Putting Out the Fire—Natural Approaches to Inflammation

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As a naturopathic doctor, I’m often asked, “What are the most common conditions you treat?” I’ve found this question difficult to answer, since NDs are primary care providers and see people with a wide range of health issues, such as acute and chronic pain and injuries, illnesses, and hormonal imbalances, as well as for prevention. But, as I think about this question, I realize that a very common condition I treat is part of many other common acute and chronic diseases. That condition is inflammation.

What is inflammation?

The word inflammation comes from the Latin inflamatio, which means “to set on fire.” It is our body’s natural protective response to injury or infection with the goal to remove the cause of the injury and initiate the process of tissue healing. The four main signs of inflammation are redness, heat, swelling and pain. You can recognize the role inflammation plays in a variety of diseases as their names often end with “-itis,” the suffix denoting inflammation. So, colitis is inflammation of the intestines; tonsillitis, of the tonsils, and so on.

Different kinds of inflammation

We all recognize and know acute inflammation. A sliver stuck in a fingertip hurts, gets red and hot, and swells up. We step the wrong way and twist an ankle causing pain, swelling and redness or bruising. Basic treatment for acute inflammation is based on four steps that go under the acronym RICE—rest, ice, compression, and elevation. We may also take anti-inflammatory medicines such as aspirin or ibuprofen, and in severe cases, use steroids such as cortisone or prednisone. We may rub arnica gel on the area or use anti-inflammatory herbs like curcumin or ginger.

What we don’t often realize is that chronic inflammation, which has subtle signs and symptoms, may go undetected for decades and is a causative or contributing factor to most of the chronic, degenerative and life-threatening diseases we face.

For example, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis affect over 28 million Americans. Chronic inflammation in the heart and circulatory system is increasingly being recognized as a major factor in heart attacks, stroke and blood vessel disease, the major causes of death in both men and women. Low-grade chronic infections, especially viral ones, have strong associations with increased cancer risks due to inflammation. Chronic inflammation is also a major component of allergies and asthma, bowel diseases, skin conditions and a host of others.

If the signs are subtle, how do I know if I have chronic inflammation?

Perhaps you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic condition where inflammation plays a role, or you have a family history of diseases such as heart disease or arthritis. Do you have any risk factors such as smoking, eating a high animal fat or high sugar diet, or not get enough exercise? All of these are risk factors because they promote inflammation and thus aggravate chronic inflammatory conditions.

There are lab tests that check for signs of inflammation. Sensitivity tests can detect food and environmental allergens. C-Reactive Protein, or CRP, is becoming a common screening test for cardiovascular disease risk. Other tests are useful for diagnosing and monitoring specific inflammatory diseases.

If inflammation is a natural and protective response, why should we treat it?

When the acute inflammatory response is manageable, I believe no anti-inflammatory treatment is necessary. Many of the approaches I use in practice to manage acute mild inflammation involve pain reduction, circulatory improvement and nutritional support to injured areas to help inflammation do its job as nature intended. But sometimes the acute inflammatory response is too great, and measures to reduce inflammation prevent long-term problems.

Chronic inflammation is a different matter. Since it is insidious by nature, measures to reduce inflammation over time can pay off with improved vitality and reduced disease risk in the long run. Prevention and effective treatment is important in managing chronic inflammation and reducing the risk of chronic disease.

So, how can I reduce my risk of chronic inflammation?

What we don’t often realize is that chronic inflammation, which has subtle signs and symptoms, may go undetected for decades and is a causative or contributing factor to most of the chronic, degenerative and life-threatening diseases we face.

For example, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis affect over 28 million Americans. Chronic inflammation in the heart and circulatory system is increasingly being recognized as a major factor in heart attacks, stroke and blood vessel disease, the major causes of death in both men and women. Low-grade chronic infections, especially viral ones, have strong associations with increased cancer risks due to inflammation. Chronic inflammation is also a major component of allergies and asthma, bowel diseases, skin conditions and a host of others.

If the signs are subtle, how do I know if I have chronic inflammation?

