Inflammation is a word that we are all familiar with, and most of us have some associations in our own experience that we picture when this word is uttered. For example, if you have acne, you know that this red pustule is inflamed because it is red and may even cause pain. Or, you might have some knee pain when you run, and you know that there is an aspect of inflammation involved in your knee joint that is causing this sensation of pain. You may even notice some swelling in your knee joint area.
Inflammation is a necessary, normal response to injury, to bring leukocytes to the area to “clean up” and destroy pathogens, to immobilize the area of injury, & to heal the tissue. So, we need this inflammatory response in the body in order to draw attention (an alarm) to an area of injury. Even in the case of skin inflammation such as acne, there is stimulus which is bacterial stimulated, and the redness and swelling is the body’s attempt to combat the infection.
Problems arise when inflammation becomes chronic and systemic, when it ceases to be an acute response, when it becomes a constant low-level feature of the body’s physiology that’s always on and always engaged. Because a big part of inflammatory response is to break the tissue down, targeting damaged tissue and invading pathogens before building it back up, the inflammatory response has the potential to damage the body by targeting healthy tissue. This is the case in chronic acne, where scarring can occur, or in arthritis where the joint tissue (cartilage) becomes damaged by the chronic inflammation.
The question becomes, how does this inflammatory response get out of balance and lead to chronic inflammation? This is a complicated question, and multi-faceted. Sometimes, something like continual impact such as running on hard surfaces lead to continual injury to the joint tissue, which leads to deterioration of joint tissue, decreasing cartilage and other protective tissues in the joints.. Other causes are food related, as certain foods and compounds we ingest either promote the inflammatory response (trans fats) or can inhibit it (such as Omega-3 fatty acids), chronic stress and the stress response in the body, hormonal imbalance, toxic exposure, food sensitivities or allergies, and many other triggers promote pro-inflammatory pathways in the body.
Here is a list of some of the most common promoters of chronic inflammation:
Toxic diets & toxic exposure in general, which can come from many sources in our modern world, including the paraffin candles burned indoors, flame retardants on our furniture that off-gas into our indoor air, food additives and colorings, chlorine in our water, etc.
Food allergies – if you’re reacting to a food that you’re constantly ingesting, this can cause a heightened immune over-response and worsen seasonal allergies, eczema, weakening of the intestinal lining.
Insufficient omega-3 intake: Omega-3 fats form the precursors for anti-inflammatory eicosanoids, which are an integral part of the inflammatory response.
Excessive omega-6 intake: Omega-6 fats form the precursors for inflammatory eicosanoids, which are an integral part of the inflammatory response.
Lack of sleep: Poor sleep is linked to elevated inflammatory markers. Poor sleep is a chronic problem in developed nations.
Lack of movement: People lead sedentary lives, by and large, and a lack of activity is strongly linked to systemic, low-grade inflammation.
Poor recovery: Other people move too much, with too little rest and recovery, or are putting too much stress and strain on their bodies.
Chronic stress: Modern life is stressful & your body will have a physiological, inflammatory response to emotional stress.
Lack of down time: The parasympathetic nervous system response can help keep many systems in our body running better, including our digestion and immune system.
Lack of nature time
Poor gut health: The intestinal tract houses the bulk of the body’s immune response, so when it’s unhealthy, so is your inflammatory regulation.
Poor acute stressor/chronic stress ratio: We respond far better to acute stressors than chronic, long-term stress, even if the latter is of a lower intensity.
Where do herbal remedies come in, as useful tools in our ability to help our bodies regulate the inflammatory response?
Medicinal plants contain a myriad of phytochemicals, nutrients, and other compounds that have multiple effects, therefore they can be useful for reducing inflammation that is in excess, while preventing potential problems (such as gastric irritation and ulcers) from synthesized anti-inflammatory drugs. Many herbs we know of help inhibit aspects of the inflammatory pathways, such as the cyclooxygenase (COX) pathways: COX-1 and COX-2 which produce pro-inflammatory prostaglandins.
Many over the counter anti-inflammatories (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or NSAIDS), inhibit the COX enzyme pathways. For example, Aspirin works because it decreases the production of inflammatory hormones/chemicals called prostaglandins, created by the COX-1 enzyme, but because this enzyme is also involved in protecting the stomach lining and the kidneys, it is known that overuse of aspirin can cause damage to the stomach lining, even leading to ulcers.
The advantage of herbs and why there is so much focus on finding anti-inflammatory herbal remedies and compounds within them, is because they do not have the same long-term potential side effects that many NSAIDS have. In addition, herbs have many effects because of the hundreds of compounds they contain, so each herb can have multiple beneficial effects. Here are some of the herbs that have been most studied for helping reduce inflammation:
Turmeric – anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antitumor. Curcuminoids in turmeric, including curcumin, have been shown to inhibit COX-2 and stimulate glutathione S-transferase, a key detoxification enzyme.
Holy basil – contains compounds like ursolic acid and oleanolic acid that inhibit COX-2 and lipoxygenase. This herb is also anti-ulcer, antimutagenic, radioprotective, anti-tumor on the skin, and increases glutathione S-transferase, a key detoxification enzyme.
Goldthread (Coptis) & Barberry – both contain berberine, which has been shown to inhibit COX-2. Each also contain other compounds that inhibit COX-2 but not COX-1, and also have anticancer and antitumor properties.
Goldenseal - also high in berberine, and worth mentioning here because it also helps reduce mucus production and tones/tightens sinus membranes, helping reduce congestion and inflammation from the sinuses. It is also a great antibacterial & antifungal herb.
Green tea – contains COX-2 inhibitors, and contains phytonutrients that are anti-ulcer and prevent wounds or facilitate their healing.
Many other herbs are used for inflammation targeting specific tissues. These include Meadowsweet and Yarrow for inflammation of the stomach and intestinal lining, Goldenseal for inflammation of the sinuses and mucus membranes, Calendula flowers for epithelial tissue of the skin and gastrointestinal lining.
There is more to come with this conversation, but hopefully this is a good start!