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 InflammationAs 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.
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 FoodsFocusing 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
Meat 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).
ProduceOrganic 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
Herbal 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.