Inflammation can damage organs and cause disease, but its interference in the brain causes two common disorders. Most of us think little of inflammation until we’re injured, when swelling, redness and pain flood the affected area. Even then, we focus mostly on the pain, not the internal healing process. Your body’s defense mechanism kicks in, and you don’t have to think too much about inflammation – it’s just there when you need it. But inflammation might also occur when you don’t need it, and that can cause problems. In some individuals, inflammation is present at very low levels. Many experts now believe this type of low-grade, chronic inflammation is responsible for a litany of chronic conditions.
“When inflammation spreads to the pancreas, you get diabetes. When it spreads to the immune system, you get cancer,” says Barry Sears, an epidemiologist and best-selling author of “The Zone,” an anti-inflammatory nutrition book. And like cancer, he says this type of inflammation grows and spreads, damaging organs and causing all kinds of trouble. When inflammation spreads, it not only damages your organs, but also interferes with your brain’s signals to the rest of your body. With many conditions, the trouble starts in the hypothalamus, Sears says. “That’s the command center of the brain, and it receives all these hormonal inputs that tell you when you’re tired or when to eat, and what to do with those calories,” he says. When you have inflammation, proteins called pro-inflammatory cytokines distort those hormonal signals. As a result, inflammation might be causing conditions such as depression and obesity, which were correlated through research long before inflammation became a suspected culprit.