Though it has a bad reputation, inflammation is not always a bad thing. When the body is injured or invaded by pathogens, inflammation is one of the first lines of defense. The pain, swelling, and redness that are the hallmarks of inflammation are also the body’s ways of healing itself.
Like every system in the body, the key is balance—because inflammation does have a serious downside. It’s a slippery slope where, under the right (or rather, wrong) conditions, a normal healing process can turn into a chronic problem that spreads throughout the body. Acute inflammation is the body’s response to a specific injury. When you sprain your ankle, your ankle becomes inflamed and sore. The body is both healing your ankle and telling you to rest it. When the injury is healed, the inflammation dies down.
Chronic inflammation reflects an imbalance in this system. Chronic (or long-term) inflammation takes a mechanism that was intended to help the body and turns it into a destructive force, fueling aggressive cancer, premature aging, autoimmune disease, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and many other serious conditions.
Naturally, then, it’s important to recognize the short- and long-term effects of inflammation. In small amounts inflammation protects health. But just like a car running too long without oil, chronic inflammation causes the system to overheat and break down. This route to overheating comes from our fast-paced lifestyles—this is where we must alter our course to prevent chronic health problems down the road.
>> 1. Risk factors for chronic inflammation
There are a number of risk factors for chronic inflammation, including toxin exposure, heavy metal body burden, long-term infection, smoking, obesity, inflammatory foods, allergies, and many others. These challenges put the immune system on high alert, triggering the release of inflammatory proteins like cytokines. Cytokines serve a valuable role, stimulating the body’s repair mechanisms—but such a defensive position is not sustainable over time. A constant flow of cytokines and other inflammatory repair proteins can seriously damage health.
Poor circulation is a secondary risk factor for chronic inflammation, since a sluggish circulatory system can cause hyperviscosity (blood stickiness). The combination of inflammation and hyperviscosity can negatively impact every system in the body, including the immune system, and lead to autoimmune disease, cancer, and other inflammatory diseases. So we can begin to see how circulation, inflammation, and immunity work closely together to maintain health. Luckily, many of the natural solutions discussed below can support these highly interrelated systems simultaneously.
>> 2. Lifestyle factors
A number of studies have shown that visceral (belly) fat contributes to inflammation and vice versa. This is a significant risk factor in metabolic syndrome (aka prediabetes), a skyrocketing epidemic related to chronic inflammation, cardiovascular disease, obesity, insulin resistance, and other factors. Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol makes matters worse as it joins forces with visceral fat to produce even more inflammation.
Pro-inflammatory foods are another huge factor. Regardless of relative fitness, we should all stay away from processed foods and drastically limit our intake of inflammation-fueling sugar and trans-fats. Processed, fried, and over-grilled foods increase the production of glycotoxins, which promote chronic inflammation and can lead to premature aging and chronic disease.
A study conducted by researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine outlined how dietary changes can have a profound impact on inflammation and health. Two groups were assigned separate diets. One ate a normal Western diet, high in glycotoxins. The other was asked to poach, stew, or steam their meals: cooking methods that produce fewer glycotoxins. After four months, the latter group showed dramatic reductions in inflammatory markers and had other indications of improved cardiovascular and metabolic health.
>> 3. Fight back with food
These results are no surprise. Making good food choices can be a one-two punch against inflammation. First, as the Mount Sinai study indicates, we need to reduce the amount of processed and overcooked foods we eat. But what we are eating is just as important as what we’re not eating. Quality protein, particularly cold-water fish, increases levels of inflammation-busting omega-3 fats and should be a staple. Also be sure to consume plenty of nuts, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables (particularly the green leafy variety). These foods are high in anti-inflammatory compounds that help counteract the effects of glycotoxins and inflammatory proteins.
Phytonutrients from plant foods tend to be high in anti-inflammatory compounds. Richly colored foods like tomatoes, squashes, yams, melons, blueberries, and strawberries are excellent sources. I also recommend cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, and cauliflower. Eating cruciferous vegetables metabolizes a compound known as DIM which controls inflammation, regulates estrogen metabolism, and even combats cancer.
Probiotics may also reduce chronic inflammation. Probiotic foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, and kimchi help maintain the balance of healthy flora in our bodies and can help control inflammation and weight gain, enhance immunity, and even boost mood.
