Signs of inflammation may vary in intensity and tend to include the signs as described in the first century AD by the Roman physician Celsus. Celsus detailed pain, redness, swelling and heat. A fifth symptom of loss of function was added in the second century AD by the Greek physician Galen and the purpose in this case is to immobilise and rest the damaged area encouraging healing to begin.
Acute inflammatory responses (when controlled and short term) are usually a helpful response, removing infections and dead or damaged cells. However, frequently recurring acute inflammation, as in the cases of asthma, allergic rhinitis or frequent infections, can contribute to significant chronic illness in the long term. Chronic inflammation plays a significant role in the generation of many diseases, including the seemingly unrelated rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, asthma, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease including non insulin dependent diabetes mellitus and Alzheimer's disease.
Due to the wide array of interacting molecules and pathways involved in inflammation and the significant variations in proportions and ratios seen between these molecules and pathways from condition to condition, there will be variations in the effectiveness of both medical and natural anti-inflammatory approaches; some will work better for some conditions than others. Successful treatment depends upon the level of understanding that the physician has regarding the pathways involved in inflammatory conditions, combined with his skill or ability to recommend the most appropriate course of action to suit the individual.
Increased susceptibility to developing an inflammatory response may arise in response to a wide variety of common biological processes. These include ageing, toxin exposure, infection, auto-immunity, allergy, stress, tissue trauma such as surgery and increased permeability in the lining of the digestive tract, known as leaky gut syndrome. Each of these conditions has its own unique biochemical patterns, so that when we take into account variations in individual health and genetics, it makes comprehensive and effective treatment more difficult than the simple concept of just taking an anti-inflammatory.
Naturopathy has at its foundations a holistic philosophy of enhancing the body's own healing abilities to achieve and maintain homeostasis. Numerous successful naturopathic approaches effectively modulate the various inflammatory biochemical pathways.
Stress reduction plays a novel role in reducing inflammation. In a recent study, frequent high levels of interpersonal stress were found to elevate circulating levels of C-reactive protein in adolescents. Simple, yet effective, naturopathic stress management techniques involving nutritional and herbal medicine may thus help in reducing pain and inflammation.
A strongly held ideal within the field of naturopathic medicine is that many acute and chronic symptoms, syndromes and diseases common today have compromised liver and digestive function involved in their aetiology.
So naturopathic intervention often involves introducing measures and remedies whose purpose is to enhance bowel and liver health and function. We can achieve significant health benefits by reducing inflammation by lessening the absorption of, and promoting the clearance of, toxic and allergic inflammatory triggers.
Beyond addressing bowel and liver health, naturopathy has embraced the use of various dietary, nutritional supplemental and herbal medicines, many of which offer inflammation control in varying degrees. The herb ginger is a simple example; studies have found it to have a moderate effect in relieving knee pain. Another culinary herb, turmeric, with curcuminoid actives, has a particularly important role to play in addressing inflammation. This occurs via a mix of potent antioxidant actions, and reducing levels of fibrin and platelet clotting, as well as inflammation, particularly by inhibiting the gene-transcribing molecule Nuclear Factor Kappa B. Certain combination remedies of particular herbal medicines have also shown their capacity for strongly attenuating synergistic anti-inflammatory effects. For instance, the combination of the iso-alpha acid from hops, rosemary and oleanolic acid from olive leaf has been found to be beneficial in relieving arthritic pain and discomfort.
Antioxidants are also useful in mopping up the damaging cascades of free radicals produced by inflammation. This includes the well known antioxidant Vitamins A, C and E, along with the minerals zinc and selenium. While offsetting the tissue damage from inflammation, research has shown that certain supplemented micronutrients can also help reduce inflammation, with a review of recent studies showing that zinc reduced the level of age-related inflammation.
Other antioxidants, such as the phytonutrient flavonoids from green tea, grape seed, berries, and resveratrol from polygonum cuspidatum, have shown both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, inhibiting various stages in inflammatory cascades. This occurs primarily through the suppression of Nuclear Factor Kappa B, which, when activated, triggers gene expression for an inflammatory response.
And there's more potential for decreasing inflammation through our diets for reducing our intake of saturated fats, which contain arachidonic acid, a precursor for the pro-inflammatory eicosanoid molecules including prostaglandins, leukotrienes and thromboxanes.
Conversely, ingesting another type of fat, Omega 3 from fish oil, has been shown to be an effective method of reducing inflammation. There's evidence that pain and inflammation may be reduced enough to be considered an effective and safer alternative to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
This discussion of naturopathic pain and inflammation interventions is not complete. This list is indeed long and impressive, which is terrific news, because managing inflammation plays a strong role in effective preventative health care. I find it very comforting that the more we learn about this topic, the more natural remedies and approaches are being validated.
Jeremy Hill (Diploma of Natural Therapy) is a Qualified Naturopath.