What You Need to Know About Inflammation

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Nutrigenomics is the idea that studying diet-gene interactions can help identify the positive or detrimental effects of dietary compounds. For example, nutrigenomics can explain why eating rancid or oxidized omega-fats and refined sugar encourages inflammation and cancer growth.

It is important to understand that a diet rich in omega-3 fats can reduce inflammation in cancer. So can healthy omega-6 fats like gamma linoleic acid (GLA), found in evening primrose, black currant seed, and borage oil. GLA inhibits the action of the cancer gene HER-2/neu, which is overexpressed in 30 percent of all breast cancers, making them particularly lethal.

According to Donnie Yance, clinical master herbalist and certified nutritionist, chronic conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease have a strong link with chronic inflammation, which promotes the production of free radicals.

The transcription protein Nuclear Factor-kappa Beta (NfKB) is a major inducer of inflammation. In cancer, a mutation in the tumor suppressor gene PTEN (phosphatase and tensin homologue) is the likely driver that activates NfKB.

Some plant-based phytocompounds can enhance PTEN expression or inhibit PTEN mutation, including quercetin, resveratrol, and various isoflavones often referred to as phytoestrogens. An ever-growing body of evidence suggests that the use of these compounds can and should play an important role in cancer prevention and treatment.

NfKB modulation is an important target for cancer prevention and treatment. NfKB can be modulated by:

  • The curcumin in tumeric
  • Stilbenes such as the resveratrol found in grape skins
  • The proathocyanidins in grape seeds
  • Catechins such as EGCG, which is present in green tea.
  • The ursolic acid in holy basil, also called Tulsi (Holy Basil) , and rosemary

NfKB can also be modulated by a number of other plant-based compounds. For more information, please read Donald Yance's full paper linked below.

Donald “Donnie” Yance is a clinical master herbalist, certified nutritionist and the author of Herbal Medicine Healing and Cancer. He conducts his practice at the Centre for Natural Healing in Ashland, OR utilizing his unique integrative model known as the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System. Donnie is also the founder and president of the Mederi Foundation for professional education and research and Nautra Health Products where he formulates advanced botanical and nutritional products.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Inflammation is a normal and beneficial process that occurs when your body’s white blood cells and chemicals protect you from foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses.

Most people don’t realize that you need some level of inflammation in your body to stay healthy, however it’s also possible, and increasingly common, for the inflammatory response to get out of hand.

If your immune system mistakenly triggers an inflammatory response when no threat is present, it can lead to excess inflammation in your body, a condition linked to asthma, allergies, autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer and other diseases, depending on which organs the inflammation is impacting.

For instance:

  • Inflammation of your heart (myocarditis): Shortness of breath or fluid retention

  • Inflammation of the small tubes that transport air to your lungs: Asthma attack

  • Inflammation of your kidneys (nephritis): High blood pressure or kidney failure

  • Inflammation of your large intestine (colitis): Cramps and diarrhea

The Difference Between Chronic and Acute Inflammation

If you have an injury or infection, inflammation is necessary to help protect and heal your body. Through a series of biochemical reactions, white blood cells and other chemicals are sent to the injured area to fight off foreign bodies.

You’ve certainly experienced this type of beneficial acute inflammation if you’ve had a cut or infection, and the symptoms typically include:

  • Redness

  • Warmth

  • Pain

  • Swelling

  • Loss of movement and function

When inflammation becomes chronic, however, there are often no symptoms until a loss of function occurs. This is because chronic inflammation is low-grade and systemic, often silently damaging your tissues.

This process can go on for years without you noticing, until a disease such as heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s or autoimmune disease like multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, crohn’s disease or rheumatoid arthritis develops.

What Causes Chronic Inflammation?

Chronic inflammation can be the result of a mal-functioning, over-reactive immune system, or it may be due to an underlying problem that your body is attempting to fight off. Many of these “problems” are actually due to an unhealthy lifestyle.

As the summary above points out, the study of nutrigenomics suggests that certain dietary components can trigger or prevent health effects in your body, and this is very true with inflammation.

Whereas eating oxidized or rancid fats and sugar will increase inflammation in your body, eating healthy fats such as animal-based omega-3 fats or the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA) will help to reduce them.

In fact, all of the following can increase your risk of chronic inflammation:

  • Being obese or overweight

  • Eating a poor diet

  • An existing heart condition

  • A family history of heart disease

  • Diabetes that's poorly controlled

  • A sedentary lifestyle (no, or very little, exercise)

  • Smoking

  • Long-term infections

  • Gum disease

  • Stress

So how can you determine if you have chronic inflammation, especially since many of the “symptoms” are silent?

One test used by conventional medicine is the C-Reactive Protein (CRP) test, which measures a protein found in your body that signals responses to any forms of inflammation. The underlying problem regarding CRP, however, is that doctors are aware that it exists but are uncertain whether reducing it is at all helpful.

Clinically, I have not been very impressed with the CRP test, as it does not appear to be very useful.

