Inflammation and the Immune System
A healthy human body is a sanctuary for life, but much like a prosperous country, it is prone to attack and invasion by aggressors desiring to become residents in this haven.
The potential outside invaders to the human body that are ever present in the environment are microorganisms known as pathogens (any microbe that can cause disease). Pathogens can be bacteria, viruses, fungus/yeast, and parasites. These pathogens seek to occupy the human body for shelter, food, and reproduction. When an invasion is successful, these ‘bugs’ are able to establish themselves and thrive by entering a human cell, use the contents for nourishment and the cell’s genetic material to multiply. The result is disease with human cell death, tissue destruction and organ failure.
The good news is that just as a successful country has a military to defend itself, our bodies have a highly sophisticated and efficient defense system against attacking pathogens known as the immune system. The soldiers of this system are different types of specialized white blood cells (WBC’s) that communicate with each other and are on constant patrol throughout the body looking for potentially harmful pathogens or any other objects that have entered the body and might cause harm. Also, when damage occurs to the cells and tissue from these culprits, the immune system is very effective at cleaning up the ‘battle field’ and repairing any damage. This response by the immune system is known as an inflammatory response and the result is inflammation. So, inflammation is the body’s attempt at self-protection by destroying and removing harmful agents and beginning the healing process.
As an example, if the skin is punctured by a splinter, skin cells and subcutaneous cells (tissue under the skin) are damaged. Since splinters are typically not sterile, bacteria also enter the wound. The immune system responds by recruiting specialized WBC’s to the area of trauma. Some of these cells engulf and destroy bacteria. Others remove damaged cells and begin repairing the damage. During this process, these cells release chemicals that cause dilatation of the arteries and increased blood flow which delivers more defensive WBC’s to the area. Other chemicals released increase the permeability of the arteries so the WBC’s can exit the circulation and enter the area of damaged tissue. These responses constitute the signs and symptoms of inflammation – redness and warmth (from increased blood flow to the area); swelling (from the increased permeability of the arteries); pain (from chemicals released from damaged cells that irritate the nerves). Fluid that accumulates in the area may become purulent (pus) due to a large amount of dead WBC’s engulfed with bacteria as well as tissue debris. So, the redness, heat, and swelling of inflammation is not a direct result of the trauma from the splinter puncturing the skin and subcutaneous tissue, but is due to the immune system’s response to the event.
Some pathogens are prone to attack specific organs. As an example, there are viruses that obtain access to the body through the blood and tend to attack the liver causing hepatitis. It is possible that the immune systems response to protect the liver by killing the virus can cause so much inflammation that scars form in the liver resulting in cirrhosis and liver failure. If anti-viral drugs are administered and the growth and replication of the virus is halted, the immune response will be attenuated lessening inflammation and reducing the risk of cirrhosis.
The immune system response to infection is analogous to a war between humans. If aggressors (as in pathogens) invade a country (as in the human body), bombs (as in the immune system) are frequently used as a defense to defeat the enemy. This method of defense can be effective in eliminating the ‘bad guys’, but invariably there is collateral damage with destruction of civilian buildings (as in normal tissue and organ systems) and killing of innocent people (as in normal cells). If ‘boots on the ground’ (as in antibiotics and antiviral drugs), are primarily used to eliminate the invaders, the need for bombs (the immune system) is lessened and collateral damage is reduced.
It is possible for our immune system to malfunction and go rogue. When this happens, the immune system attacks normal healthy cells and tissue resulting in autoimmune disease. Scientist have identified over 80 autoimmune diseases which create a state of chronic inflammation in the body.
In next week’s article, we will discuss some of these autoimmune disease states.
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Dr. Tippett is the founder of Comprehensive Quality Healthcare Providers, an internal medicine concierge practice located at 1210 Commerce Dr. Suite 106 Greensboro, Ga. 30642. He can be reached at 706-510-3659. Visit his webpage at www.drtippett.com