Inflammation—the term probably brings to mind a swollen, sprained ankle or a bee sting, but researchers are discovering that inflammation is more than meets the eye. Indeed, inflammation appears to work much more insidiously at the cellular level and may be responsible for a host of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer?s—even cancer.
Experts also are finding that this type of inflammation has many prevention and treatment options, many of which can be found in your store?s supplements aisle.
Why get inflamed?
Before blaming inflammation for every little ache and pain, it?s important to remember that inflammation is a naturally occurring immune response in the body—a sign that your body is trying to heal you, not hurt you.
?Inflammation is a natural process—it?s an immune response to threats like bacterial or viral infection and injury. It cleans up dead and damaged cells and stimulates the healing process and production of replacement cells,? says Jack Challem, author of The Inflammation Syndrome (John Wiley & Sons, 2002) and Feed Your Genes Right (John Wiley & Sons, 2005).
Challem explains that when the body is hurt or infected, white blood cells, or immune cells, are sent to the affected area to fight the problem. ?Immune cells produce C-reactive protein, which is an inflammatory compound. They also kill germs by engulfing the bacteria in white blood cells and then blasting them with free radicals in a process called ?free radical burst.??
But there is also a downside to inflammation. ?During the [inflammation] process, the body is trying to make itself an unpleasant environment for bacteria or viruses by leaking out free radicals, which at the same time inflict harm on healthy cells by damaging their membranes, DNA and proteins. Meanwhile, CRP stimulates the activation of more immune cells, but also activates adhesion molecules that help white blood cells stick to normal tissues and damage them. It turns out that when we?re sick, most of our symptoms are related to the immune response, not to the original infection,? Challem says.
So while the initial, short-term inflammatory response is a good thing, chronic inflammation can damage cells and is ultimately ?either a cause or promoter of every disease process,? Challem says. Barry Sears, Ph.D., and author of The Anti-Inflammation Zone (Harper Collins, 2005), agrees. ?[Chronic] inflammation is below the threshold of pain, so you don?t know it?s there, but it?s the silent building block of assault on tissues—a systemic attack,? he says.
Besides free radicals and CRP, another naturally occurring enzyme called cyclooxygenase-2 has been linked to inflammation and disease. Dr. Aaron Katz, associate professor at Columbia University in the Department of Urology, believes that DNA instability causes this enzyme to run rampant in the body and bring about inflammation and illness, including cancer.
?There is a clear role between cancer and inflammation that has to do with the enzyme Cox-2,? he says. ?We know that Cox-2 is naturally occurring in the body, but that it also causes cancers to proliferate and causes inflammation. As people age, their genes become less stable, which can lead to incorrect genetic programming. This can cause genes to produce unhealthful amounts of the Cox-2 enzyme and bring about heart disease, cancer and other diseases.?
The challenge lies, then, in stopping the inflammation once it has done its job. ?If you don?t allow your injury to heal properly, or you?re not eating a diet high in antioxidants and omega-3s to combat the free radicals and inflammatory compounds released during the body?s immune response, the body is unable to halt the inflammation process when it is no longer needed,? Challem says. ?The normal shut-off mechanisms that depend on omega-3s found in fish oils and antioxidants and in fruits and veggies just aren?t there.?
Beating inflammation naturally
So, what to do when the body?s own natural processes begin to work against it? The seemingly logical solution would be to take a conventional anti-inflammatory or Cox-2 inhibitor on a lifetime basis to prevent inflammation-related problems. Unfortunately, it?s not that simple. ?Anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and Cox-2 inhibitors have been found to have dangerous side effects,? Sears says. ?The answer instead is an anti-inflammatory diet and natural anti-inflammatory supplements.?
Modifying the typical American diet by increasing consumption of antioxidant-rich vegetables and healthy fats like omega-3s would be the first step in reducing inflammation. But taking supplements known to reduce cellular inflammation will not only speed up the recovery process, it will also prevent cellular inflammation from occurring in the first place.
Dr. Nicholas Perricone, author of The Perricone Promise (Warner Books, 2004), believes that cellular inflammation not only causes disease, but also speeds up the aging process. He recommends several supplements to reduce cellular inflammation. ?Alpha-lipoic acid has very powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It?s both fat-soluble and water-soluble—it?s a universal antioxidant, meaning it is very easily absorbed by the body,? he says.
ALA is also a metabolic antioxidant because it increases the metabolism and helps cells absorb sugar.
This helps prevent glycation, which is the process by which sugar attaches to proteins, such as collagen, in our bodies. It forms an irreversible, inflexible bond that causes wrinkles, high blood pressure and accelerates aging.
Perricone also recommends taking vitamins C and E for their anti-inflammatory properties. According to Challem, ?Both vitamins C and E are helpful with inflammation because they are potent antioxidants that quench free radicals and inhibit the activation of a genetic transcription factor, called nuclear factor kappa beta, that promotes inflammation. Just as antioxidants neutralize free radicals in heart disease, they temper free radicals in inflammation as well. For instance, vitamin E has been shown to reduce CRP levels by 30 to 50 percent,? Challem says.
Sears recommends fish oil because it?s high in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation. ?Fish oil is the most medically validated supplement for inflammation that can be taken on a lifelong basis,? he says. ?There are ultra-refined EPA and DHA concentrates on the market now, which allow people to take in large levels of fish oil without toxins.?
Sears also recommends turmeric because it is ?a potent antioxidant that lowers free radical levels, which in turn reduces inflammation,? he says.
In fact, almost any antioxidant or herb, especially those containing flavonoids, can be beneficial in reducing inflammation, according to Challem. ?It?s the grand unification theory of nutrition and disease,? he says. ?If inflammation is a component in all diseases, then anything you do to reduce it will reduce the symptoms of the disease and will help you get healthier in general.?
Antioxidant flavonoids, found in fruits and vegetables, are among nature?s best anti-inflammatory nutrients, Challem says. ?Flavonoids are the pigment in fruits and vegetables. Plants developed flavonoids over the ages to protect themselves from free radical damage caused by UV light, so flavonoids contain huge amounts of antioxidants. We acquire those same benefits when we eat plants, including herbs, or take supplements derived from plants.
?If you work at controlling inflammation before you have symptoms of disease, you?re going to be much better off,? Challem says. If they haven?t started already, your customers are going to begin taking steps to reduce or prevent inflammation—which means they will be stepping directly into your supplements aisle.
Christine Spehar is a freelance writer living in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 9/p. 100-101