Alternative Therapies for Inflammation: Exploring Holistic Health Approaches

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Jan 23, 2024
Last updated:
May 21, 2024

Inflammation is a normal bodily function part of the body's defence mechanism. It occurs when your immune system sends cells to fight bacteria or heal an injury.

Although inflammation isn’t usually a cause for concern, it can negatively affect one's quality of life when it persists or becomes chronic. Chronic inflammation can also be a sign of a condition that needs treatment.

Your lifestyle choices can either reduce or increase inflammation and increase the likelihood of developing inflammatory diseases, such as diabetes (e.g., a sedentary lifestyle or smoking). There are many mainstream medications for inflammation (e.g., non-steroidal anti-inflammatories), but specific treatments are gaining popularity for managing inflammatory pain.

Whether these treatments are viable for inflammation isn’t yet certain, but researchers have found some positive results in recent studies. 

First, it’s helpful to understand exactly what inflammation is, how it’s traditionally treated, and lifestyle factors that can increase your risk of chronic inflammation.

What Is Inflammation?

When you injure yourself, your body creates an inflammatory response to protect and heal the injury site. Inflammation typically involves increased blood flow to the affected area, redness, warmth, pain, and swelling. It’s a normal bodily function, but it can become problematic if it persists.

Chronic inflammation might result from an underlying health condition or something harmful the body can’t heal or get rid of.

There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation can occur due to injury, foreign material in the body, or after exposure to toxic compounds. It also appears quickly and lasts a few days, whereas chronic inflammation lasts months or years.

What Causes Chronic Inflammation?

Chronic inflammation can result from or be associated with:

  • The body cannot eliminate an infectious organism (fungi, parasites, etc.)
  • Repeatedly inhaling or being exposed to irritants such as silica dust
  • Autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Autoinflammatory disorders
  • Repeatedly experiencing acute inflammation
  • Cancer
  • Heart disorders 
  • Stroke 
  • Diabetes

Diseases and Conditions Associated with Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is not just a general health concern; it's also closely linked to the development and progression of various diseases and conditions. Some of these include:

  1. Rheumatoid Arthritis: This autoimmune disorder occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks body tissue, primarily affecting the joints. Chronic inflammation in the synovium (the lining of the joints) leads to pain, swelling, stiffness, and eventually joint damage.
  2. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): IBD encompasses conditions like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, which involve chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Inflammation in the intestines can cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, weight loss, and fatigue.
  3. Asthma: Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition characterised by inflammation and narrowing of the airways. It can lead to wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. Inflammatory responses to triggers such as allergens or irritants can exacerbate asthma symptoms.
  4. Cardiovascular Disease: Chronic inflammation plays a significant role in the development of cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary artery disease, heart attack, and stroke. Inflammation contributes to forming plaques in the arteries (atherosclerosis), leading to reduced blood flow and increased risk of cardiovascular events.
  5. Type 2 Diabetes: Low-grade chronic inflammation is a hallmark of type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance. Adipose tissue inflammation, along with elevated levels of inflammatory markers, contributes to insulin resistance, impaired glucose metabolism, and the progression of diabetes-related complications.
  6. Neurodegenerative Diseases: Conditions like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis are associated with chronic inflammation in the brain and nervous system. Neuroinflammation contributes to neuronal damage and dysfunction, leading to cognitive decline, motor impairment, and other neurological symptoms.

Understanding the role of chronic inflammation in these diseases underscores the importance of addressing inflammation as part of disease management and prevention strategies. Lifestyle modifications, medications, and targeted therapies aimed at reducing inflammation can help improve outcomes and quality of life for individuals with these conditions.

Effects of Chronic Inflammation on the Body

Chronic inflammation is not just a localised response; it can have far-reaching effects on various systems and organs throughout the body. Understanding these effects is crucial for appreciating the full impact of chronic inflammation on overall health and wellbeing.

