HolisticWisdom.org web site
Linda Diane Feldt
NCTMB, Holistic Health Practitioner and Herbalist
The Ann Arbor Center for Holistic Health and Traditional Wisdom
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2005 People's Food Co-op Newsletter Connections
Inflammation and Herbs by Linda Diane Feldt
In the search for health, it is easy to confuse a positive body response with something alarming. What gets our attention? Those things we find alarming. Inflammation is a good example of a process that is not fully appreciated. Normal redness, swelling, heat, and tenderness is a sign the body is doing what it does best – responding to problem and working on the solution. The immune response combined with healing at the cellular level is a marvelous thing, and something we can all stop and appreciate. The body is truly miraculous in its ability to identify a problem, and take immediate steps to promote healing.
At the same time, chronic, systemic and out of control inflammation is a signal that there has been a malfunction. Something has gone wrong and requires additional intervention. Noticing the signals and responding appropriately is an art, a balancing act of supporting the body and our natural ability to heal, and using interventions that will restore health and function.
As is true in so many cases, there are alternative and traditional interventions that are safe and effective. There are also times when conventional medicine and the stronger medicines and pain relievers are also required. Similarly, correctly diagnosing the problem can be a simple intuitive process or require extensive training, observation, and the use of tests and even specialized machines.
This article is but a small beginning contribution to that process, with the hope that it will make the journey easier whatever techniques or interventions you use.
The inflammatory process can affect nearly every system and organ of the body. Inflammation with associated negative impact can be found in the bowel (irritable bowel syndrome, Crohns disease, ulcerative colitis), the liver, in joints (bursitis, gout, arthritis, chronic TMJ syndrome), as a topical skin infection, the lungs, the bladder, the brain, the gums, as a systemic problem, an auto immune disease, as so many other things! The effects can be mild or severe and include pain, stiffness, organ failure, and even death.
Simple foods can contribute to inflammation. The high acid and caffeine content in coffee and soda seems to affect some people. Others can develop arthritis like symptoms from excessive use of sugar. These effects seem to vary widely from individual to individual, and can be tested with an elimination diet.
More commonly understood is the relationship between consuming foods containing oils and fats that stimulate pro-inflammatory prostaglandin synthesis. The offending foods would include polysaturated vegetable oils, partially hydrogenated oils, and trans fats. Many processed foods contain these problematic fats. In recent years, manufacturers have begun to limit or eliminate their use but convenience, price, and achieving desired “mouth feel” have caused many to continue their use.
We know that high quality fats, especially those containing omega 3s and those that the body can convert to Omega 3s, contribute to decreasing inflammatory processes. These foods that actively improve our systemic health include oil from coldwater fish, walnuts, freshly ground flax seed or flax seed oil and olive oil.
In addition, many people are unaware that purslane (Portulaca oleracea) a common garden weed is one of the richest sources of omega 3 precursors in the plant kingdom.
In using products such as flax seed and fish oil, freshness is of key importance. These oils easily become rancid and must be used as fresh as possible. Refrigeration, dark packaging, and limiting exposure to air are critical. If you choose to use flax seeds, grind them fresh in a small coffee or spice grinder just before use. While flax seed is a great egg substitute for baking, it loses its anti-inflammatory properties when heated. I grind a tablespoon of the seed each morning and mix it with my oatmeal. Combined with homemade yogurt, frozen blueberries from the summer Farmer’s Market, a dab of local honey, home made almond butter, and home made yogurt from fresh, local cows milk, it’s a nutritious start to every day.
Three Herbs That Can Make a Difference
There are three herbs that have attracted attention as anti inflammatories, used topically, preventatively, or as needed for specific healing. While there are many others to consider, I will focus on these safe, readily available, inexpensive and versatile healers in the brief space of this article.
Turmeric is the bright yellow root used in Indian cooking, and in many curries. It has achieved recognition as a potent anti inflammatory, and many people with a variety of arthritis conditions use it, as well as other systemic inflammatory diseases. Most of the research has been done on curcumin , an extract derived from Turmeric. You can increase your consumption by including it as a regular spice in food, or take the curcumin extract as a tincture or as a capsule made from the extract. A capsule that just contains ground turmeric root is less likely to be absorbed effectively. The fresh root is often available in Indian grocery stores. A poultice of this on sprains or breaks has been seen to greatly reduce swelling and significantly aid in healing.
Ginger is a common name for a few types of plants. In this case, I am referring to Zingiber, the root commonly found in the produce section of the co-op. I use the whole root and always keep some in the freezer so it is on hand. There is a growing body of evidence supporting ginger’s anti-inflammatory action including for osteoarthritis. I make a strong tea by simmering about 2 inches of chopped root in about a quart of water in a covered pan for 15-20. You can drink the resulting tea or apply it as a compress by dipping a cloth in the tea and applying it to the affected area for about 20 minutes. If you choose to drink it you can add honey or lemon, and kids may enjoy it cold with some sparkling water. In the cold and flu season ginger is also a must for sore throats and sinus infection or blockage.
Slippery elm bark is a less well known but a powerful herb especially for inflammation affecting the digestive system. I’ve seen ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and colitis respond quickly and powerfully to the soothing and healing affects of slippery elm. As little as 1-2 Tablespoons a day in water or juice or sprinkled over cereal can have a healing affect. It tastes pleasant, a bit like malt. Long used as an ingredient in sore throat remedies it can do wonders further along the digestive tract as well. There are dozens of additional herbs that can be used, and when combined with dietary and lifestyle changes many inflammatory conditions – both short term and chronic – can be helped. We are learning more about the long term detrimental effects of chronic inflammation and prevention is an important goal as well. Whether your goal is healing or prevention consider herbs your allies to restore you body to a healthy balance.
Linda Diane Feldt is a holistic health practitioner, writer and teacher. She has offered a free herbology class through the Co-op for over 11 years, and has had a full time private practice in Ann Arbor for nearly 25 years. She is the author of "Massage: "Learning to Give and to Receive", "Dying Again: Thirteen Years of Writing and Waiting", and "Spinach and Beyond: Loving Life and ark Green Leafy Vegetables". www.holisticwisdom.org