If injuries, infections, pollens, and other physical insults merely trigger inflammatory reactions, the obvious question is: What makes a normal process go out of control?
The answer lies in the foods we eat. If you eat the typical North American (or Western) diet, with abundant convenience and fast foods, you likely consume an unbalanced intake of the nutrients that promote inflammation. This imbalance results in large part from massive changes to our food supply over the past half century or so. During this time highly processed pro-inflammatory foods have largely replaced anti-inflammatory fresh and natural foods. The consequence has primed our bodies for chronic, excessive, and self-destructive levels of inflammation.
How do foods affect inflammation? The foods you eat provide the building blocks of your body and, of particular importance, your immune system, which regulates inflammation. Your immune system consists of dozens of specialized types of cells and molecules that constantly monitor your body for anything "foreign" or unusual. To envision this, it might help to picture how a taut, silken web alerts its resident spider to the presence of an insect. When a fly touches some threads in the web the resulting vibrations are transmitted and amplified throughout the web. These vibrations alert the spider, which moves in for the kill.
The cells of the immune system operate much like the interlocking filaments of the spider web. An immune cell senses the presence of an intruder (such as infectious bacteria or some other material, such as a dam aged or dead cell) that does not belong in the body. An immune cell shares information about the peculiarity with other immune cells. Together they coordinate a response and, if the immune system is working properly, dispose of the foreign material.
You might wonder whether a powerful immune response is really necessary, but there is a biological rationale for it. Historically, infections have been the leading cause of human deaths. Even today, infections remain the third leading cause of death in the United States and the leading cause worldwide. A strong immune response gave us a fighting chance against infections. However, intense inflammatory responses are inappropriate when they target healthy tissues or harmless pollens, or when the body lacks normal switches to turn off inflammation.
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