Alzheimer’s, bowel disease, Crohn’s, depression, eczema, fibromyalgia… a whole alphabet of health conditions with one single common denominator – chronic inflammation.
Low-grade inflammation can wreak havoc with your body, but because it simmers away asymptomatically for years, you may not even realise you have it. It’s behind many of the health complaints we put down to natural ageing, such as stiff joints, sore muscles and wrinkles. But while chronic inflammation affects different people in different ways, for some of us the health implications it causes can be a lot more sinister than aches, pains or premature crow’s feet.
Thought to be an immune response that remains ‘switched on’ without an obvious cause, it is at the root of many of the diseases that represent the leading cause of mortality worldwide, such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer. More than 50% of all deaths are attributable to inflammation-related diseases.
Luckily, there are steps we can all take as individuals to reduce inflammation in the body, from the food we eat to the way we live our lives. In fact, a 2018 study found that people who followed an anti-inflammatory diet were less likely to die from heart disease or cancer, even if they were smokers.
So what is chronic inflammation, and what should we be eating (and avoiding) to douse the fire? Are there any anti-inflammatory vitamins and supplements that could help? Let’s take a closer look at chronic inflammation to find out.
What is inflammation?
As an acute reaction to an infection or an injury, inflammation is a normal, healthy process that helps us to heal.
If you get an insect bite, for instance, the damaged tissue releases chemicals called cytokines that send signals to the body’s immune cells, telling them that hormones and nutrients are needed immediately to fix the problem. One of the hormone-like substances triggered are called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins create blood clots to heal the damaged tissue, but they also trigger pain and heat as part of the healing process.
Acute inflammation occurs over a short period of time and remains localised to the source of the problem. But chronic inflammation is different. It happens when your immune system detects a threat in the absence of any obvious injury or infection. As a result, immune cells are called into action but have nowhere to go, so they end up attacking healthy cells, tissues and organs.
Low grade and persistent, chronic inflammation happens over a long period of time with effects so subtle you may not even realise you have it. But, left untreated, it can have consequences for your whole body.
How is chronic inflammation diagnosed?
Chronic inflammation is diagnosed by a blood test which measures the levels of an inflammatory marker known as C-reactive protein (CRP) in your blood. In healthy adults, levels of CRP should be under 2mg per litre.
If you have an acute infection, you could expect a high CRP reading of between 100 and 500 mg per litre, which falls quickly as the infection subsides.
With chronic inflammation, CRP levels remain slightly elevated over a long period of time. Persistent levels of between 2mg and 10 mg per litre are considered a marker of chronic inflammation. Although the CRP levels aren’t as high as those seen in an active infection, they can still cause a multitude of cascading health problems. For example, having gum disease can increase your risk of getting heart disease because the inflammation could trigger a build-up of plaque in your arteries.
What causes chronic inflammation?
Along with environmental triggers such as air pollution and cigarette smoke, our modern lifestyles are increasingly being blamed for epidemic levels of chronic inflammation. Stress, a poor diet, a lack of sleep or exercise and nutritional deficiencies have all been shown to raise levels of inflammation in the body. To understand the problem, let’s take a look at obesity. Being overweight can spark chronic inflammation because fat cells are known to secrete inflammatory markers such as CRP and another chemical called interleukin-6.
Overeating adds to the problem, because having too many free fatty acids circulating in cells damages them, triggering a low level immune response.
What’s the link between diet and inflammation?
We know that certain nutrients provide the building blocks of the immune system which helps to regulate inflammation. But can we really claim that certain diets are anti-inflammatory while others are pro-inflammatory?The evidence suggests so. Cardiologists regularly advise their patients to eat a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in vegetables and fish and low in processed foods because several well-designed studies have shown it reduces key markers of inflammation and therefore lowers the risk of heart disease.People with chronic inflammation have also been shown to have low levels of certain nutrients. For example, people suffering from asthma, diabetes and arthritis are often found to be deficient in anti inflammatory vitamin D.
What is the link between gut health and inflammation?
The health of the gut microbiome is also directly linked with the development of chronic inflammation. For example, many people with inflammatory arthritis report developing symptoms after disturbances in their gut, such as after taking a course of antibiotics.
Studies of people newly diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis show remarkable similarities in their microbial diversity: high levels of a bacterium called Prevotella copri, low levels of a bacteria called Bifidobacterium and more disease-causing bacteria.
