Signs of chronic inflammation can range from skin issues like eczema to the chronic joint pain of rheumatoid arthritis. But while the idea of a body system gone-amok can be overwhelming, there are simple steps you can take to reduce your inflammatory response and improve your health. Read on to learn about inflammation, why it’s important, and the research-backed herbs and self-care that have the greatest anti-inflammatory properties.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural process that your immune system initiates to remove harmful pathogens and promote healing. During an inflammation response, white blood cells release hormones that dilate your blood vessels, increasing blood flow to an injury or infection. This blood flow gives the white blood cells better access to the affected area, where they fight viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and remove dead and injured cells.
Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation
Acute inflammation is a vital immune response. It occurs over minutes or hours while your body fights pathogens and repairs damaged tissue. Signs of acute inflammation are noticeable — think swelling when you sprain your ankle, the redness from sunburn, or stiffness the day after a workout.
In chronic inflammation, a haywire immune response simultaneously destroys and repairs your body tissues. Over time, this process can lead to DNA damage which can increase your risk for developing cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, fibromyalgia, and possibly even depression.
Scarier still, symptoms of chronic inflammation appear over months or years and are often subtle. Fatigue, all-over pain, mouth sores, rashes, mood disorders, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, and fever are just some of the ways chronic inflammation may manifest.
What causes chronic inflammation?
Pathogens. If your body’s acute inflammation response can’t get rid of invasive bacteria, protozoa, fungi, or parasites, your immune system may stay activated, leading to chronic inflammation.
Autoimmune disorders. In an autoimmune disorder, the immune system attacks your body’s own healthy tissue, resulting in chronic inflammation. In a chicken-or-egg reversal, chronic inflammation may also be a risk factor for autoimmune disorders.
Pollution. Long-term pollution exposure from pesticides to cigarette smoke can lead to oxidative stress and cell damage or death that triggers inflammation over time.
Stress. Chronic emotional stress puts your immune system on high alert, increasing the amount of inflammation-boosting white blood cells in your bloodstream.
Food choices. Red meat, alcohol, refined carbs, and sugar, can worsen inflammation, as can trans fats (partially hydrogenated oil) found in margarine, shortening, and soybean and vegetable oil.
Foods for natural inflammation relief
While chronic inflammation can be painful, it doesn’t have to run your life. The foods and herbs that you put in your body can be a powerful way to alter your inflammation levels.
Leafy greens, berries (and most colorful fruits), green tea, nuts, seeds, beans, olive oil, and fatty fish like mackerel can all help reduce inflammation.
Herbs to fight inflammation
When it comes to inflammation, turmeric, white willow, uva ursi, and Gotu Kola (a.k.a. Centella) are potent herbs that work best combined in professional blends.
Turmeric. Curcumin, a substance found in the spice turmeric, is widely known for its ability to help modulate inflammatory processes. It’s also a tasty seasoning that’s easy to add to your grains, tofu, lean animal protein, or smoothies.
White willow. White willow bark (Salix alba) has been used as an anti-inflammatory compound for millennia.
Uva Ursi (Bearberry). In one study, Japanese researchers found that Bearberry leaf decreased swelling and inflammation related to arthritis.
Gotu Kola. Gotu Kola is a nutritionally important plant and potent inflammatory-fighting compound which is valued as a traditional medicine in South East Asia.
Self-care practices to combat inflammation
Moderate exercise. Regular exercise promotes increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which promotes the health of brain cells and protects them from oxidative stress i.e. damage caused by inflammation. Exercise also transforms the body on the molecular level, improving cardiovascular health and promoting antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity throughout your system. Remember that “moderate” is the key word here. Routinely pushing yourself hard can actually lead to more inflammation.
Manage stress. Chronic stress can contribute to inflammation, so make sure to make time to de-stress in your life. Good ways to reduce stress include meditation, yoga, or have a provider train you in biofeedback, which some insurance policies cover under mental health care. If human-guided biofeedback isn’t an option, smartphone-based apps and gadgets can help you train you to relax.
You can’t control everything
While we can influence our levels of chronic inflammation, that doesn’t mean that we have total control over, or responsibility for, our immune system. Chronic inflammation can be a byproduct of many factors from genetics to pollution or limited food options, so it’s important not to blame yourself for your pain, fatigue, or discomfort.
Instead, focus on the factors that are under your control and do your best to incorporate anti-inflammatory foods, herbs, and habits into your life. Over time, these small changes can help soothe discomfort and reset your immune system.