Herbs for inflammation: A woman looks out into a snowy field

Protect Yourself With Herbs for Inflammation

December 19, 2019

Inflammation is a normal function of the human body. As a vital part of a healthy immune system, inflammation is the heat you feel when you get a fever. Your body uses it to burn up a viral or bacterial invader that's making you sick. That said, the problem with inflammation is when it becomes chronic and doesn't shut off properly over time. Chronic inflammation can create major health problems in the long-term. Herbs for inflammation can help throw water on the fire. By eating the right foods, avoiding the wrong ones, and supplementing with beneficial herbs for inflammation, you can help protect yourself from the damaging effects of chronic inflammation. The anti-inflammatory properties of certain herbs and foods can have a profound effect on your health, not just in the long-term, but in the short-term too. Anti-inflammatory herbs can help support healthy joints and even promote a healthy weight. Let's dig in to the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet and the herbs for inflammation that go with it.

Chronic Inflammation

As we've already stated, inflammation is an important feature of the human immune system. It's vital to your health that your body has a process to protect you from dangerous invaders, whether it be a common cold, the flu, or a dirty scrape on the knee. When your skin turns red and swells, that’s your body’s natural inflammatory response reacting to protect you. White blood cells and T-cells make their way to the infected site and squash the bacteria that are trying to enter your bloodstream. The resulting heat is an external indicator that your inflammatory response is working properly. This is an example of an active and healthy acute inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is different. If your body is in a state of chronic inflammation, your body is either constantly being exposed to stressors that cause inflammation, or your immune system has short-circuited and is now reacting to things that are in the normal environment. In both situations, it's not good for you. Let's unpack this a bit more. Here are the main potential reasons that your body could be in a state of chronic inflammation, according to scientific research (1):
  • You've been fighting microscopic invaders like bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, or parasites, but once the threat is over, your immune system doesn't turn off properly.
  • You are being continually exposed to some sort of irritant, whether it's in the food you're eating, the air you're breathing, or something coming into contact with your skin. In this case, you're likely unable to clear the irritant through normal, healthy immune function.
  • You have an autoimmune disorder (like celiac, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis). Autoimmune disorders view your own human cells as outside threats and attack healthy tissue as if it were an invader.
  • You experience repeated injuries or environmental exposures like pollutants, allergens, or toxins that create a continual, acute immunity response. So your acute inflammatory response repeats itself again and again until it becomes chronic.
  • Your body is overwhelmed by oxidative stress as a result of free radical exposure. Oxidative stress wreaks havoc on healthy cell function, especially in the mitochondria, which are responsible for turning off the inflammatory response.
Unfortunately, it's also possible for a single person to experience multiple things on this list at one time, creating a perfect storm of inflammation in the body and eventually leading to serious health issues. In fact, the Harvard Health Letter has implicated chronic inflammation as a "unifying theory of disease." In other words, there's a scientifically-backed argument that inflammation is at the root of nearly every chronic disease that plagues the modern world. This includes just about every type of cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke), diabetes (all types), autoimmune diseases, and a huge number of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS, and ALS (2).

Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle

Herbs for inflammation: Fire fighters spray water on a large fire The best way to fight chronic inflammation is not only to reduce your exposure to irritants and toxins, but also to feed your body natural anti-inflammatory compounds through your diet in order to help turn off the fire. We emphasize natural in this context because over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs like NSAIDs don't necessarily help the problem in the long-term. NSAIDs are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and naproxen (Aleve). They might be acutely effective in a moment of inflammation — headache, fever, cramps — but these over the counter meds aren't meant to be taken indefinitely, as they can cause stomach ulcers over time, ultimately leading to more inflammation (3). There are also prescription NSAIDs like meloxicam (Mobic) and celecoxib (Celebrex) that may have fewer negative side effects on the digestive system, due to a variant in the pathways they take to address inflammation. However, these types of drugs put a bandaid on the problem of inflammation without addressing the root cause. Only diet and lifestyle changes can get at the root of the problem.

Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Focusing on quality is the first place to start when it comes to transitioning to an anti-inflammatory diet. While it might not be affordable to eat exclusively organic, there are certain categories and types of food that you should prioritize, as they're most likely to hold a damaging toxic load. Here are the foods to start with when you're going organic.

Meat and Dairy

Herbs for inflammation: Cows grazing on grass in a pastoral settingMeat and dairy should always be organic, grass-fed, or pasture-raised in order to avoid the damaging agricultural chemicals that are used in conventional ranching. Conventionally raised cows, pigs, and chickens are kept in cages or feedlots — squeezed into confined spaces where they live in their own filth. They're also eating feed high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids — usually soy or corn — which add to the inflammatory load of the end product. Due to these unhealthy living conditions, they have to be fed antibiotics, which end up in the meat, dairy, and eggs you eat (4). The stressful conditions, as well as the overload of toxins these animals are exposed to, deliver a highly inflammatory end product to your plate. Grass-fed beef or dairy and organic, pastured pork, chicken, and eggs, are higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and free from the chemicals used in big agribusiness (5). When it comes to fish, choose wild-caught, smaller fish. Farmed fish are also fed corn or soy feed, which negatively impacts the fatty-acid profile of the fish (again, due to their high omega-6 content). Wild-caught fish should be on the smaller side because mercury bioaccumulates in the largest fish. Limit your tuna and larger fish to once or twice a week (6).

