- There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
- Acute inflammation is short-term and your body’s first response to injury; chronic inflammation is longer-term and occurs when your immune system can’t eliminate the problem.
- Causes of chronic inflammation include: inflammatory foods, toxin build-up, stress, and a gut imbalance.
- Chronic inflammation puts you at risk of serious diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.
- There are safe, natural remedies that can reduce inflammation as effectively as over-the-counter painkillers. These are curcumin, ginger, stephania, and boswellia.
By now you’ve no doubt heard about inflammation, and you know that too much of it isn’t good for your body. It’s the reason why you’re adding anti-inflammatory superstars like turmeric to your Bulletproof Coffee, right? But what is inflammation exactly? What role does it play in disease? And most importantly, what can you do right now to lower it? Read on to find out the best natural remedies for keeping your inflammation levels in check.
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What is inflammation?
Your body is a miraculous vessel — it knows just what to do to heal itself. If you scrape your knee or if you come down with a virus, your immune system sends white blood cells and chemicals to the injured area to kill the invader and get to work repairing any damage. That’s inflammation — your body’s way of protecting itself from something it deems dangerous or foreign.
If you get a splinter in your toe, and it starts to swell up — that’s a sign of inflammation, and it’s a good thing. Other signs of inflammation include redness, pain, and heat. Your body creates this type of inflammation — known as acute — quickly, and it usually lasts for just a few days.
When inflammation becomes an issue
But there are times when inflammation becomes harmful. When your body can’t break down certain invaders — like some viruses or a food you’re sensitive to — the inflammation will continue, and only get worse over time. This is known as chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation comes on slowly and can stick around for months, and even years.
“What’s happening in the body is that under certain conditions, inflammatory chemicals are released from immune cells, or other cells in the body, and these chemical messengers travel throughout the body causing irritation wherever they go,” says functional medicine expert Susan Blum, MD, founder and director of BlumHealthMD and Blum Center for Health.
The main causes of chronic inflammation are:
- Inflammatory foods: Eating too many inflammatory foods, such as sugar and processed vegetable oils, and not enough anti-inflammatory foods, like vegetables, high-quality protein, and omega-3 fats. Read more about cleaning up your diet here.
- Lingering infection or injury: When acute inflammation fails and your immune system is unable to heal an infection or injury.
- Gut imbalance: Too much bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria in your gut is a huge driver of inflammation (more on that below).
- Stress: Your nervous system helps manage inflammation in the body. “When you have long-term, ongoing chronic stress, your stress hormones (think cortisol and adrenals) can get out of balance, allowing inflammation to get out of control,” says Blum.
- Toxins: Toxic buildup from high-mercury fish, plastics and BPA-lined cans, and pesticides and herbicides. “These toxins are cumulative and fat soluble and can stay in the body for a long time,” says Blum. “They end up in fat cells and trigger the release of inflammation.”
- Autoimmune disorder: When your immune system attacks healthy cells and tissue by mistake, releasing inflammation. That’s what leads to autoimmune digestive conditions like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
Inflammation and disease
When your body constantly pumps out inflammatory chemicals, you become chronically inflamed, putting you at risk of serious illnesses like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, asthma, diabetes, and gut problems.
“Chronic inflammation happens when your immune system gets stuck in the ‘on’ position and keeps churning out chemicals that make you sick,” says Kellyann Petrucci, a leading naturopathic physician and nutritionist. “I compare it to a forest fire that never goes out.”
Inflammation can cause or worsen numerous ailments and diseases, including:
Gut problems: What you choose to eat plays a big role in whether or not you develop inflammation. The gut microbiome controls 70% of your immune system function, which means 70% of inflammation in the body, says Blum. “Making sure your gut microbiome is balanced and healthy is critical,” says Blum. “This is why healing the gut is always the first step in my functional medicine practice for people with inflammation.”
Certain bacteria in the gut can cause inflammation. Too much of this bad bacteria, and not enough good bacteria, can cause serious digestive conditions including SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), dysbiosis (overgrowth of harmful bacteria) and leaky gut (when cracks develop in your intestinal lining, allowing toxins, bacteria, and undigested food to pass through and enter your bloodstream).
Related: Your IBS Symptoms May Actually Be Caused by SIBO
Heart disease: Inflammation can cause and worsen atherosclerosis — the buildup of fatty plaque in the arteries. Your body views this plaque as a threat, and builds a wall to keep the flow of blood from the fatty deposits. Leukocytes (aka white blood cells) and other inflammatory cells collect in the plaque. But the wall sometimes breaks down, releasing the plaque into the blood and causing blood clots. It’s these clots that cause most heart attacks and strokes.
You can check whether you have arterial inflammation by testing your levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) — a marker of inflammation. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1110260814001173
In one study, men with higher levels of CRP — more than 2 milligrams per liter (mg/L) — had three times higher risk of heart attack and two times higher risk of stroke than men with the lowest inflammation.
