Inflammation & Health: The Inevitable Impact

In a recent blog post I discussed how stress creates chronic inflammation in the body through a maladaptive coping mechanism in an effort to maintain homeostasis in the body. Inflammation in the body is often subtle with the absence of noticeable symptoms.  Oftentimes, it is when the effect is great enough to create physical symptoms, or it occurs in the setting of an acute injury that warrants our attention, that we first become aware of its presence. 

Positive attributes to inflammation do exist.  It’s inherent purpose is to support healing in an acute process and it evolved as a way to protect the body from infection and injury.  However, when it becomes chronic, as in the setting of stress, it creates a maladaptive response.  To understand this better, it is important to have an understanding of how the inflammatory process works.  

There are 3 primary stages of inflammation: 

Acute stage – this lasts 3 to 5 days and involves activation of the inflammatory cycle;

Sub acute stage – lasts 2 days to 8 weeks and involves regeneration of tissue; 

Chronic stage – lasts >8 weeks (up to 12 months or longer) and involves scar tissue maturation and tissue remodeling. 

When the body gets “stuck” in this chronic stage remodeling, changes in cellular memory occur with an associated negative impact on our health.   

The inflammatory cycle is notable for it’s 5 cardinal signs: calor (heat), dolor (pain), rubor (redness), tumor (swelling), and functio laesa (loss of function).   The process is as follows: 

  • A  tissue injury, trauma and/or stress. (for example, an ankle sprain/puncture wound/emotional stressors ) causes the release of cytokines from damaged cells.  Cytokines are small proteins important for cell signaling/communication (i.e. histamine, prostaglandins, bradykinin);
  • Cytokines impart multiple effects on the tissues: 
  • Vasodilation of blood cells, which results in increased blood flow creating redness (rubor) and heat (calor); 
  • Attraction of white blood cells, known as neutrophils, to the area which act as little garbage trucks, collecting and eating cellular debris in a process known as phagocytosis. 
  • Vascular permeability (leakage of fluid from blood cells) in the surrounding tissues which creates swelling (tumor) that acts as a natural splint to the area, resulting in loss of function (functio laesa) as well as isolation of the injured tissue from the surrounding normal tissue cells;
  • Inflammation then enters the sub-acute stage once this process is completed. New cellular matrix (framework) is generated and laid down via anabolic (building) mechanisms.  This process takes anywhere from 2 days to 8 weeks depending on the extent of tissue injury, trauma and/or stress.  Emotional stress can prolong this phase.
  • Then the cycle enters the chronic inflammation stage.  

It is here that tissue remodeling and scar tissue maturation occur with resulting changes in cellular memory to complete the healing process.  

The total time to completion varies depending on the extent of the tissue injury, trauma and/or stress and may last up to a couple of years.  It is this chronic phase that is most impacted by chronic tissue stress.  When present, it perpetuates the cycle of inflammation, and because there is no acute tissue injury or , there may not be any overt physical symptoms.  

A properly functioning inflammatory process promotes healing through restoration of homeostasis.  Chronic stress has been demonstrated to dysregulate this process through a sustained state of hyper-vigilance (sometimes referred to as sympathetic dominance) resulting in perpetuation of low levels of circulating cortisol in the bloodstream.  This further prolongs the process by creating chronic low levels of stress-provoked inflammation. Here’s a visual to piece it all together: 

Inflammatory Process Diagram_011118-page-001.jpg

As is depicted in the diagram, the persistent stressor results in chronic levels of inflammation that promotes altered cellular memory.  Thus altered cellular memory perpetuates the cycle.

There are 3 simple steps you can take to reduce inflammation in your body: 

  1. Using the tips from my recent post “Wake Up To Stress, Reclaim Your Health,”  identify source(s) of stress in your life and cultivate a new relationship with them using simple techniques to engage the parasympathetic “rest and relaxation” response. 
  2. Eat a diet that is at least 75% whole organic & local (preferable) plant based foods (i.e. legumes, whole grains, vegetables and fruits) limiting inflammation provoking foods: meat, dairy, iodized salt, processed sugars (including processed foods), alcohol and foods containing yeast (i.e. leavened breads). High consumption of yeast (this includes beer) aggravates Pitta dośa which can promote inflammation in the body. 
  3. Perform gentle stretching daily, such as Yoga.  This creates flexibility in the myofascia and the muscles, helping to improve energy flow through the body and mind, reducing inflammation and increasing mental flexibility.


Kristen Jardine

M.S. Physician Assistant Studies, Ordained Minister, Vedic Thai Assisted Yoga & Lifestyle Therapist  

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