Perhaps you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic condition where inflammation plays a role, or you have a family history of diseases such as heart disease or arthritis. Do you have any risk factors such as smoking, eating a high animal fat or high sugar diet, or not get enough exercise? All of these are risk factors because they promote inflammation and thus aggravate chronic inflammatory conditions.

There are lab tests that check for signs of inflammation. Sensitivity tests can detect food and environmental allergens. C-Reactive Protein, or CRP, is becoming a common screening test for cardiovascular disease risk. Other tests are useful for diagnosing and monitoring specific inflammatory diseases.

If inflammation is a natural and protective response, why should we treat it?

When the acute inflammatory response is manageable, I believe no anti-inflammatory treatment is necessary. Many of the approaches I use in practice to manage acute mild inflammation involve pain reduction, circulatory improvement and nutritional support to injured areas to help inflammation do its job as nature intended. But sometimes the acute inflammatory response is too great, and measures to reduce inflammation prevent long-term problems.

Chronic inflammation is a different matter. Since it is insidious by nature, measures to reduce inflammation over time can pay off with improved vitality and reduced disease risk in the long run. Prevention and effective treatment is important in managing chronic inflammation and reducing the risk of chronic disease.

So, how can I reduce my risk of chronic inflammation?

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Pay attention to lifestyle factors—quit smoking, eat a healthy diet, get enough exercise and rest. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and practice moderation (see article below on anti-inflammatory diet). The types of fats and oils we eat can either promote or reduce inflammation; fish and flax are good anti-inflammatory fats, while dairy and saturated fats tend to be pro-inflammatory. Spices such as turmeric and ginger have potent anti-inflammatory effects, as do bromelain and papain, enzymes found in pineapple and papaya. Minimize exposure to allergens or reactive foods. If you have a chronic viral illness, support your immune system, and manage it as effectively as possible. If you have risk factors or chronic illness, screening tests can help you understand current levels of inflammation and associated risk.

Finally, your naturopathic doctor can work with you to develop an individualized preventive strategy aimed at prevention and management of both acute and chronic inflammation and lowering your risk of chronic illness.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

One of the best ways to manage and reduce chronic inflammation is through how we eat.

To decrease both acute and chronic inflammation, choose a diet that is based on whole foods with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. Minimize or avoid junk food, sugar, white flour, fried foods, processed meats and high-fat animal products. Choose organic and select foods from the list below on a regular basis.

Vegetables

Raw or lightly cooked, choose a variety of deep colors. Dark leafy greens, crucifers (broccoli and cabbage family), carrots, beets, squash, onions, garlic and sea vegetables.
     Why: These are a rich source of flavonoids and antioxidants.

Fruits

Fresh and in season is best (frozen is second best), choose a variety of deep colors. Dark berries, peaches, nectarines, oranges, grapefruit, red grapes, plums, pomegranates, cherries, apples and pears.
     Why: These are lower in glycemic load than other fruits and are a rich source of flavonoids and antioxidants.

Whole Grains

Cooked in their whole form rather than made into a bread or pasta. Brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, oats, barley, amaranth, millet, teff.
     Why: These are good complex carbohydrates that provide a slow release of blood sugar and long lasting energy.

Vegetable and Animal Proteins

Beans and legumes such as black beans, adzuki beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, lentils and soy (in whole forms rather than processed). Fish such as wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, mackerel and herring (or a fish oil supplement if you don’t eat fish regularly). Animal products such as omega-3 enriched eggs or free-range eggs, skinless free-range chicken, or low fat dairy such as yogurt.
     Why: Beans provide a rich source of soluble fiber and minerals and are a low glycemic food. Soy in particular is known to contain isoflavones with antioxidant activity. These fish contain high levels of omega-3 fats which are strongly anti-inflammatory, where other animal fats are more pro-inflammatory.

Healthy Fats

In addition to eating fish, good oils can be added by using extra virgin olive oil or expeller-pressed organic canola oil for cooking. Include avocados, nuts and seeds (especially walnuts and freshly ground flaxseed).

Carl Hangee-Bauer, ND, LAc
(Images courtesy of Stuart Miles, stock images, and artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)