As a major player in the immune system, our guts have a huge role in inhibiting inflammation. If your gut isn’t healthy, bacterial products called endotoxins can leak through its mucous lining and enter your bloodstream. Any time bacteria is found in places where it shouldn’t be is a powerful trigger for inflammation.
Improving gut health helps curb inflammation in other ways too. Our success in converting the anti inflammatory vitamins found in food into the kinds of compounds the body can actually use depends solely on our gut bacteria18].
What are the best anti inflammatory foods?
Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables will ensure you’re getting enough dietary sources of antioxidants, which help to dampen an overactive immune response.
Fibrous vegetables are also prebiotics meaning they will help to maintain the health of your gut, particularly if you eat a widely diverse range. But what other foods that reduce inflammation should be on the menu?
Found in yoghurt, kefir, kombucha and biotic supplements, probiotics have been found to lower levels of inflammation, regardless of the health condition. In one study, two groups of patients with rheumatoid arthritis were given either a probiotic supplement or a placebo. After eight weeks, the probiotic group had significantly lower markers of inflammation.
One of the best anti inflammatory foods, cold water fish such as salmon and sardines contain large amounts of the Omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. These are converted into anti-inflammatory compounds such as resolvins and protectins which help remind the body to turn off inflammatory reactions when they’re no longer needed.
Studies consistently demonstrate a link between high blood serum levels of Omega 3 and lower levels of inflammation. If you don’t like the taste of fish, or are worried about toxins such as PCBs or heavy metals, it’s well worth supplementing with a high-quality Omega 3 fish oil.
Crushed garlic isn’t just delicious when added to food, it has also been found to inhibit the inflammatory response. It contains anti-inflammatory compounds that dampen the effects of cytokines and is often recommended as a natural remedy for inflammatory arthritis.
A close botanical relative of turmeric, ginger blocks lipoxygenase, an enzyme involved in inflammation. In a review of 16 trials, all were found to confirm ginger’s potent anti inflammatory powers.Taking ginger for arthritis can be useful as it limits the production of cytokines, easing stiff joints and lowering pain.
What are the best anti inflammatory vitamins and minerals?
Because so many vitamins have either direct or indirect anti-inflammatory benefits, taking a multivitamin that combines them all in decent amounts is a great idea. Many work in conjunction with each other, making a good multivitamin worth more than the sum of its parts.
One of the best vitamins for inflammation, vitamin A protects against infections, reducing your likelihood of infection-related inflammation.Vitamin A forms a vital part of the protective mucous lining of both the gut and the nasal passages, stopping bacteria from entering the body.
Supplementation with vitamin A has been found to be beneficial in a number of inflammatory conditions, including skin disorders such as acne.
A powerful scavenger of tissue-damaging free radicals, vitamin C can also dampen inflammatory reactions. Studies have shown that taking high doses of vitamin C (1,000mg per day for two months) lowered levels of C-reactive protein in patients at risk of cardiovascular disease as effectively as statins.
Vitamin C is also needed to build healthy collagen, helping to strengthen tissue such as the skin, which can help the body resist inflammatory damage.
Vitamin D has long been known to improve and regulate immune function. Being deficient in the ‘sunshine vitamin’ has been linked to several inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
The reason for this became clear when scientists isolated cells and incubated them in either a solution containing vitamin D or with no vitamin D at all. The cells with no vitamin D produced high levels of inflammatory markers, while those with vitamin D were able to inhibit the inflammatory response.
In a meta-analysis of randomised control trials, vitamin E was found to significantly lower C-reactive protein. Vitamin E supplements were also found to reduce pain in people with inflammatory conditions.
Zinc plays many roles in controlling inflammation. A lack of zinc is known to increase free radical activity because the body uses the mineral to make superoxide dismutase, a potent antioxidant.
What are the most powerful natural anti inflammatory herbs?
Herbal remedies are popular throughout the world, and there have been thousands of scientific studies documenting their benefits. In fact, up to 50% of all pharmaceutical drugs are based on molecules originally found in plants. For example, aspirin was originally used in the form of willow tree bark while the potent painkiller morphine came from the poppy plant .The following botanicals have been found to be particularly beneficial for curbing chronic inflammation, whether by functioning as antioxidants, regulating pro-inflammatory chemicals or blocking the enzymes involved in producing inflammation.
