Inflammation is a primary factor in myriad chronic health conditions – including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s – but sometimes the symptoms are invisible. Jane Wolfe looks at natural ways to manage this stealthy potential killer
We all experience inflammation in our bodies, whether it’s a sore throat, an allergic reaction or an abscess, but not many of us are aware of of the extent to which inflammation can be detrimental to our health if left unmanaged. Our ignorance isn’t too surprising as it is only relatively recently that chronic inflammation has become recognized as the underlying cause of many chronic diseases.
“Inflammation is our body’s immune response and natural defence mechanism against viruses, bacteria and damaged cells,” explains holistic lifestyle and skin health coach Holly Zoccolan. “It enables the body to remove these foreign invaders and heal itself. There are two types of inflammation: chronic and acute. Acute inflammation begins almost instantly and disappears after a couple of days, but chronic inflammation tends to persist for much longer than necessary – months or even years – and causes more harm than good.”
“Inflammation responds to any condition which is perceived as a threat, which is why emotional threats are related to by the HPA axis in the same way physical threats are”
It’s not only physical invaders to which the body responds in this way, emotional ‘insults’ can also affect the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis – the system which regulates the immune response, helping prevent it from overreacting and reducing damage from inflammation.
“Inflammation responds to any condition which is perceived as a threat, which is why emotional threats are related to by the HPA axis in the same way physical threats are,” points out naturopathic cardiologist Dr Decker Weiss. “Underlying factors as to how the threat is managed generally depends on its severity and how long it’s been going on.
“Chronic stress to the system – which can be caused by factors including emotional abuse, physical stresses, infections, toxicity – can wear down the HPA axis, and as inflammation becomes more chronic, our central nervous and immune systems will decrease in efficiency. Eventually thyroid and sex hormones will also be negatively affected.”
Libby Limon, nutritionist with Link Nutrition, explains that inflammation plays a role in ‘pretty much’ every illness. “I wrote an essay on this ten years ago when I was doing my nutrition degree, and it has always stuck with me,” she explains. “Autoimmune diseases are the obvious ones, but everything from Alzheimer’s to heart disease, MS to arthritis – chronic inflammation has a major role to play.”
Spotting the signs
Clearly, it’s important to recognize symptoms of inflammation in order to resolve it, but unfortunately these aren’t always obvious or even visible – or they may not stand out to the sufferer as being red flags signalling a more serious condition.
“Autoimmunity – from mild allergies to more serious conditions – are the outward signs,” says Limon. “But at the same time, subclinical inflammation – such as the inflammation that can trigger artery plaques forming in heart disease – would be completely silent.”
Zoccolan adds that symptoms to look out for with acute inflammation are pain, heat, swelling and redness. “Although if the acute inflammation is inside the body, the symptoms may not be as obvious. Symptoms related to chronic inflammation are fever, rashes, fatigue, mouth ulcers and swelling.”
Also watch out for any chronic problems from fatigue, mood issues and insomnia, to joint pain, gastrointestinal conditions, or infections such as Lyme disease, cautions Weiss.
He explains that to prevent any chronic disease, consumers need to be educated about how to recognize inflammation on an individual basis, and how to apply non-toxic therapies for recovery. “For example, patient A may have gas and bloating. If they use natural digestive support and look at their diet, they can recover. However, if they use antacids or acid blockers these can cause nutritional deficiencies and increase the risk of ulcers.
“Patient B may have joint pain. If they use natural models – look at their diet and exercise – they can likely reduce pain and increase performance. However, if they block the pain with drugs like ibuprofen and acetaminophen they may feel better but the inflammation will continue and can accelerate into joint degradation and in some cases dementia. The difference here is resolving inflammation versus suppressing it.”
Turmeric is a fantastic anti-inflammatory; it is best to take in supplement form as it is poorly absorbed otherwise, and you need a high potency for therapeutic effects
Weiss suggests using a broad spectrum antiinflammatory like turmeric or quercetin, and then treating inflammation at its source with, for example, a specific formula for joint pain or gastrointestinal support for stomach and intestinal issues. In addition, he highlights Siberian ginseng and echinacea.
Limon also suggests turmeric, alongside omega-3 fatty acids. “I would recommend people take an omega-3 supplement on a daily basis – ideally 1.5-3g of EPA and DHA,” she says. “Turmeric is a fantastic anti-inflammatory; it is best to take in supplement form as it is poorly absorbed otherwise, and you need a high potency for therapeutic effects. It is better absorbed with fats, so taking it with an omega-3 is perfect anti-inflammatory supplement protocol.”
Limon recommends Link Nutrition’s new Turmeric Curcumin, which provides 95% curcuminoids, liposomal curcumin and black pepper (piperine) to enhance absorbability.
