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  • Writer's pictureMike Paterson

Inflammation: a different perspective on swelling

Grab a drink, some of this stuff gets a bit heavy; But it’s worth it!


Inflammation gets a tough rap, but it isn’t all bad. Incessant inflammation is bad! It’s like stress; stress isn’t inherently bad. You need stress to become stronger, more adaptable and more resilient. Although, its actually your ability to recover from stress that is important, a little stress is necessary for improvement, incessant stress breaks you down. You need inflammation in much the same way!


Inflammation is an immune system response, not a musculoskeletal one, in fact it’s more of a neuroimmune response – nervous system and immune system response. No system ever works alone, gets injured alone or heals alone. The body never does anything without a reason even if we don’t understand it.

Inflammation is protection, whenever injury or possible injury occurs, the neuroimmune system kicks into gear for protection against the potential threats, real or imagined.



The body’s number 1 job is survival! It does the best it can to protect itself with the information it has at the moment it’s in. But sometimes the strategies it chooses aren’t The body can repeat prior behaviours because the worked before, meaning an inflammation response may just be on autopilot because it worked in the past.

How do you know these behaviours worked in the past? Because you are still alive! You may not be happy or feel good, but you are alive.

Happiness is a distant concern in the priority system of the brain. Survival comes first. Why? Because it’s hard to be happy when your'e dead. This is critical to understand when it comes to inflammation.

When put in a situation the immune system is immediately activated by the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for possible injuries that may occur from fight or flight. Stress activates the immune system, again, that’s not a bad response. Unless the immune system becomes maladapted to the stress, ie. doesn’t settle back into balance with the parasympathetic (rest & digest) nervous system or becomes more sensitive and reactive to the stressors of life.

This leads to the autonomic nervous system (ANS). What does autonomic mean? It means something happens automatically without your conscious awareness; it’s autopilot. You don’t have to think about your heart beating, your lungs breathing, or your stomach digesting. That doesn’t mean you cannot influence your ANS; you can, with awareness and attention. Conscious breathing is the most powerful way to influence ANS. We will discuss more on breathing later.

The ANS consists of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest) and the enteric nervous system (gut). The sympathetic nervous system can be thought of as the accelerator for your car. During the fight or flight response, it releases a cascade of hormones and immune system inflammatory responses designed to save your life! It’s the defensive side of the ANS.

The other side of the ANS seesaw is the parasympathetic nervous system. This is like the brake in your car, designed to slow things down. It’s in charge of all the things your body does when you are not worried about staying alive. This is the growth mode.

The enteric nervous system is a specialised nerve centre in your gut. Think of it as your intuitive emotional centre. It’s often called the second brain because of how extensively it impacts and influences the thoughts in your head. Also referred to as the gut-brain axis, your enteric nervous system is a critical player in inflammation because 70-80% of your immune system resides in your gut.

AT any given moment, your body is either in growth mode or defensive mode. You cannot be in both at the same time. You have to choose one, and most of the time you can feel when you need to make that choice. Have you ever felt emotional stress in your gut that manifested into symptoms like faster breathing, sweating, flushed face, sweaty palms or dry mouth? That’s the enteric nervous system prompting action.


So what are the things you can do to help inflammation? Honestly, that’s a difficult answer individually because each person’s ANS has adapted differently based on their life story, but that doesn’t mean we can’t focus on basics and fundamentals. Diaphragmatic breathing is the easiest.

Diaphragmatic breathing is getting more and more positive research everyday. Start by breathing in (inhale) through your nose for 5 seconds, then breath out for 5 seconds (exhale) through your nose. Repeat 6 times, that’s 6 breaths per minute. Concentrate on expanding your abdomen, sides of the lower ribs and ribcage in your back. This slows down the breathing which helps the body’s carbon dioxide and oxygen balance which will lower feelings of anxiety.


Another technique involves some sensory stimulation. Fill a sink with ice cold water. Then, inhale deeply via your nose and place your face into the water for 5 to 6 seconds. When you come out of the water, do a controlled exhale through your mouth for 6 to 8 seconds. Repeat 3 times. Do once a day when under prolonged stress.


Slow exhales stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system for relaxation. The facial ice bath stimulates the vagus nerve which calms the nervous system and helps regulate inflammation. Plus, it stimulates cranial nerves that help modulate stress.


Your body never does anything without a reason. Understanding inflammation can help you manage it. Don’t resist your body’s choices to help you, work with them! They are always protective, even when they don’t feel like it.


By Mike Paterson

Credits: James Breese – Strength Matters, Fit over Thirty Issue 21

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