The spice turmeric contains several curcuminoids (known simply as curcumin) which have extremely powerful anti-inflammatory properties, as demonstrated by a wealth of medical studies supporting its use. The list of diseases curcumin can help with is long and includes rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and irritable bowel syndrome.
What makes the curcumin in turmeric so beneficial is that it is able to reduce inflammation through so many different biological mechanisms. Unfortunately, it isn’t well absorbed by the body. Liposomal turmeric, which contains the active curcumin in tiny fat-like particles, is easier for the body to process, making it highly potent.
Made from the resin of the Boswellia serrata tree, boswellia extract is rich in a group of anti inflammatory compounds called boswellic acids. These work by inhibiting inflammatory enzymes and by blocking inflammatory responses.
In several studies, participants have used boswellic acid to treat rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, showing a reduction in pain, morning stiffness as well as several inflammatory markers. Research also suggests that boswellia extract may ease asthma and inflammatory bowel disease.
An antioxidant found in small amounts in red wine and blueberries, resveratrol seems to promote longevity in a wide range of animals, something that’s important because inflammation increases with ageing.
Resveratrol works by enhancing the activity of Sirt1, a gene that plays a central role in healthy ageing. By boosting Sirt1 activity it reduces the risk of several age related diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
This antioxidant flavonoid found in apples and onions has excellent anti inflammatory benefits, particularly when it comes to allergies. That’s because it inhibits the adhesion molecules which are the source of many inflammatory reactions.
Derived from the pineapple plant, bromelain is a digestive enzyme that can help break down food proteins and infectious bacteria in the gut, both of which could trigger an inflammatory reaction. In addition, digestive enzymes seem to turn off some of the genes involved in inflammation.
Bromelain has been used to treat a variety of health problems, from arthritis to inflammatory bowel disease. It can also reduce pain and swelling.
What is the best natural anti inflammatory lifestyle?
Adopting healthy habits can have a range of positive effects on your levels of chronic inflammation. But which ones should you focus on for maximum effects?
Avoid foods that cause inflammation
Try to moderate your intake of inflammatory foods such as excess omega 6 fats, refined carbohydrates and fried foods - particularly those containing trans fats. Sugar is a particular culprit. Not only does it encourage the body to release cytokines, frequent blood sugar lows and highs are implicated in both Type 2 diabetes and inflammatory arthritis.There’s no need to eliminate sugar completely - just be sensible about how much you’re consuming, making sure you’re not eating an excess.
Alcohol and inflammation go hand in hand. The more alcohol you consume, the higher your levels of C-reactive protein. People who drink heavily are also known to be at increased risk of developing a leaky gut, a condition where partially digested food, toxins and bacteria from the colon are able to penetrate the gut wall and leak into the bloodstream which may cause health issues.
Take regular exercise
Being physically inactive is a known risk factor for chronic inflammation. But you don’t have to hit the gym hard or totally exhaust yourself to improve your health. In fact, one study showed that just a 20 minute walk was enough to inhibit inflammatory proteins by 5 percent.
When we’re in danger, our bodies start an inflammatory reaction so we can effectively deal with the threat. But being under chronic stress means our immune cells are activated all the time, something that’s not so good for our health. Taking steps to relax can help. In fact a study found that a 12-week yoga course greatly reduced both stress levels and inflammation in the body.
Clean your teeth
Follow your dentist’s advice and start flossing. Bacteria that grow in dental plaque can cause gum disease, putting you at greater risk of serious inflammatory disorders such as cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Take supplements for inflammation
Having a healthy diet is a great place to start, but there are always times when we’re not able to eat quite as well as we should. Taking daily supplements can bridge any nutritional gaps, ensuring you’re not deficient in anything essential. The best anti inflammatory supplements include Omega 3 fish oil, a quality daily multivitamin and a probiotic containing anti inflammatory strains for a healthier gut.
Inessa Advanced Biotic Complex is a 7 strain probiotic which includes a combination of strains helpful in the complementary management of IBS and IBD (Crohn’s/Ulcerative Colitis) as well as a full 5 billion Saccharomyces boulardii organisms, useful for the aforementioned but also in preventing traveller’s and antibiotic-associated diarrhoea. Each capsule contains 50 billion live bacteria and doesn’t need refrigeration. For further information about Inessa Advanced Biotic Complex, click here.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might like Inflammatory Bowel Disease, medical management and complementary therapies Part 1.