Tonight, I’d like to try to clear something up.
I write a lot about inflammation. I use the term loosely and by so doing, I risk being imprecise. Sorry about that. (I’m far more precise with an ablation catheter than words on a blog.)
My reason to focus on inflammation stems from my belief that long-term and unrelenting exposure to things antagonistic greatly contribute to chronic diseases, like heart disease, cancer and aging. And of course, understanding inflammation’s role in disease might help some (me) make healthier choices.
The simplistic view of inflammation holds that all stress is bad. Avoid it and live well.
That’s wrong thinking. Of course we need to put our bodies and mind to the test. Physical and mental exercise make us stronger by inducing adaptation. Brain and muscles grow more powerful after repeated stress. This is called fitness.
Likewise, inflammation is a necessary process used to combat harmful stimuli. The biologic response is complex: the body senses disruption, chemicals are released, white cells are called to action, and an insult walled off. Without acute inflammation, we would not survive even simple infections, cuts would not heal and mountain biking and cyclocross would surely be deadly.
Acute inflammation differs greatly from chronic inflammation. The need to deal with repeated exposure to noxious stimuli, albeit small individually, can accumulate. While healing after brief episodes of stimuli strengthens us, bathing the body in a constant stream of inflammation breaks us down. In the blood vessels, chronic inflammation leads to unstable plaque. In the heart muscle, chronic inflammation is likely important in atrial fibrillation.
What constitutes too much inflammation?
That’s a tough one to know for sure. The vastness of the Internet doesn’t really help sift this out much. Take today’s Sports Medicine news as an example: Headlines had a single-bout of one-hour spin class increasing abnormal rises in cardiac enzymes. The study, published in a remote Scandinavian journal, included only 10 patients, 2 of which had minor elevations of a super sensitive enzyme. Of course, spin classes aren’t bad for us. Stomping on a bike for short periods is great exercise.
And to make things more complicated, it’s not just physical stress that can inflame us. Something as ubiquitous as negative and competitive social interactions boosts inflammatory chemicals.
As an aging bike-racer who has perhaps logged too many miles, and a too often ill-tempered cardiologist, inflammation piques my interest. Add to this curiosity a life’s work of treating diseases entwined with chronic inflammation and it becomes only logical to write a blog.
I see inflammation-run-amok as a potential unifying theme in health. I like common denominators, forests not trees, big views not those that are zoomed in on minutia. You ask about micromanaging LDL levels; I ask about your waist size and 5k time. Imaging experts want to promote CT scans as detectors of heart disease; I like the Timex.
Is something healthy?
I think about inflammation.
a serving of nuts (omega-3 fats) with trans-fat laden potato chips,
an hour of spirited exercise with a 5-hour slog,
a smile with a scowl,
half-full with half-empty,
baked chicken with chicken noogets.
If only it was always so clear.