We need inflammation to fight infections. But when inflammation runs amok, it can exacerbate every disease process. Sometimes its symptoms are obvious—redness, swelling and pain—such as after a burn or banged knee. But other times, as in the case of chronic, low-grade inflammation, the afflicted won’t even know it’s affecting them until a heart attack or some other malady hits.
"Inflammation drives most chronic, degenerative diseases," says Bo Jonsson, MD, PhD, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, where he also practices medicine. "It’s at the heart of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and all the aches and pains people suffer. Yet there are many nutrients that douse the fires of inflammation."
The human body can make both inflammation-promoting substances and anti-inflammatory ones, assuming their nutritional building blocks are present. Unfortunately, the highly processed American diet leans heavily on pro-inflammatory substances, such as corn and safflower oils, too many sugars, and low levels of vitamins and minerals. Our anti-inflammatory prowess depends on certain healthy fats, herbs, vitamins and minerals.
Inflammation and pain issues are front and center in consumers’ minds. Anti-inflammatory drugs generate revenues of approximately $12 billion annually, and yet dietary supplements can usually achieve similar benefits with far fewer side effects. Multivitamins, which can reduce levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), are the single most popular supplement and have seen modest increases in sales year after year.
Many plant-based supplements can also be heavy hitters against inflammation. Turmeric root, which yields curcumin, has seen phenomenal increases in sales. Curcumin sales grew to $163 million in 2015 from just $15 million in 2005, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. Unfortunately, curcumin is poorly absorbed, so many companies have focused on ways to improve its absorption and effectiveness. That has often made it difficult for retailers and consumers to determine which particular manufacturing process or product is better absorbed. One approach is to consider the number of clinical studies that reflect well on specific processes or products.
Although fish oils are a maturing market, U.S. growth was projected to increase last year and achieve a 4.5 percent annual increase by 2020. And while probiotics are seen mostly for their digestive tract and immune benefits, emerging research shows them helpful for inflammation. That’s good news considering that their sales increased by 22 percent from 2014 to 2015. Probiotics accounted for 22 percent of the $7.2 billion U.S. specialty supplement market in 2015.
Omega-3s. EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, respectively) are the key building blocks for some of the body’s most powerful anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing substances, specifically hormone-like prostaglandin E1, resolvins and neuroprotectins. Omega-3s have been shown to improve multiple risk factors for heart disease, including hypertension and heart rhythm abnormalities. They also raise life expectancy for at least some cancer patients. A recent study found that omega-3s eased post-exercise muscle soreness, and they likely help heal other types of injuries, as well. Dose: 1,000–5,000 mg daily.
Curcumin. This extract of turmeric root has been shown to block inflammation in almost 100 ways, from turning off pro-inflammatory genes to dampening inflammation-promoting substances, such as interleukin-6. This broad-spectrum effect suggests that curcumin would be helpful in most inflammatory disorders. Some of the research shows fewer osteoarthritic symptoms (when combined with glucosamine), as well as improved quality of life among cancer patients. Inflammation also affects mood disorders and memory problems, and curcumin has shown benefits here as well. In fact, curcumin boosts brain levels of DHA. Dose: 350–2,000 mg daily.
Probiotics. Eighty percent of immune cells reside in the gut, where bacteria actively regulates your immune defenses. Recent studies have found that the onset of rheumatoid arthritis relates to the loss of beneficial gut bacteria, and probiotics can reduce symptoms of this form of arthritis. Other studies have found that probiotics reduce inflammation in healthy young adults and seniors. Helpful strains include Lactobacillus salivarius, L. gasseri, Bifidobacterium bifidum and B. longum, and their benefits might be enhanced by adding prebiotics. Dose: Opt for a multistrain probiotic, and follow label directions for use.
Gamma-linolenic acid. We tend to think of omega-6 fats as promoting inflammation, but gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is an exception that shines for its anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have found that it can benefit people with rheumatoid arthritis and often those with atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. GLA and EPA are synergistic, so combining them can bring extra relief. Dose: 100 mg daily for prevention; 1,500 mg daily for rheumatoid arthritis.
Multivitamin. A multivitamin might not have the sex appeal of more exotic supplements, but deficiencies can interfere with normal immune function. Studies have shown that taking something as simple as a multi can significantly lower levels of C-reactive protein, a medical marker of inflammation. Dose: Look for a supplement with vitamin levels higher than 100 percent of the Daily Value, and follow label directions for use.