An Herbal Oxymoron: Anti-inflammatory
Most people know movement is an important part of any health regime. Unfortunately, many people stop moving when it becomes painful. And pain when moving is usually caused by inflammation. So let’s how to resolve inflammation with herbal medicine.
Whenever I hear the word anti-inflammatory coupled with an herb, my ears perk up and a very quiet growl rumbles in the back of my throat. When working holistically with herbal medicine, there are no anti-inflammatories.
To understand where I am coming from, let’s begin by exploring what inflammation is and how it supports healing.
Overview of Inflammation
There is intelligence in the immune system. It has kept human’s alive for a very long time. This intelligence uses inflammation to bring healing injured parts of our bodies.
When you experience inflammation there are a few things that happen.
Redness. – If the inflammation is on the surface of the body, you will notice reddens. This is because there is increase blood flow to the area. The blood delivers healing cells and removes debris caused by the wound and healing process.
Swelling – Around the injury blood vessels become porous. This allows the immune systems healing cells (White Blood Cells) into the wounded area while drawing out the debris. As the liquid usually from the blood vessels flows into the wound, there is swelling.
Heat – Blood is hot. The increase in blood to the area creates heat. Also, if a nasty microbe is trying to enter through the wound, the heat will help kill it off. But more about heat, fever and herbal medicine in another article.
Pain – Pain is the messenger. “THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG” Pain asks you to use your beautiful analytical mind to figure out what is wrong and how you can help heal the wound. Unfortunately, we mostly shoot the messenger and forget about what is causing it.
Okay, now that you have an overview of the inflammatory process, let’s take a brief look at how our current medical system treats inflammation. This will help you understand the difference between pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories and herbal medicine also called anti-inflammatories.
NSAID – Non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs.
These are the over the counter pain pills, aspirin, Tylenol, ibuprofen, etc. They are used to reduce the pain caused by inflammation, arthritis, sprained ankles, after surgery, headaches, etc. A lot of these drugs are taken! Like a lot! An “estimated 1,900 Canadians die every year from complications associated with NSAID consumption.” And those are just the ones who die from these drugs.
So here is how they work. It’s science, don’t let the technical language get you down. NSAID inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory messenger molecules called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are made by every cell of the body. Over 30 different prostaglandins have been discovered in the body. They have different effects on inflammation. For simplicity, they are divided into three classes. The P2 or the series 2 prostaglandins play an important role in triggering inflammation, including the painful warnings that something is wrong. The two other classes P! and P3 are part of the clean-up crew. They help the body complete the wound healing and put an end to the pain.
Why NSAID Don’t Work.
It is well known that NSAID may initially make the pain go away, but in the long run, they only prolong the agony.  This is because NSAID does not allow any of the prostaglandins to do their work, neither the P2 that is present at the beginning stages of inflammation nor the P1 & P2 that support the resolution of the inflammation. When we take NSAID we interrupt the immune systems healing intelligence, the inflammation response does not completely resolve and we suffer over the long term.
And I have not even mentioned the side effects. You can google them if you are curious.
The other class of drugs used to stop inflammatory process are corticosteroids. This class of drugs mimics the effects of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands during stressful periods. It’s part the chemical signal involved in our fight, flight, freeze response, such as meeting a lion on your way to work. Every cell in your body has cortisol receptors, so when released it effects every single one of your cells.
One system cortisol has a pronounced effect is the immune system. The immune system consumes enormous amounts of energy. When the immune system is in the fullness of a battle we feel tire with no appetite. Our body is diverting all the energy that would be used for our daily activities to the immune system.
Because of the immune draw on body resources, during times of acute stress, like standing down a lion, the mind/body needs all its resources. If a cold virus happens to be floating through the air while standing the lion, the body intelligence is more concerned about surviving the lion than the cold that can be dealt with later. So our immune system is to dampen down. A dampened immune response means a decrease in inflammation. Remember, inflammation is an immune response.
The corticosteroids deal with inflammation by shutting down the immune system! Yikes, but what about the cold virus. Or worse, deadly diseases like cancer?
What herbalist usually see though are people who have used corticosteroids to control psoriasis or eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and other auto-immune crisis, and are fearful or just plain tired of all the nasty side effects and no true healing. For as soon as you stop taking the corticosteroid or decrease the dose, the inflammation and pain return – usually worse than before.
Like NSAID, corticosteroids do not heal the cause of the inflammation, they limit the immune system ability to heal the underlying cause of the pain.
Inflammation, Pain and Herbal Medicine
Herbalists use plant medicine to support the immune systems inflammatory response. This shortens the period of inflammation. With the wound healed, the inflammation disappears as does the pain. Just remember: herbal medicine’s moto is to support, not suppress!
Okay, one side note before we dive into specific herbs. Look in any herbal and you are going to find a long list of anti-inflammatories. All the herbs listed support the healing of inflammation in some way, but how they do it is different for each class of herb and in some cases each specific herb. So I am going to explain one herb from a few different classes.
Comfrey: A Demulcent Containing Allantion
Demulcent herbs contain a healing substance called mucilage. It has a similar texture to mucus (I know this is kind of gross but bear with me). Every surface of the body that opens to the outside world has a mucous membrane: the nose, sinus, bronchi, the long tube from the mouth to anus called the digestive tract, the urinary tract, and sex orifices.
The mucous membrane is part of the immune system, protecting the delicate tissues underneath from irritants by trapping them in the sticky texture of mucous and flushing them out. In inflammatory conditions, like inflammatory bowel disease, the mucous membrane has been disturbed. Demulcent herbs help to coat the underlying irritated tissues, cooling them down and protecting them.
