by Dr. Bill Rawls
Inflammation gets a bad rap, but its role as a natural healing process in the body is a good and essential thing. It helps our bodies break down debris and toxins, remove worn out cells, fight threatening microbes, and heal injuries. It’s a process of the immune system that works around the clock, even when we’re unaware of it.
If the immune system is healthy and not overstressed, it can efficiently tackle foreign invaders, injuries, and illness with an inflammatory response that’s considered normal. If the immune system becomes overwhelmed, however, chronic inflammation can set in. Chronic inflammation is an underlying factor in most chronic illnesses, including chronic Lyme disease, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).
Understanding what causes chronic inflammation can help you understand why certain factors make you feel lousy. Often, calming chronic inflammation requires a multifaceted approach to treatment, and there is an array of natural therapies that support immune function and a healthy inflammatory response. Let’s take a look at inflammation in more detail, along with the best ways to quash it.
The Normal Inflammatory Response
Suppose you’re walking barefoot in the yard one warm summer day and accidentally step on a sharp piece of metal hidden in the grass. Pain alerts you to the injury, and you stop to assess the situation.
The wound isn’t deep, you’re up to date on your tetanus vaccination, and when a rinse in the sink reveals no foreign objects in the wound, you place a bandage over the area, and you’re back on your way. What you don’t see, however, is that the very second your skin was punctured, your body’s inflammatory response kicked in on a microscopic level, and your immune system went to work on your behalf.
Initially, the wound may bleed a little, which is a good thing because it washes out foreign material and bacteria. Fairly quickly, however, your blood clots, sealing the injury.
Injured cells and immune cells in the area release a variety of chemical messengers — primarily histamine, bradykinin, and prostaglandins — which increases blood flow to the area, dilates blood vessels, and initiates an immune response. This causes slight swelling and redness to the skin. A variety of white blood cells (WBCs) infiltrate the area and start mopping up the mess.
The function of WBCs is to engulf any debris and foreign matter that has entered the open wound, such as microbes and cells that have been injured beyond repair. Once enclosed inside the WBC and isolated from the injured area, the material is broken down with potent free radicals, and bacteria are killed with hypochlorous acid.
It’s a noxious process, and there’s always collateral damage to healthy tissue, but it’s part of the healing process. Once the injury is completely contained, and the mess is cleaned up, the WBCs move out of the area and tissues gradually heal completely — at least, that’s how it works with an acute inflammatory response.
Imagine, then, that this same inflammatory process is going on throughout your entire body, all at once. This is what happens when you have chronic inflammation, and it will cause you to feel pretty miserable.
For the immune system to work efficiently and control inflammation, all of its cells must communicate with one another. This requires an elaborate network of hormones and other chemical messengers.
If communications in the body are disrupted (which is often the case with ongoing health conditions), cellular functions aren’t coordinated and the immune system takes a hit, leading to chronic inflammation. Then, your immune system begins to have trouble fighting off microbial intruders and managing the collection of microbes that occupy your body, called the microbiome.
Managing the microbiome is a job in itself. Studies over the past decade have revealed that the human microbiome is much more expansive than anyone ever thought possible. In fact, you have low concentrations of a broad spectrum of microbes residing throughout your tissues, including stealth microbes that live inside cells, which often go undetected by your immune system.
Unbeknownst to most people, stealth microbes actually play a key role in perpetuating chronic inflammation. They survive by pirating nutrients and resources from your body’s cells. Ultimately, it is in the microbes’ favor to keep the immune system off balance.
Admittedly, it’s a lot to keep up with! If the immune system becomes overwhelmed, the normal ongoing inflammatory process in the body becomes destructive. So, what overwhelms the immune system?
Well, it’s generally not one thing, but a variety of things converging at once that inundates the immune system enough to result in chronic inflammation. I’ve identified five primary categories of stress factors that promote chronic, systemic inflammation:
#1. Poor Diet
Regular consumption of processed foods and grain-fed meat promotes proinflammatory immune messengers, disrupts immune system functions, and causes an overgrowth of proinflammatory microbes in the gut. Additionally, a 2016 study in Nature demonstrated that these potentially harmful, proinflammatory microbes can travel through the bloodstream and end up in the brain and other tissues — such was the case with the study’s sample of participants with multiple sclerosis.
