Marisa Zeppieri-Caruana, 34, didn’t look at all sick when she found out. “I was in amazing shape. I was a happy, busy, thin 23-year-old when I started getting strange fevers and feeling extremely tired. My doctor ordered some blood work and that’s when I learned that my inflammatory markers were through the roof.” Because Zeppieri-Caruana was in nursing school at the time, she knew exactly what that meant: her white blood cells, which typically help fight off illness, were actually wreaking havoc on her once-healthy body.
Under normal circumstances, some inflammation is a good thing: it’s your body’s natural protective response to an illness or injury. You know how your finger can get red and puffy when you get a cut? That’s your white blood cells shielding your wound from contamination and infection. That’s acute inflammation. Chronic or systemic inflammation—the kind that Zeppieri-Caruana was dealing with—is when the “protect me” signal misfires. “Essentially, white blood cells inappropriately move into tissues, causing destruction,” explains Floyd Chilton, Ph.D., director of the NIH-sponsored Center for Botanical Lipids and Inflammatory Disease Prevention at Wake Forest Baptist Health School of Medicine in North Carolina. This reaction can happen anywhere in your body. “If the haywire inflammatory response happens in the heart, you wind up with heart disease; if it happens in the joint, it’s arthritis; in the brain, it might be dementia,” Chilton says. In Zeppieri-Caruana’s case, her widespread inflammation was a symptom of lupus, an autoimmune, chronic inflammatory condition.
Illustration by Sarah Wilkins