Demulcents are also important is leaky gut is part of a systemic inflammation, like fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and even Lymes disease.
Some demulcent, like comfrey and plantain, also contain a phytochemical called allantoin which enhances healing of wounds, tears, and breaks. During inflammation’s final phase the body makes what is called granulation tissue. Granulation tissue is what knits the wound back together. Allantoin increases the body’s ability to make this special healing tissue, the final resolution of inflammation.
Please note the safest way to take comfrey.
If you are taking comfrey internally, make a tea with old leaves.
If you are applying it topically, an infused oil of the root and newer leaves can be used.
St John’s Wort – A Nervine with Anti-oxidants and Liver Support
St John’s Wort is a complex herb. One of the reason inflammation can linger is the debris (toxins) created by the wound and the healing is not removed promptly. One reason is, the liver is overwhelmed by work! St John’s Wort helps flush toxins from the liver. An efficient liver is essential for good health and healing.
St John’s Wort also contains high levels of flavonoids. Let’s explore quercetin, a flavonoid that is found in St John’s Wort. Quercetin is an anti-oxidant. Remember the debris created during the healing of the wound. Some of this debris are loose oxygen molecules. Oxygen is a very combustible molecule. Think of the flame in a circle on an oxygen tank. In our body, loose oxygen molecules are also explosive. They cause small explosions that damage cell membranes resulting in more inflammation. Taking herbs, like St John’s Wort, which are high in flavonoids limits the damage loose oxygen molecules can create. This shortens the period of pain and inflammation.
Part of the pain experienced during inflammation is caused by damage to the tips of nerves. St John’s Wort is famous for healing damaged nerve tissue. In this way, the pain is resolved not by shutting down the inflammatory process but by healing the damage that causes it in the first place.
Liquorice – Kind of Like a Corticosteroid but Not Really
Liquorice, like comfrey, is a demulcent. It is soothing to damaged tissues. It also, like St John’s Wort, supports the liver while offering anti-oxidant actions.
But it is liquorice’s action on the immune system that we are most interested. Liquorice with its array of medicinal constituents enhances the effects of cortisol that is naturally produced by the body. This lends it the anti-inflammatory active of a corticosteroid. However, unlike corticosteroids, liquorice does not dampen down the immune system. It actually enhances the activity of specific immune cells that go after viruses, including hepatitis C, a painful inflammatory condition. Licorice does not only help to quiet down inflammation in the liver, but also the lungs, bowel and stomach.
Yarrow – The Healer’s Herb
If you want to be an herbalist, I strongly recommend you spend time with Yarrow. In cases of chronic inflammation, it is an important herb. Remember part of the inflammatory process is cleaning up the debris from the wound. Yarrow excels at this. Think of yarrow as a janitor. It goes to the place of the wound, and cleans up. I have seen yarrow clean up 10-year-old bruising. “It just never healed properly,” she said and was amazed at what taking yarrow for three weeks did. Yarrow brings completion to the inflammatory process.
Yarrow is also a styptic. It will stop or slows down bleeding. This is very important for inflammatory conditions of the bowel, stomach, and uterus
There are two other parts of yarrow’s medicine that need to be considered.
Like licorice and St John’s Wort, yarrow is high in flavonoids and limits the inflammatory activity of free radicles.
Yarrow is high in anti-microbial volatile oils. This is a good thing. Infection often accompanies inflammation.
Poplar – For the Pain
There are many different analgesic herbs. Poplar is an easy one for the herbalist to find and make. Poplar like so many other herbs, willow, birch, meadowsweet, is high in salicin. It was from salicin that the first NSAID drug aspirin was made. But in that case, salicin was turned into salicylic acid and then into the over the counter pain killer. In a plant, salicin does not become salicylic acid, the pain killer, until it is absorbed through the gut and into the blood stream. Once in the blood stream, it becomes salicylic acid. Interestingly, while moderating the experience of pain at the sight of inflammation, it does not like NSAID stop the completion of the inflammation process nor carry the harmful side effects. It is however very bitter medicine, so prepare your palate.
Black Cohosh – More than Menopause
The final specific herb I want to briefly to explore is black cohosh. Although well known for its use in regulating female hormones, it has an equally long tradition in treating rheumatism: aching joints and muscles due to chronic inflammation. Black Cohosh is specific to rheumatism in the spine with nerve pain. This include sciatic pain. This is for both men and women.
Like many medicinal plants it is difficult to state specifically which of their chemical processes support the easing of pain and the resolution of inflammation. Black Cohosh contains a small amount of salicin, but not enough to bring the relief it is known for.
It is most likely a class of chemical constituents called tripenoids that support the healing of inflammation and easing the pain that comes along with it. These phytochemicals, like licorice, strongly influence the endocrine system. It is the endocrine system that is responsible for moderating the immune system and our mental/physiological response to stress.
In any case, sometimes we don’t need to know exactly how medicinal plants work, but we need to know they works. I have used black cohosh successful for both men and women to relieve both chronic lower back and neck pain.
The one thing about Black Cohosh that you need to know is – a little goes a long way.
This is a small sampling of medicinal plants labeled anti-inflammatories. But they are more inflammation moderator or resolvers. These herb support the efforts the body is making to heal. They do not stop the inflammation; they bring it to resolution.
There is not singular herb that takes care of all inflammation in the body and there are many herbs that support the resolution of inflammatory conditions. Ultimately the choice of herbs should be guided by wound and the person struggling with pain of it. Herbal medicine is not a one size fits all system of medicine. So next time some says an herb is an anti-inflammatory, consider how it supports the healing of inflammation.