One of the body's principal defenses against infection and injury is inflammation. When you get a cold or sprain your ankle, the protective system in the body is immediately mobilized to remove the foreign or damaged tissue and begin the healing process. Special white blood cells and chemicals flood the site, causing the classic signs of inflammation—swelling, redness, pain, and heat—which gradually subside as the threat is cleared away. Make no mistake about it: inflammation is critical to our survival.
Because the inflammatory process is so powerful, the body tries to keep it under tight rein. Many inflammatory proteins are short lasting and can only be replenished in the presence of damaged or diseased tissue. But there are instances when inflammation is triggered inappropriately—and sometimes attacks the body's own tissues. Allergies to mold spores or pollen represent an inflammatory response to harmless substances, while such autoimmune diseases as type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and rheumatoid arthritis are instances of the inflammatory system targeting healthy tissue and destroying it.
In the last decade, scientists have learned that inflammation also contributes to such conditions as hardening of the arteries, Alzheimer's disease, and type 2 diabetes. For instance, when cholesterol sticks to the walls of arteries and oxidizes to form plaque, it triggers an inflammatory response that unfortunately promotes the development of bigger, more complex plaque. To make matters worse, inflammation associated with one disease increases the risk of others. For instance, people with rheumatoid arthritis have a higher than average incidence of heart attack, no matter how healthy they are otherwise.
Developing drugs to better control inflammation is high on the agenda of researchers, but they have their work cut out for them. The process of inflammation is complex and often involves a series of individual backup systems that on their own can cause inflammation. In order to shut down inflammation, scientists must create a drug that deactivates them all. Researchers have also found that inflammatory chemicals often have positive effects. The Cox-2 enzymes that Vioxx targeted also helped prevent the formation of dangerous blood clots in arteries, which was why Vioxx was eventually pulled from the market.
While we're waiting for the scientists to create a silver bullet to help us control inflammation, there is one important step that you can take to reduce inflammation: if you are overweight, losing some weight may help. The more fat you carry, the more inflammatory compounds your fat cells produce. Shed some weight and the level of these compounds in your body drops as well. By maintaining a proper weight, you can effectively recalibrate your inflammatory response and lower your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.