Cancer: Back in the 1800s, a scientist named Rudolf Virchow first found immune cells in tumor samples. Since then, multiple studies have shown that chronic inflammation can lead to cancer. People with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, for instance, have a five- to seven-fold higher chance of developing colon cancer. The longer that you have chronic inflammation, the higher your risk is of developing cancer. For people with colitis, they would need to have had the condition for at least 8 years to increase their risk of colon cancer.
Best natural remedies for inflammation
A lot of mainstream doctors recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like aspirin and ibuprofen to manage chronic inflammation and pain. While there’s certainly a place for these drugs, they don’t target the root cause of the inflammation; they simply mask the symptoms. NSAIDS also wreck your gut and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
There are safer, natural remedies for inflammation that have been shown to work as well, and sometimes even better, than NSAIDS. You can use the following herbs on their own, but they’re even more powerful when taken together:
Many people think turmeric and curcumin are the same thing — they’re not. Curcumin is the bioactive, anti-inflammatory compound in turmeric that gives the plant its healing properties. Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine have used turmeric for centuries — dating back at least 4000 years — and now it’s used as a herbal medicine to treat illnesses like asthma, urinary tract infections, skin cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Curcumin is one of the safest and most powerful anti-inflammatories out there — it works by blocking the production of inflammatory cells and proteins. Studies show curcumin can treat a range of inflammatory conditions. These include:
- Post-surgery inflammation
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Curcumin is also a powerful pain-reliever, and reduces pain as effectively as and, in some cases, even more than acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and other over-the-counter painkillers, without the harmful side effects.
Related: Natural Pain Relief: 5 Ways to Relieve Pain Without Ibuprofen
Curcumin makes up just 2 percent of the turmeric root, so when choosing a supplement, make sure you pick curcumin, and not powdered turmeric root.
Your body can’t easily absorb curcumin, so combine your supplement with oil, since curcumin is fat-soluble (i.e. it dissolves in fat and is stored in your body’s fat tissue).
Piperine (black pepper extract) is a proven way to increase curcumin’s bioavailability — one study showed it improved absorption by 2000%. Because piperine isn’t Bulletproof, choose newer curcumin formulas that have shown just as high absorption without using piperine.
If you like to drink lemon ginger tea when you have a sore throat, you’re doing yourself some favors — ginger is a powerful anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. Many of this flowering plant’s benefits are thanks to a potent antioxidant compound called gingerol.
Studies show that ginger extract can de-activate NF-kB, a signalling pathway that links inflammation with various diseases, including cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and Alzheimer’s. 
Ginger can also reduce muscle soreness after working out. In one study, people who took 2 grams of ginger a day felt a significant reduction in muscle pain after 11 days.
Avoid powdered ginger — it spoils and develops mold easily. Studies have found immune-system suppressants in ginger mold. So buy it fresh, or store the powder away from heat, light, and moisture. You can also buy a ginger root supplement — dosage is between 1 and 4 grams a day, depending on what you’re using it for.
If you’re looking to ease joint pain: peel and mince 1-2 tbsps of ginger and mix with enough Brain Octane Oil — a purified form of saturated fatty acids called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) — to form a paste. Warm the paste on the stove and apply to joint for 15 minutes (you can use a wrap if you want support.)
Stephania tetrandra is a plant native to China and Taiwan. It might not be a household name in the U.S., but it’s one of the 50 fundamental herbs used in Chinese medicine. In traditional medicine, stephania is used to treat all kinds of ailments including asthma, edema (excess fluid in tissues), indigestion, wounds, and headaches.
Studies show it’s a powerful anti-inflammatory root. Stephania reduces production of inflammatory cytokines — small proteins that can cause and worsen inflammation.
Tetrandrine, a chemical compound of stephania, could also treat cancer. Research shows it can reduce the number of cancer cells, helps clean out damaged cells, and reverses tumor cells’ resistance to multiple chemotherapy drugs.
Stephania is typically taken as a tincture or in powder form. Follow the recommended dosage printed on the label.
Boswellia — also called Indian frankincense — is extracted from the boswellia serrata tree, native to India. Traditional ayurvedic texts prize boswellia for treating numerous conditions including arthritis, heart disease, fevers, and bronchitis.
Boswellia is also — you guessed it — a potent anti-inflammatory and painkiller. Research has singled out at least four acids that give boswellia resin its anti-inflammatory properties. Studies show these acids keep inflammatory cytokines in check. They can also prevent cancer growth — studies show boswellia acids attack breast cancer cells and suppress tumor growth in pancreatic cancer.
Boswellia can also be used to treat inflammatory digestive conditions like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. In a 2001 study, 90% of people with chronic colitis saw an improvement in various targets including their stools and tissue damage after taking 900mg of boswellia a day for 6 weeks.
Boswellia can also improve osteoarthritis — an inflammatory condition when the cartilage between joints wears down. In one study, people with osteoarthritis in their knee said they felt less pain after taking boswellia for eight weeks. They also said they could walk further and that their knee joint was more flexible.
Boswellia is typically taken as a capsule or pill, and dosage varies depending on the brand and what you’re hoping to treat.