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February 2, 2017
Inflammation is an essential aspect of our immune function. When there is damage to an area, from either trauma or infection, inflammation is triggered to clean up the mess and restore function to the area. Just as a car crash on city streets can temporarily interfere with traffic, local businesses, public safety, and more, local trauma can lead to pain, restricted movement, and reduced function in a tissue.
Acute inflammation is akin to the first responders who arrive at the scene and help those who may have been injured, support the removal of damaged vehicles and dangerous debris, and ultimately restore the safety, function, and movement of traffic through the area.
If the damage lingers and becomes chronic (broken glass and twisted metal are left on the street due to a lack of fire-fighters or tow-trucks), then that area of town may suffer ongoing interference.
Chronic inflammation, in which full flow and function to an area is impaired, is associated with the so-called “Western diseases” of osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease, dementias, and diabetes.
Therefore, while acute inflammation is a beneficial process when fully effective through a balanced immune system, chronic inflammation can be detrimental to long-term health if it is allowed to smolder.
There are many herbs that can be used to support the necessary balance of inflammation in the body, healing damaged tissues for the greater good of the whole system.
Perhaps the best known of all anti-inflammatory herbs, turmeric contains a wealth of compounds that help to cool chronic inflammation. Curcumin is the most known medicinal active, but dozens of other components from turmerones to bioflavonoids isolated from turmeric have been shown to provide anti-inflammatory effects as well, indicating that a whole herb extract is best. Turmeric is of particular benefit to inflammation in the digestive tract but eases inflammation throughout the body.
Reishi mushroom supports immune balance and beautifully walks the line between boosting the immune function that fights infections while reducing inflammation by soothing other aspects of the immune system. Reishi is helpful for inflammation from autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, as well as supporting cardiovascular health, which can suffer from prolonged inflammation elsewhere in the body.
Boswellia serrata is a directly anti-inflammatory herb that can provide fairly rapid pain reduction and improved mobility in people with osteoarthritis. It is also beneficial for inflammation in the respiratory tract such as from chronic bronchitis and asthma.
Another mushroom that helps to balance the immune system and reduce inflammation, Chaga is most effective for treating inflammation of the external tissues of the body, namely the skin, lungs, and digestive tract. Chaga is therefore useful for conditions ranging from psoriasis to Crohn’s disease.
Easily recognizable as the beautiful marigold flower in many gardens, calendula is a wonderful anti-inflammatory herb for either internal or external use. Topically, calendula oil soothes inflammation on the skin be it from trauma or infection, and whether the tissue is broken (cuts and scrapes) or not (bruises and muscle strains). Internally, calendula is also anti-inflammatory through supporting the movement of lymphatic fluid. Lymph is the other circulating fluid besides blood. It carries immune cells throughout the body and produces the swelling associated with inflammation.
Licorice has a few pathways by which it can ease inflammation in the body. In much the same way that aloe vera gel soothes sunburn, licorice contains “demulcent” compounds that are directly soothing to inflamed tissues in the digestive tract (from a sore throat to an irritated intestine). Other medicinal actives in licorice are similar in structure and function to cortisol, an anti-inflammatory hormone produced by our own adrenals (think of a corticosteroid cream for eczema or puffer for asthma). Licorice, therefore, can also be helpful in supporting our stress response, including the stress of chronic pain and inflammation!
NB: Licorice can raise blood pressure. Consult a healthcare professional before use to ensure safety.
Inflammation is a very complex process with a number of moving pieces and chemical components involved. Different herbs address different aspects of the inflammatory response in the body. A combination of herbs may be necessary to fully support your personal healing journey.
Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Hoffman, D. Healing arts press, 2003.
Herbal Therapeutics 9th Edition. Winston, D. Herbal Therapeutics Research Library, 2009.
MycoMedicinals: An Informational Treatise on Mushrooms 3rd Edition. Stamets, P. MycoMedia Productions, 2002.