#2. Toxic Environment
Chronic exposure to toxic substances in food, water, and air is toxic to cells and promotes accelerated cell loss in the body, which puts extra strain on the immune system. Many toxic substances, when not adequately detoxed from the body, disrupt immune system functions, allowing microbes in tissues to flourish.
#3. Chronic Stress
Being bombarded by the constant stimulation of the modern world is like being chased by a tiger 24/7 — you’re always on high alert. Maintaining a continual fight-or-flight response creates stress, impedes the body’s ability to rest and repair itself, hinders sleep (which is essential for keeping your cells healthy), and disrupts immune system functions. The result? Increased activity of proinflammatory microbes in tissues.
#4. Lack of Physical Activity
Excessive physical activity can certainly contribute to unwanted and unintended inflammation, but being sedentary can be just as bad. The body is designed to move — it stimulates immune system functions, gets blood flowing, and generates endorphins, which normalize the inflammatory response.
We regularly pick up microbes as we go through life — via food, water, air, intimate contact with other people, cuts and scrapes on the skin, and (of course) insect bites. The list of intracellular microbes that have been shown to perpetuate chronic inflammation includes (but is not limited to):
By the way, while you can’t actually see chronic, systemic inflammation, you can certainly feel it. It often manifests as joint discomfort, stiffness, general achiness, fatigue, low stamina, brain fog, slow mental activity, depressed mood, and generally not feeling up to par. Simply put, you feel “inflamed.”
Natural Remedies for Chronic Inflammation
Eating a healthy diet, living in a clean environment, learning to live around stress, and staying active are all very important for slowing the rate of cell loss in your body, which promotes optimal immune system function and keeps the microbes of your microbiome contained. Additionally, there are several herbs and lifestyle modifications that can help keep inflammation at bay.
When it comes to keeping inflammation in check, there is one thing you can do that is more important than anything else: Take herbs. Herbal therapy counteracts every aspect of chronic inflammation in several ways:
- Herbs provide potent antioxidants that directly neutralize damaging free radicals.
- Certain herbs, such as turmeric, block inflammatory messengers.
- The phytochemicals of herbs modulate or balance immune system functions, which calms destructive inflammation.
- Certain herbs contain phytochemicals that suppress microbes that are flourishing in tissues.
Below are a few of my favorite herbs for mitigating systemic inflammation.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Reishi is a mushroom known for exceptional immune-modulating and antiviral properties. Immune modulation means that it strongly reduces destructive inflammatory processes, but at the same time, enhances normal immune function and increases the ability of the immune system to deal with threatening microbes.
Benefits of Reishi:
- Adaptogenic (restores calm in the face of stress)
- Restores normal sleep
- Supports normal cardiovascular function
- Liver protective
Side effects: Reishi is extremely well tolerated, with rare side effects and no known toxicity.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
The name of this herb rolls off your tongue just like it is spelled: Row-dee-oh-la. Traditionally, rhodiola was used to improve work tolerance at high altitudes, and research suggests that it may increase oxygen delivery to tissues, especially the heart. It’s a favorite adaptogen of Russian athletes and workers for decreasing fatigue, increasing alertness, and improving memory.
Rhodiola rosea is primarily sourced from Siberia (though interestingly, it can also be found in the mountains of North Carolina); other species of rhodiola grow worldwide. In addition to enhancing immune function, it has multiple benefits.
Benefits of Rhodiola:
- Reduces fatigue and restores energy
- Improves stress tolerance
- Enhances immune function
- Enhances cardiovascular function and is heart protective
- Protective of nerve and brain tissue
- Has antidepressant properties by increasing serotonin in the brain
Side effects: For some people, rhodiola is mildly stimulating. In general, however, it’s a well-tolerated, calming herb.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
With its natural bright yellow color, turmeric is the spice that defines an Indian curry. It’s perhaps in part the reason India has half the cancer rate as the United States and possibly the lowest Alzheimer’s rate in the world.
Turmeric offers powerful anti-inflammatory properties and has long been used for arthritis and similar conditions. The herb is also known to inhibit cancer formation in multiple stages, in addition to decreasing the risk of dementia.
Not only does turmeric have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, but it may be useful in reducing stomach ulcers, unlike anti-inflammatory drugs. It’s also known to protect liver cells.