Produce

Organic produce can add up quickly, so we understand if you can't fill your shopping cart exclusively with organic. To help you out, the Environmental Working Group creates two lists every year called the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen to help you see which foods are a "must" on the organic list, and which foods you can get away with buying conventional. By focusing on buying organic versions of alkalizing, antioxidant-rich foods like leafy greens and colorful fruits and vegetables you're taking steps to fight inflammation through your diet. But sometimes you need an extra boost. That's where herbs come in.

Herbs for Inflammation

Herbs for inflammation: jars of herbs and spicesHerbal remedies, for the most part, aren't regulated by the FDA. That being said, there are a number of herbs and spices that you can use — whether as supplements or as part of your healthy diet — that can act as powerful anti-inflammatory agents. One possible source of chronic inflammation is oxidative stress. The antioxidants found in certain herbs have been shown to help promote a healthy response to chronic inflammation. Some of these herbs are culinary but have been studied in a therapeutic context. Some you've heard of, and some might be new to you.

Turmeric

The active ingredient in turmeric is called curcumin. Curcumin is a potent antioxidant that's been studied for its anti-inflammatory effects on neurological diseases and oral diseases like gingivitis, and for its cancer-fighting benefit (7)(8). In the way of neurological health, it's been studied for its potential to slow the effects of Alzheimer's by helping build new neurons, and stimulate the pathways that create and keep memories (9)(10). Curcumin's effects have also been explored for antidepressant properties. Both Alzheimer's and depression are associated with inflammation in certain areas of the brain (11). More work needs to be done in this area before therapeutic recommendations and dosing are established, but the results are promising. You can add more turmeric to your diet by making golden milk lattes, adding it to an Asian- or Indian-inspired stir-fries, or simply taking it as a supplement.

Black Pepper

You might not believe it, but the stuff sitting on your dining table in a shaker or grinder offers anti-inflammatory protection as well. The active ingredient is called piperine, and it's been studied for its positive effects on aiding digestion, slowing tumor growth, and promoting gut health — all due to its powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties. In addition to being a helpful aid on its own, black pepper has shown itself to be quite the helper. It acts as a booster for other beneficial compounds, like curcumin, and helps human and animal cells absorb those compounds better than they would on their own (12). Add a little bit of fresh ground black pepper to every savory meal you can, especially those that also have some of the these other herbs to help them go further for your health.

Boswellia

Though you might not have heard of Boswellia, practitioners of traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine have been using it for centuries both in medicine and in ritual. There are a number of active ingredients, called terpenes, which inhibit certain inflammatory responses in your body. Boswellia also has antimicrobial and wound-healing properties (13). You can find Boswellia tea at most health food stores. Otherwise, it’s most commonly taken as a supplement.

Frankincense and Myrrh

You might associate these herbal essential oils with Christmas gifts, but their power goes beyond religious ritual. These herbs in combination have been studied for their effects on rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in rats. The studies showed that these herbs not only helped inhibit the formation of inflammatory cytokines, inflammatory markers in the body, they also helped suppress the progression of RA more than single prescription drug treatment (14). Frankincense and myrrh are most commonly available as essential oils to be diffused in the air or in topical skin products. They should be diluted before topical application, either with a carrier oil or in a combination skincare product. Talk to a holistic healthcare professional to learn the best way to use these individually or in combination for the best results.

Matcha Green Tea

Green tea, especially matcha, is a potent source of an antioxidant called EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate). EGCG has been studied for its anti-inflammatory effects on cancer, weight loss, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure (15)(16)(17). Matcha, in particular, is an extremely rich source of EGCG. One study showed that it's 137 times more prevalent in matcha than in regular green tea (18). Try replacing your morning cup of joe with a creamy matcha latte. Matcha is also delicious as an iced beverage.

Ginger

Ginger is a spicy herb used mostly in Asian and Indian cooking. Fresh ginger root is also a delicious addition to fresh vegetable juice, providing a bit of a spicy zing. The most studied compounds in ginger are gingerols, shogaols, and paradols. These antioxidant compounds have been studied for their anti-cancer effects, in addition to their cardio-protective qualities. Ginger has also been shown to help reduce post-workout muscle pain. This is because it offers potent anti-inflammatory benefits (19). Ginger is a great condiment for a number of different eastern cuisines. You can also steep the fresh root for tea, find it ground in tea bags, or juice it if you have a good juicer. For nausea or other stomach conditions, there are also ginger chewy candies available at most health food stores. You can find it in the supplement aisles as well.

Clean Living for Reduced Inflammation

By reducing your exposure to pro-inflammatory foods and environmental factors and adding anti-inflammatory foods and herbs into your diet, you're helping clear out and prevent chronic inflammation. Taking care of yourself by avoiding physical and emotional stressors that can activate an inflammatory response is a major step in the right direction. Herbs for inflammation can take your efforts even further to help with joint pain relief, improve your digestion and gut health, and even offer heart health benefits. Chronic diseases are rooted in inflammation, so put out the fire with your diet and lifestyle. A safe place to start is by trying herbs for inflammation.