This is Part Two of my inflammation posts. Part One describes how inflammation is the intelligent, self-healing response of the body to some sort of injury. And how stopping the inflammatory response altogether with drugs is ultimately damaging for other organs.
This second post describes your options (other than drugs) to calm inflammation.
First, WHY does inflammation sometimes get out of hand?
Cells are always ‘talking’ to each other. They ‘talk’ using chemical and electrical messengers, or transmitters or cell mediators. They send messages to raise inflammation and when to settle it down. Systemic inflammation (that is, inflammation that goes beyond one part of the body) only occurs when something has altered the cell communication process that regulates it. When there is too much of a ‘din’ they have to ‘shout’ at each other by sending more and more signals. Sometimes the receiving cell still doesn’t get the message. Then the inflammation that was meant to be an important part of healing continues on and can end up damaging other body parts.
One thing that causes all this ‘noise’
Stress can cause cells to fail to ‘hear’ each other. When we perceive something to be threatening, the whole cell communication system goes into action – in the brain, the adrenals, the thyroid, the sex organs – the whole body gets involved as the chemical messengers such as adrenaline stimulate further activity in more cells. This stress response creates a loud ‘noise’. And all this ‘noise’ can prevent cells from ‘hearing’ each other properly. This results in the inflammation response ramping up – and the message to ‘calm down’ is not getting through. More stress = more pain long term.
How most anti-inflammatory drugs work to reduce inflammation
Over the counter anti-inflammatory medications block one of the cell communication pathways associated with inflammation. This inhibits the self-healing actions of the enzymes we call COX 1 & COX 2. A high blood CRP level shows the COX enzyme system is working overtime. Anti-inflammatories inhibit it from working, thus lowering CRP in a blood test. But block the COX 1 system too often and you set yourself up for ulcers, kidney problems and heart disease.
Since 10,000 people die annually in the US from internal bleeding resulting from the overuse of NSAIDs, it is clear Westerners are taking too many of them! In other words, too many of us are blocking the cell communication pathway of our body’s self-healing inflammatory response. We are setting ourselves up for these serious diseases down the road.
Can you block inflammation with something natural?
Fortunately, yes. Almost 300 natural substances exert a mild anti-inflammatory effect by blocking the COX enzyme pathway. Some of these are ginger, curcumin (in turmeric) and frankincense (Boswellia serrata). And none of these cause internal bleeding. A big plus! They also do not appear to cause ulcers, heart disease or kidney problems either.
What’s the drawback? They still block the inflammation process itself – which is part of the body’s self-healing mechanism. It might stop the headache or period pain or arthritic pain (randomised trials say they do this AS WELL AS common drugs sold for this purpose) – but they still don’t fix the problem. (Note: if it isn’t working for you – you are probably taking too small an amount or a poorly absorbed form.)
A better way
But what if we could find a natural substance that doesn’t block the inflammation process, but rather, fixes the cell communication system altogether so inflammation can heal AND calm itself down. Sound too far-fetched?
There is a way to achieve this: in certain foods, there are substances that control how chemical messengers outside the cells can speak to the genes inside and regulate expression of those genes.
Which foods, you ask?
Unprocessed plant foods.
Plants have many self-protective substances which protect the plant from the sun’s radiation, pests and moulds. It needs to defend itself from its own hazardous environment. These substances are called collectively “phytonutrients” and they are what give plants their colours, smells and tastes. Many phytonutrients are not absorbed well by cells – but they affect cell function. They bind to cell receptors on cell walls and translate their message into the cell where the genes read and respond to the message. This is how plant foods step in and set our own cell communication system to rights and, in doing so, keep our inflammatory response under control. This is one reason that studies show that adopting a plant-based diet as close to vegan as possible improves inflammatory diseases.
How to get the phytonutrient benefits
Phytonutrients are not drugs. They are not concentrated active ingredients. They have a mild effect, speaking to our genes gently and quietly. This ensures that when we eat a healthy meal, we do not experience violent hormonal swings. Their effects are subtle and intricate as they control how our genes respond to environmental changes. The key is to eat them in large quantities. Over time, as we eat them in quantity, phytonutrients will keep our cell communication system running smoothly, keeping inflammation under control. We will experience good health overall.
There are different categories of phytonutrients that do different things, but to make it easy – just eat any plants that are colourful.
A comment on organic foods:
When plants are grown organically, no pesticides or herbicides are used. This means the plant must protect itself if it is to survive. We know that plants under stress (of attack by bugs, for instance) manufacture more phytonutrients. When we eat these phytonutrient-rich organic plants, these anti-stress agents go to work in us too. Also, the more bitter, the more phytonutrients. Takeaway: organic plant foods = high phytonutrients
A comment on processed foods:
Food processing of plant foods removes or damages the phytonutrients. When we fill up on foods containing white flour, sugar, sweets, vegetable oils, deep fried foods, most baked goods, we can’t fit in enough phytonutrient-rich foods to keep us healthy. Remember that phytonutrients must be taken in in QUANTITY to fix something. This is a major reason to reduce animal foods too – they contain no phytonutrients at all. So don’t fill up on them if you want to bring inflammation under control.
Take Home Message
If you are suffering from any sort of chronic inflammation or inflammatory disease, here are your options:
- Take a drug which will block an enzyme reaction and provide some relief but will, with regular use, cause other noteworthy damage in your body.
- Get serious about getting stress under control.
- Use a tried and tested natural anti-inflammatory, such as turmeric or ginger, which will also block inflammation and reduce the pain, but without the damaging side effects. The inflammation will continue to occur in the future (unless you take these supplements all the time). They do not HEAL. I’d say this is a great option to use while you work on getting well.
- Embark on a whole lifestyle change by adopting a diet rich in phytonutrients (colourful plants) – so your whole cell communication system gets fixed, and the inflammatory response works as it is supposed to.
It’s your choice – your health is in your own hands.
For more information and a specific diet on how to juggle all 4 options while you are still in pain and searching for a road to healing that works for you, contact me through the Contact-Booking Form page on this website.