Another test that is more effective, depending on the severity of disease, is an ESR (sed rate) test, which checks for non-specific indicators of inflammation.

You can also use a fasting blood insulin level for this purpose. Although this test is typically used to screen for diabetes, it’s also a marker for inflammation as the higher your insulin levels are, the higher your levels of inflammation tend to be.

Problems with Most Conventional Inflammation Treatments

Conventional medicine will recommend anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and NSAIDs when treating inflammation, but I strongly advise against them. I was the first to publicly warn against these drugs in the late ‘90s, including about Vioxx, which ended up killing more than 60,000 people from strokes and heart attacks.

Statins are also now frequently prescribed to individuals who have normal cholesterol levels if they have elevated C-reactive protein levels, to combat inflammation, and presumably reduce their risk of developing heart disease. 

But taking a statin in this case will NOT resolve the underlying problem causing the increase in inflammation and will expose you to an abundance of statin-related side effects

The third drug often given to people with inflammation is the corticosteroid prednisone. This immunosuppressive drug, though necessary in some cases, is associated with serious long-term side effects such as cataracts, bone loss, weakening of the immune system, and many others. One of the most serious complications from prednisone is the risk of osteoporosis, which occurs from the bone loss.

Although prednisone is indeed occasionally needed and can actually be life saving, it is nearly always a poor choice to use for the long term. Prednisone will cover up the disease, but it is the underlying dysfunction -- the cause of the disease -- that must be repaired.

How to Treat Inflammation at its Source, Naturally

Lifestyle changes will go a long way toward reducing chronic inflammation in your body, so focus on making the following changes:

  1. Focus on eating a healthy diet. This includes avoiding pro-inflammatory foods like trans fats, fried foods, sugar and grains, foods cooked at high temperatures and oxidized cholesterol (cholesterol that has gone rancid, such as that from overcooked, scrambled eggs).

  1. Get plenty of animal-based omega-3 fats by taking a high-quality krill oil that is chock full of these beneficial omega-3s. My favorite in this area is krill oil.

  1. Optimize your insulin levels. If your fasting insulin level is not lower than three consider limiting or eliminating your intake of grains and sugars until you optimize your insulin level.

  1. Exercise regularly. Exercise is a great way to lower inflammation without any of the side effects associated with medications.

  1. Quit smoking. Smoking hardens your arteries and increases inflammation. But research shows you can reverse all the damaging effects to your arteries within 10 years of quitting. However, be sure you get your diet under control first so you don’t fall into the trap of trading cigarettes for unhealthy junk foods.

  1. Make sure your waist size is normal. If you're a woman with a waist measurement of over 35 inches or a man with a waist of over 40 inches, you probably have high inflammation and should take steps to lose weight.

  1. Have healthy outlets for stress and other negative emotions. High levels of stress hormones can lead to the release of excess inflammatory chemicals, so be sure you use tools to help deal with your current stress and resolve past emotional challenges as well. Meditation, prayer and my personal favorite the Meridian Tapping Technique (MTT) are all useful stress management techniques to try out.

  1. Optimize your vitamin D levels. Most people are not aware that vitamin D can have a profoundly dramatic impact on your health.

Your best source of vitamin D is through your skin being exposed to the sun or alternatively using a safe tanning bed. In the wintertime, however, you may need to take an oral supplement. Just make sure you’re taking the right form of vitamin D in the appropriate amounts to reap the benefits, and remember to get your vitamin D levels tested regularly

Useful Herbs and Supplements to Fight Inflammation

Finally, although they are not a long-term solution, the herbs that follow are useful for treating the symptoms of inflammation and relieving pain while you work at implementing the lifestyle changes above:

  • Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or "Indian frankincense," this herb contains specific active anti-inflammatory ingredients, referred to as boswellic acids that animal studies have shown significantly reduce inflammation. This is one of my personal favorites as I have seen it work well in treating rheumatoid arthritis patients

  • Bromelain: This enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form, but eating fresh pineapple may also be helpful.

  • Ginger: This herb is anti-inflammatory and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice. Powder capsules are also available, but I recommend using the fresh root.

  • Resveratrol: Resveratrol is a potent antioxidant found in certain fruits, vegetables and cocoa that is emerging as a modern-day fountain of youth. It works by preventing your body from creating sphingosine kinase and phospholipase D -- two molecules known to trigger inflammation. The science surrounding this compound is so compelling that it has become one of my all-time favorite antioxidants, and I believe one that shows real promise of health benefits.

  • Evening Primrose, Black Currant and Borage Oils: These contain the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating arthritic pain. It is reasonable for many to take these as a supplement, particularly if you struggle with dry skin in the winter, as this is a strong indicator that you are deficient in these fats.

  • Turmeric, Tulsi and Rosemary: The transcription protein Nuclear Factor-kappa Beta (NfKB) is a major inducer of inflammation, and these three herbs are capable of modulating NfKB.