Benefits of Turmeric:
- Useful for decreasing inflammation-related symptoms of arthritis
- Reduces the risk of dementia
- Protects liver cells
- Heals stomach ulcers
Side effects: Turmeric has a very long history of use in humans, and side effects are rare.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)
Native to India, gotu kola is an herb from the parsley family. In Ayurvedic medicine (the traditional medicine of India), gotu kola is considered a rasayan (general tonic for increasing lifespan) and a brain tonic. It is regarded as a brain revitalizer that counteracts aging and protects the brain. It is also considered a blood purifier.
Gotu kola also offers general adaptogenic properties, including increasing stamina, improving resistance to stress, and positively modulating immune function. Also, gotu kola promotes wound healing, and traditionally it has been used for a wide range of skin afflictions.
Benefits of Gotu Kola:
- Brain revitalizer
- Immune modulator
- Supports healthy skin
Side effects: In normal doses, gotu kola is very safe with few potential side effects.
Cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa)
Cat’s claw has been used for thousands of years by indigenous people of the Amazon for treating a variety of inflammatory conditions. Not surprisingly, the name comes from the shape of the thorns on the woody vine from which the medicine comes.
The medicine is derived from the inner bark of the vine. Common traditional uses included age-related cognitive issues, rheumatism, asthma, stomach problems, and tumors. It was also one of the pre-antibiotic treatments for syphilis.
Cat’s claw offers immune-modulating properties, and it has been found to increase WBCs, including B and T lymphocytes, natural killer (NK) cells, and granulocytes. Cat’s claw is known to enhance a specific type of natural killer cell, called CD 57, which is commonly deficient in people with Lyme disease.
Benefits of Cat’s Claw:
- Anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties
- Beneficial healing properties for the intestinal tract
- Enhances DNA repair and prevents cells from mutating
- Potent antioxidant properties
- Dilates blood vessels and normalizes blood pressure
- May reduce amyloid deposition associated with cognitive decline
Side effects: Occasionally, cat’s claw can cause stomach upset, but it is generally very well tolerated. Cat’s claw requires activation by stomach acid to be effective and should be taken with food. Acid-blocking drugs can prevent the activation of cat’s claw. Taking apple cider vinegar with the herb may enhance activation.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha is one of the best herbs for balancing hormones and reducing the detrimental effects of stress. Native to India and Africa, the herb is derived from the root of a plant distantly related to tomatoes and potatoes.
Ashwagandha is a calming adaptogen that is particularly useful in balancing the HPA axis in the brain (the control center for hormone regulation). By restoring balance in this critical pathway, ashwagandha improves stress resistance, allows for improved sleep, reduces brain fog and fatigue, eases the transition through menopause (especially hot flashes), and has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-enhancing properties.
Benefits of Ashwagandha:
- Balances HPA axis (central hormone pathways of the body)
- Improves stress tolerance
- Reduces brain fog
- Improves sleep quality
- Balances thyroid function
- Increases energy
- Reduces menopausal symptoms
Side effects: Ashwagandha has been used as both food and medicine for thousands of years. Side effects of any type are unusual and mild. Ashwagandha is appropriate for men, women, and adolescents. Occasionally, ashwagandha causes mild stimulation in some individuals. Ashwagandha does contain iron and should be avoided by individuals who retain iron (hemochromatosis).
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
Ginkgo is one of the oldest living trees on earth, dating back 225 million years. The trees can live up to 1000 years. Fortunately, the bioactive substances in ginkgo come from the leaves, so the tree is unharmed by the use of this herb. Current and traditional use includes enhancing blood flow, protecting brain and nerve functions, supporting cognition, and improving the symptoms associated with tinnitus.
Benefits of Ginkgo:
- Enhances blood flow
- Protects brain and nerve functions
- Supports cognitive functioning
- Improves the symptoms of tinnitus
- May aid in hearing loss and peripheral vascular disease
Side effects: Potential side effects include upset stomach, headache, allergic skin reactions, and pounding heartbeat. Ginkgo is a stimulating herb that should be avoided by individuals with anxiety, insomnia, or high blood pressure. Additionally, Ginkgo has potential drug interactions with MAO inhibitors, anticoagulants, diuretics, anticonvulsants, and antidepressants. Contact your healthcare provider if you are taking any of these medications and wish to try this herb.