>> 4. Reduce stress
For many of us, chronic inflammation begins with our hyper-busy lifestyles. Because we are so overextended, we neglect the routines that help maintain our well-being, like preparing healthy meals (rather than grabbing junk food on hand); getting a good night’s sleep; exercising; and finding a few quiet moments to simply do nothing except take a few deep breaths.
Given this frenetic approach, it’s no wonder we’re on fire. Even worse, chronic stress floods our bodies with cortisol and other stress hormones associated with the fight-or-flight reflex. These stress responses have a direct link to inflammation and obesity, as noted earlier.
So, in addition to slowing down and creating time for self-care, it’s important to learn how to turn off (or at least turn down) the stress switch. You can do this by adopting practices that promote a lasting sense of inner peace: mindful meditation and breathing practices, yoga, t’ai chi, long walks, swimming, and so on.
These and other relaxation practices have a dual purpose. First, they help quiet the mind and are proven to reduce stress responses over the long-term. Second, they are excellent forms of exercise that can help control weight and mitigate other factors associated with inflammation.
Rest is also vitally important, as sleep is the body’s natural path to rejuvenation. Even if we eat well, exercise, and control stress, lack of sleep can undo all of these efforts, triggering chronic inflammation and other long-term damage. If you suffer from insomnia, seek natural sleep support with gentle botanicals and nutrients that also help reduce inflammation and support other areas of health. Good examples are melatonin, skullcap, passionflower, and HonoPure honokiol extract from magnolia bark.
>> 5. Detoxifiers and antioxidants
In addition to inflammatory cytokines, there are a number of other proteins produced by the body that can fuel inflammation. One of these proteins is called galectin-3. Elevated levels of galectin-3 trigger chronic inflammation which leads to fibrosis (uncontrolled scar tissue buildup) throughout the body. This “rogue molecule” is a prime culprit in metastatic cancer and heart disease, as well as kidney fibrosis and other pro-inflammatory conditions. An FDA-approved galectin-3 blood test is now available as an important tool covered by health insurance to measure heart disease.
Modified citrus pectin (MCP) is a natural supplement that controls galectin-3. MCP is derived from the pith of citrus peels such as oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit, and is modified to a specific molecular weight for better absorption into the bloodstream. Numerous studies have shown that MCP effectively blocks the pro-inflammatory and pro-cancer effects of excess galectin-3. This supplement is also clinically shown to gently remove pro-inflammatory heavy metals and environmental toxins from the body, without affecting essential minerals. Gentle heavy metal and toxin removal offers another effective approach to reducing chronic inflammation.
Harmful free radicals in the body can fuel inflammation as well. Free radicals are unstable molecules formed by exposure to toxins, inflammation, and the normal by-products of metabolism. When free radical levels in the body get too high, they wreak havoc on cells and DNA, triggering more inflammation in a vicious cycle. Antioxidants are the natural solution to cleaning up these harmful molecules. Antioxidant compounds—found in numerous whole foods, herbs, and supplements—deactivate free radicals and can also decrease inflammation, thus halting this cycle of destruction.
There are a number of antioxidant supplements that help fight free radicals and provide powerful anti-inflammatory effects, including alpha lipoic acid, N-acetyl cysteine, acetyl-L-carnitine, and vitamins C, A, and E. Botanicals like curcumin from turmeric, the bioflavonoid quercetin, and HonoPure from magnolia bark, are also all potent antioxidants with anti-inflammatory benefits. They effectively neutralize free radicals and the damage they can cause, squelch inflammation, and enhance additional areas of health.
I also recommend a traditional Tibetan herbal formula called Padma Basic, shown in over three decades of published clinical research to support healthy responses to inflammation. This time-honored herbal formula is made with a blend of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and other beneficial botanical compounds to also maintain healthy circulation and immunity.
>> 6. Treating causes, not symptoms
As an integrative physician, my primary goal is to treat the root causes of a condition, rather than simply alleviating symptoms. Because chronic inflammation plays a central role in so many health problems, addressing it takes on a special urgency. Still, it’s challenging for anyone to completely overhaul their lifestyle overnight.
I recommend gradually incorporating small refinements that can make a big difference: eat more vegetables, reduce processed foods, practice healthy stress relief, and look for supplements that reduce inflammation, boost circulation, and fight free radicals. Beating chronic inflammation requires a holistic, lifestyle approach. In return, however, the potential gains of such healthy improvements will ripple into every area of life, offering increased vitality, energy, and vibrancy.
By Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath who has an MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org