Cardiovascular System

Chronic inflammation plays a significant role in the development and progression of cardiovascular diseases, including atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, and myocardial infarction (heart attack). Inflammatory processes within the blood vessels can lead to plaque formation, narrowing the arteries and increasing the risk of blood clots and heart attacks.

Additionally, chronic inflammation can contribute to the dysfunction of endothelial cells lining the blood vessels, promoting the development of hypertension (high blood pressure) and compromising cardiovascular health.

Respiratory System

Inflammatory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are characterised by chronic inflammation of the airways, leading to symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. In asthma, inflammation causes airway constriction and hyperresponsiveness, while in COPD, inflammation contributes to airflow limitation and irreversible damage to lung tissue.

Chronic inflammation can also exacerbate respiratory infections and worsen symptoms in individuals with pre-existing lung conditions, posing significant challenges to respiratory health.

Digestive System

Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, are chronic inflammatory conditions that affect the digestive tract. In these conditions, inflammation disrupts the normal function of the gastrointestinal tract, leading to symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, and rectal bleeding.

Moreover, chronic inflammation of the liver, known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) or non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), can progress to more severe liver damage, including cirrhosis and liver failure.

Musculoskeletal System

Chronic inflammation contributes to the pathogenesis of various musculoskeletal disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and gout. In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovial membrane lining the joints, causing inflammation, pain, and swelling. Over time, chronic inflammation can lead to irreversible joint damage and disability.

Conversely, osteoarthritis is characterised by the breakdown of cartilage in the joints, leading to inflammation, stiffness, and reduced mobility. In gout, chronic inflammation results from the deposition of uric acid crystals in the joints, causing intense pain and inflammation.

By understanding the systemic effects of chronic inflammation, individuals can appreciate the importance of addressing inflammation to manage symptoms and prevent the development of severe health complications. Promoting strategies to reduce inflammation and support overall health can benefit long-term wellbeing.

The Risks of Chronic Inflammation

Some of the risk factors for chronic inflammation include:

  • Age – as we get older, the body tends to release more inflammatory molecules
  • Obesity 
  • A diet with too much-saturated fat, trans-fats and/or refined sugar 
  • Smoking
  • Low sex hormones (testosterone and oestrogen)
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Poor sleep 
  • Stress

Prevention Strategies for Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation can have far-reaching effects on your health, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk and promote overall wellbeing. Dietary and lifestyle changes and certain medications can reduce inflammation and the risk of inflammatory diseases. Consider the following prevention strategies:

  1. Maintain a Healthy Diet: Focus on consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. Limit your intake of processed foods, refined sugars, and saturated fats, which can contribute to inflammation in the body. Incorporating anti-inflammatory foods like fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens into your meals can help reduce inflammation and support optimal health.
  2. Engage in Regular Physical Activity: Regular exercise has been shown to reduce proinflammatory molecules in the body and promote weight loss, which can further alleviate inflammation. For adults, the recommended amount of exercise per week is 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate physical activity or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous physical activity. If you have difficulty meeting these recommendations, consult your doctor for personalised advice, especially if you have chronic health conditions.
  3. Manage Stress: Chronic stress can trigger inflammation in the body, so finding healthy ways to manage stress and promote relaxation is essential. Explore stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, and yoga to help calm your mind and body. Prioritise self-care activities that bring you joy and help you unwind.
  4. Get Quality Sleep: Prioritise getting enough restorative sleep each night, as inadequate sleep can exacerbate inflammation and negatively impact your health. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night and establish a relaxing bedtime routine to promote better sleep hygiene. Limit exposure to screens and electronic devices before bedtime, and create a comfortable sleep environment free of distractions.
  5. Avoid Environmental Toxins: Minimise exposure to environmental toxins and pollutants that can contribute to inflammation in the body. Take steps to reduce your exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollution, pesticides, and other harmful substances. Choose natural and eco-friendly household products whenever possible, and consider using air purifiers and water filters to improve indoor air and water quality.