Diet plays a crucial role in developing or avoiding inflammation, and there are certain foods that should be bypassed. “Some of the main inflammatory foods we need to avoid are refined sugars, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, processed foods, MSG and alcohol,” Zoccolan says. “Gluten has also been linked to the inflammatory response within our body.”
Foods we should be consuming to assist in decreasing inflammation include fresh fruits and vegetables. “At least five servings per day as well as healthy fats such as avocados, extra virgin olive oil and chia seeds. Herbs and spices such as turmeric, basil, chilli, garlic, ginger and rosemary are excellent anti-inflammatory additions to your meals.”
Zoccolan recommends practicing relaxing modalities such as meditation and yoga to reduce inflammation. “Your lifestyle – including stress, a poor diet and lack of exercise – all have a role to play in the development of chronic inflammation,” she adds. “An imbalance in your gut bacteria can also lead to chronic inflammation by the development of IBS and other digestion problems.”
Limon agrees it’s important to recognize that modern lifestyles will most likely cause levels of sub-clinical inflammation in the body. “Some saturated fats, grilling of food, environmental toxins, hormones, abdominal belly fat, oxidative stress are all risk factors pushing the body towards an inflammatory state. However, there are lots of things that we can do to bring balance back to the body in terms of its inflammatory levels.”
As well as eating a diet rich in antioxidants, fruits, veg, herbs, spices, etc, and healthy fats to help the body move to an anti-inflammatory state, Limon recommends intermittent fasting as another way to trigger the body to regulate inflammation levels.
Some saturated fats, grilling of food, environmental toxins, hormones, abdominal belly fat, oxidative stress are all risk factors pushing the body towards an inflammatory state
“Intermittent fasting is my number one recommendation for people to do at least some of the time. Most will get some benefit from fasting just 13 hours overnight (so if you eat dinner at 6.30pm-7pm you’d eat breakfast at 8am) which is easy for most people. If you can stretch to 14-16 hours the effect will be enhanced, although more isn’t necessarily better. It’s important to listen your body and find your ‘sweet spot’ – where you may feel hungry, but you don’t feel like you can’t concentrate or are tired.”
Weiss advocates health food retailers as the tip of the spear in preventing and reversing inflammation. “My first thought is to keep doing what you are doing, which is promoting a healthy diet, appropriate and eclectic exercise, and prevention through supplementation. This mission needs to be protected legislatively as well as with education. The next is to educate the public one-to-one and in group work such as webinars and live lectures. Lastly, I think we need to constantly empower people using any and all methods so they know who they are on an individual basis.”
View from a store
Sarah Inman, a naturopathic nutritional therapist and part of the Appleseeds Health Store team, explains that the store’s customers don’t usually directly ask for
anti-inflammatory support but usually come in for a condition or symptom, often being unaware that inflammation is a part of it or a potential cause. “Many may have seen a doctor and exhausted that route, but currently we’re seeing customers who aren’t getting conventional medical help so are reaching out in desperation for, in some cases, acute inflammatory support.
She says that currently a large proportion of customers are asking for joint support and the secondary stages of colds or flu, such as bronchitis or sinusitis that they can’t shake off.
Turmeric/curcumin is the store’s go-to anti-inflammatory product. “For more acute issues high strength curcumin can be very effective, but long-term turmeric supplementation has also had fantastic feedback from consumers – especially for joint conditions – and has created repeat custom.
“We also sell a great deal of fish oil – a fantastic way to support a wide range of conditions and potentially reduce inflammation by lowering the individual’s omega 3:6 ratio. This is often a product that sells itself and is again a repeat buy for many.
Many may have seen a doctor and exhausted that route, but currently we’re seeing customers who aren’t getting conventional medical help so are reaching out in desperation for, in some cases, acute inflammatory support
Getting the immune system functioning well is also something the store strongly promotes to indirectly reduce inflammation, says Inman. “We therefore start by looking at gut health, so recommend probiotics and functional foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha and apple cider vinegar. We sell these in vast quantities and get fantastic feedback and repeat purchases.”
“We recommend individual diet and lifestyle advice as part of the customer experience,” she adds. “We discuss the importance of including vegetables and fruit as a large part of the diet, keeping blood sugar levels stable through wholegrains, reducing high-carb foods, eating healthy fat such as omega-3 oils through flax, hemp, walnuts and fish, and for meat-eaters the importance of getting organic grass-fed meat.
“We also educate customers on fibre, getting enough fluid through water or herbal teas, sleep quantity and quality and relaxation, suggesting regular exercise and activities such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness, often directing people to local practitioners or classes.”
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