CBD oil (Cannabis sativa)
Cannabis sativa was one of the earliest plants cultivated by humankind. The very first use of cannabis was documented in China around 4000 BC. A very versatile plant, it was used for food, medicine, religious and spiritual rituals, industrial fiber, and, of course, recreation.
Cannabis sativa has several alter egos, but marijuana and hemp are the two best known. Though both plants look the same, their chemical composition is quite different. Whereas marijuana contains both THC and CBD, hemp contains almost exclusively CBD — only cannabis with less than 0.3% THC can be legally classified as hemp.
A chemical component of hemp called CBD, short for cannabidiol, has been linked with reduction of pain, fewer seizures, improved mood and sleep, protection of the nervous system, and a range of other health benefits.
Benefits of CBD:
- Decreased pain
- Enhanced sense of well-being
- Increased calm
- Improved sleep
- Reduced stress (thanks to CBD’s adaptogenic properties)
Side effects: Reported side effects of hemp oil with CBD are generally mild and uncommon and can include tiredness, loose stools, and slight changes in appetite and weight (either increased or decreased). Both hemp oil with CBD (hemp flower-bud extracts) and purified CBD (CBD isolate) have been shown in both animal and human clinical trials to be remarkably safe and well-tolerated.
Inflammation Solutions Beyond Herbs
When inflammation occurs in excess, free radicals and acid break down normal cells and tissues as well. In chronic systemic inflammation, all tissues in the body are adversely affected. To add to the anti-inflammatory benefits of herbal therapy, the following lifestyle factors can help neutralize free radicals and excess acidity, reduce damage to tissues, and ease inflammation.
Eat an Antioxidant-Rich Diet
Antioxidants in foods neutralize free radicals before they have an opportunity to damage tissues. Vegetables and fruits, such as berries, are loaded with free-radical neutralizing antioxidants.
For the most nutritious anti-inflammatory diet, skip the center aisles of the grocery store, which are often filled to the brim with boxed and pre-packaged items that are significantly lower in antioxidants than fresh foods. Instead, head to the perimeter of the store and stock up on whole foods, including vegetables, healthy protein sources (fish, beans, eggs, or organic meats), healthy fats such as olive oil and avocados, and low-sugar fruits.
Alkalize Your Water
Alkalized water helps to oppose the acidity in your body, which is brought on by stress, poor diet, chronic infections, and even Herxheimer reactions. Drinking alkalized water (which has apH of 8-10) may help reduce inflammation in your body; it is a simple and cheap way to turn down the heat.
Spend Time Outside
Negative ions associated with being outdoors in the fresh air have been shown to neutralize free radicals, bolster the immune system, relieve stress, and calm the nervous system — all of which can help curtail inflammation. Negative ion concentrations are highest in pine forests and around open water, but any natural, vegetated area is rich in negative ions.
In contrast, cities, highways, and industrial regions are loaded with positive ions that can have unfavorable effects on inflammation. So, just taking a walk near the ocean, through a forest, or in a park, you’ll infuse your body with inflammation-calming ions.
Low-impact, restorative exercises will allow you to reap the benefits of an active lifestyle without pushing yourself over the edge. Regularly enjoying activities like yoga, Pilates, a slow walk, or qigong helps reduce inflammation, increase circulation, and stimulate endorphins (your body’s natural painkillers).
Ultimately, exercise should be a pleasurable part of your recovery. If you’re not enjoying the activity, or if the movement is causing any discomfort, change things up and take breaks as needed.
To break the cycle of pain and chronic inflammation, it’s crucial to reduce the microbial load on your tissues, strengthen your immune system, and alkalize the body. For most people, a combination of herbal therapies and lifestyle changes will do just that. Soon, you’ll be an inflammation-fighting pro, with less pain and an overall better quality of life.
1. Branton W, Lu J, Surette M, et al. Brain microbiota disruption within inflammatory demyelinating lesions in multiple sclerosis. Scientific Reports. 6, 37344 (2016). doi: 10.1038/srep37344
2. Chang P-K., Yen I-C, Tsai W-C, Chang T-C, Lee S-Y. Protective Effects of Rhodiola Crenulata Extract on Hypoxia-Induced Endothelial Damage via Regulation of AMPK and ERK Pathways. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2018, 19(8), 2286; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19082286