Chronic inflammation is associated with diseases that end with ‘-itis’, such as nephritis, arthritis, tendonitis, bronchitis, and colitis. While these conditions tend to be long standing and may need to be medically managed, natural therapies can sit alongside medication, and diet plays an important role in reducing symptoms.

With inflammatory conditions, the body has a response that creates increased blood flow and heat: the immune system’s white blood cells move to the area and release chemicals such as cytokines that create pain, thereby signalling to the body that there’s an issue in the area. Foods that are high in fat, sugar and white flour - cakes, soft drinks, biscuits, chips, pizza and creamy pasta dishes – tend to provoke an inflammatory response. Inflammation-reducing foods, on the other hand, are generally whole or unprocessed foods, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods protect the gut, and healthy gut ‘talks’ to the entire body system, which means gut health is essential to reduce inflammation. Evidence increasingly suggests gut microbes significantly influence inflammatory disease by modifying the body’s response to pathogens. Without doubt, diets higher in polyphenols and fibre help to create a healthy gut and reduce the inflammatory process.

While acute inflammation can generally resolve itself with rest, treatment is necessary with chronic disease. Ageing is a risk factor for the development of inflammatory diseases. Two key drivers in age-related inflammatory processes are the cytokines (cell signalling molecules) interleukin 1.6 and interleukin-18, although other natural body chemicals may also be implicated. Some fascinating studies suggest that moderating these chemicals can reduce the risk of age-related inflammation in diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, infections and heart disease.

Avoid 'gerobesity'

Shedding excess kilos is particularly important during our later years, as gerobesity – as obesity in the elderly is termed – is linked to higher inflammatory states. A high correlation exists between being overweight and increased systemic inflammation as fat cells make their own pro-inflammatory chemicals, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin-6 and tumour necrosis factor that are often seen in osteoarthritis and joint inflammatory conditions. Maintaining body weight within the recommended BMI of 18-25 can reduce the pain of inflammation. Certain fats, and micronutrients such as plant chemicals, vitamins and minerals, all modulate or potentiate inflammation. A large multinational study suggests the following guidelines to reduce inflammation:

Carbohydrates Whole grains, and particularly 'ancient' grains like faro, rye and teff, help reduce inflammation. Diets high in white potato and processed oats and wheat increase the glycaemic load and raise CRP levels. To reduce the glycaemic load, eat potatoes cold with the skin on, and choose rolled or steel-cut oats rather than minute oats, and ancient wheat grains such as faro. Higher fibre in the diet and whole ancient grains significantly reduce inflammation. Even 30 grams of psyllium fibre a day can help to r

Fats Saturated fats are pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 fats reduce the risk of inflammation. In one study, an increase in interleukin-6 TNF-alpha was noted following a meal high in saturated fat, but the markers were lowered after ingesting omega-3 fatty acids. High levels of the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) can reduce arachidonic acid in the tissues, thereby reducing pro-inflammatory eicosanoids such as leukotrienes. Eating fish a few times a week may not be enough, and supplements may work more effectively. Additionally, the monounsaturated fats in extra virgin olive oil with its high level of polyphenols can reduce inflammation in many disease states. So use high-quality cold-pressed extra virgin oil on your salads and vegetables, Jamie Oliver-style. Refined olive oil does not have the same effect.

Protein Many diets involve reducing meat intake and increasing plant-based proteins. The Mediterranean diet is widely recognised as an anti-inflammatory diet: it contains little meat – maybe once a week, eggs and cheese, but plenty of fish, pulses and legumes as protein sources.

Green tea The epigallocatechin-3 gallate present in green tea reduces interleukin-1, which degrades collagen and cartilage. Three to four cups a day can help to reduce the pain of inflammation.

Probiotics These are known immune modulators and have been deemed useful to reduce allergic inflammation and certain inflammatory diseases by balancing T1 anti-inflammatory cell activation. Human trials, while limited and generally of short duration, are promising. Species used in one trial suggests Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, and Bifidobacterium animalis lactis – strains that can be purchased commercially – are effective. Over a three-week period, lower levels of CRP were visible: CRP is often elevated in chronic inflammatory conditions. A note of caution: these strains are beneficial in children and adults, but potentially more inflammatory in some infants.

Pick a herb

Certain herbs reduce inflammation, but it’s important to seek the advice of a qualified herbalist or naturopath to ensure you use the right one for you.
White willow bark (Salix alba) Traditionally used in Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Indian traditional medicine, this herb works similarly to aspirin and blocks inflammation. However, it’s not to be used by people with gastric conditions, or by children.
Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata) Another traditional herb, this time from Somalia, Ethiopia and India, boswellia is analgesic, anti-arthritic, and anti-inflammatory. Benefits in inflammatory conditions have been seen after eight weeks at a small dose of 333mg, three times a day. Clinically, I find capsules more effective than the liquid form.
Cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) This is my absolute favourite. It reduces nuclear factor-kB (NF-kB) and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-a) by up to 65-85 percent. Because there are potential side effects, the dose should be prescribed by a professional who can give advice on your specific condition.

Teresa Mitchell-Paterson BHSc(CompSci), MHSc(HumNut) is a member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society.