Inflammation is a key factor in many different disease processes and forms of tissue damage, so it’s important to understand how it can affect you and what to do about it.
What is inflammation and how does it occur?
Inflammation is the body’s response to irritation, infection or injury, and even though it’s not very pleasant, it plays an important role in your health, helping to address the causes of cell damage, initiate the repair of damaged tissue, and clear away cells that can no longer function in a viable way.
Cells in the injured tissues, blood vessel linings and bloodstream respond to cellular injury by releasing compounds called inflammatory mediators, the best known of which include cyclooxygenase-1 (COX-1), cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) and 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX).
This is followed by a rapid cascade of biochemical and physiological changes that result in the all-too-familiar symptoms of inflammation, which are typically characterised as being pain, redness, swelling, heat, and loss of function of the affected part.
However, while these symptoms are often easily observed in acute injuries (like a twisted ankle or a finger that’s been jammed in a car door), in many chronic (i.e. persistent) conditions, they are not as easily identified, and may not be visible to the naked eye.
For example, even though inflammation is a key factor in the development and symptoms of osteoarthritis, heat, redness and swelling may only be experienced intermittently (if at all). On the other hand, pain and reduced joint function (often experienced as stiffness and decreased flexibility) tend to be fairly common.
Curcumin: broad-spectrum natural anti-inflammatory
In Ayurvedic medicine, Turmeric has traditionally been regarded as having anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic and analgesic properties, and consequently has a long history of use in painful inflammatory conditions such as mild rheumatism and joint pain.
Curcumin is a specific compound in turmeric, and is considered responsible for its medicinal effects – as well its vibrant yellow colour.
Unlike many other anti-inflammatory products, curcumin works via multiple biochemical pathways to inhibit the body's inflammatory processes. For example, it is known to inhibit the COX-1, COX-2 and 5-LOX pathways referred to above.
Boswellia and Ginger for musculoskeletal inflammation
Curcumin is often taken in combination with Boswellia and Ginger, which also have active constituents (boswellic acids and gingerols respectively) with anti-inflammatory properties and inhibitory effects on COX-1, COX-2 and 5-LOX.
Together with curcumin, these herbs may help to relieve a wide range of inflammatory conditions. For example, in the musculoskeletal system, they may help ease the symptoms of mild osteoarthritis, including pain, stiffness and swelling, while also helping to improve the functioning of the affected joint (often the knees).
A combination of curcumin, Boswellia and Ginger may help manage musculoskeletal inflammation in other circumstances too, including soft tissue injuries (e.g. sports injuries) and over-use injuries such as repetitive strain injury (RSI).
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil also have anti-inflammatory properties, and like curcumin, work by helping to inhibit or down-regulate inflammatory mediators.
In addition to helping to relieve aches and pains and improve joint mobility and function in mild arthritis, their anti-inflammatory actions also contribute to benefit in areas beyond the musculoskeletal system. For example, they may help bring relief to inflammatory skin conditions such as dermatitis and eczema.
Elsewhere in the body, omega-3s also play important roles in cardiovascular and immune health and the maintenance of healthy eyesight, moods and brain function.
Since fish oils are highly susceptible to free radical damage (which is known to play a role in the development of many inflammatory conditions, including osteoarthritis), look for a supplement that also contains astaxanthin, a natural antioxidant that may reduce the resulting oxidative stress.
Piperine enhances curcumin absorption
Curcumin is particularly difficult for humans to absorb, making its potent therapeutic properties difficult to harness. To enhance its absorption and action in the body, look for a curcumin supplement that also contains piperine, a natural derivative of black pepper that's been shown to enhance the bioavailability of curcumin by up to 20 times.