Incorporating these prevention strategies into your daily life can help reduce inflammation, support optimal health, and reduce your risk of developing chronic inflammatory conditions. Remember that small changes over time can significantly improve your overall wellbeing.

Diagnostic Tests for Inflammation

Healthcare providers may use various diagnostic tests and procedures to assess inflammation levels in the body. These tests can help determine the extent of inflammation and guide treatment decisions. Common diagnostic tests for inflammation include:

  1. Blood Tests: Blood tests can measure inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP), erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), and proinflammatory cytokines. Elevated levels of these markers may indicate the presence of inflammation in the body.
  2. Imaging Studies: Imaging tests such as X-rays, ultrasounds, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can help visualise inflammation in specific organs or tissues. These tests can identify inflammation-related changes, such as swelling, fluid accumulation, and tissue damage.
  3. Biopsy: In some cases, a biopsy may be necessary to confirm the presence of inflammation and identify its underlying cause. During a biopsy, a small tissue sample is removed from the affected area and examined under a microscope for signs of inflammation or tissue damage.
  4. Other Tests: Depending on the suspected cause of inflammation, additional tests may be performed to evaluate organ function, autoimmune antibodies, and infectious agents. These tests can provide valuable information to help diagnose and treat the underlying condition contributing to inflammation.

Alternative Treatments To Reduce Inflammation

Now, let's delve into various alternative treatments that may help alleviate inflammation and promote overall wellbeing:

Herbal Remedies

Certain herbs have anti-inflammatory properties and can be natural alternatives to traditional medications. Examples include turmeric, ginger, boswellia, and green tea. These herbs can be consumed as supplements, spices, or teas in your diet.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. Including these foods in your diet may help reduce inflammation.

Mind-Body Therapies

Practices such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises can help reduce stress levels, which may lower inflammation in the body. These mind-body therapies promote relaxation and may benefit chronic inflammatory conditions.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy that involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body. Some studies suggest that acupuncture may help reduce inflammation by stimulating the release of certain neurotransmitters and hormones.

Probiotics

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can help support gut health. Since gut health is closely linked to inflammation, consuming probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi may help reduce inflammation in the body. Additionally, nutritional supplements like vitamin D and fish oil, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects and may benefit individuals with chronic inflammatory conditions.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy techniques such as massage, stretching, and exercises tailored to improve joint mobility and function can benefit people with inflammatory conditions like arthritis. Physical therapy can help reduce pain, stiffness, and inflammation while improving overall bodily function.

Compounds and Pain Pathways

Since certain compounds were discovered interacting with immune cells, there has been increased research into potential treatments for chronic inflammation. While the research is still in the early stages, some promising results have been achieved.

There’s some evidence that modifying specific pathways may help manage pain associated with arthritis, an inflammatory condition that can cause joint pain. A 2021 review of the evidence showed that targeting specific receptors may reduce pain and inflammation. The studies were primarily preclinical, however, and used unique formulations. Whether the results apply to other forms needs to be studied further.

Another recent review notes the potential anti-inflammatory action of one particular compound due to its affinity for the CB2 receptors. However, the authors emphasise that more research is needed as the current evidence is based mainly on in-vitro (not in a live test subject) or animal studies.

Since there have been no human trials, we can’t confidently say that certain compounds can significantly reduce inflammation, but further research may uncover more about their potential anti-inflammatory properties.

Seeking Treatment For Chronic Inflammation

If you’re experiencing persistent pain, swelling, stiffness, fatigue, skin rashes, or fever, speak with your doctor. These symptoms might result from inflammation and may need treatment if they persist for over a few days.

Although there isn’t enough evidence to prove that specific treatments are viable for inflammation, your doctor may suggest them if they think they will benefit you.

If you’re interested, you can book an appointment with your healthcare provider or a clinic to discuss your options. To be eligible for specific treatments, you must have tried some conventional treatments first and found them ineffective or that they caused unmanageable side effects.

Related articles