because, it is generally believed, inflammation is the body’s natural response to tissue injury; to distress signals released from damaged cells and tissues. But why? If you sprain your ankle, where is the route of infection? There are no invading microbes to destroy, and if inflammation happens anyway and does more harm than good, why does your body do it? Why do you have to interfere with your body’s natural response to the blunt injury, for optimal healing to occur?
The answer is quite simple: Your body is not acting appropriately, because it is laboring under a nutritional imbalance. Actually, the typical Western diet tends to be deficient and/or imbalanced in 3 key nutrients: salicylic acid, omega-3 fatty acids (vs. omega 6), and glycine (vs. methionine). The third is the most important and the least well known (although Vladimir Heiskanen’s excellent recent post on this blog gives a pretty good introduction). I’ll get to the specifics of how all this works—down to the cellular and molecular level–in my next post.
Joel Brind, Ph.D. has been a Professor of Biology and Endocrinology at Baruch College of the City University of New York for 28 years and a medical research biochemist since 1981. Long specializing in steroid biosynthesis and metabolism and endocrine-related cancers, he has specialized in amino acid metabolism in recent years, particularly in relation to glycine and one-carbon metabolism. In 2010 he founded Natural Food Science, LLC to make and market glycine supplement products via www.sweetamine.com, which includes his own blog HERE.