Inflammation is a natural process that can easily get out of hand. Contrary to common belief, it’s not usually something to be that needs to be subdued, because it’s a necessary part of healing. In fact, nature has provided a great number of foods and herbs containing polyphenols and other nutrients that not only address inflamed tissues, but also the underlying causes of such inflammation, including stress, injuries, trauma, poor diet, and toxins. So, before waging war on inflammation, it’s wise to first figure out what’s causing it in the first place and address that instead.
Stages of Inflammation
In the first century AD, the Roman physician Aulus Cornelius Celsus identified four stages of inflammation: swelling, redness, pain, and heat. All of these signal the fact that the body is trying to create a wall around damaged tissue and bring much-needed healing nutrients and white blood cells to the area. The pain or discomfort associated with inflammation is usually created from the pressure of swelling that pushes against nerves.
Modern science is in agreement with ancient health care traditions that have regarded inflammation as both a result of tissue trauma and the cause of it. Inflammation is not a disease unto itself, although it’s quite often treated that way. You might even refer to it as your body’s alarm system. If inflammation is indeed serious, that’s usually because it represents an underlying health condition.
Inflammation is perhaps most easily observed when we’re injured — from banging our shins, stubbing our toes, pulling a back muscle, or nicking ourselves when shaving. However, when inflammation is internal, the cause is often mysterious. Over the past several decades, medical researchers have been taking a closer look at inflammation, in relation to cardiovascular issues, digestive problems, and particularly, conditions stemming from chronic stress.
Stress Causes Inflammation
Stress-induced inflammation is proof that the mind and body are connected. It is a sign that the way we perceive our world determines how our cells react. Some medical experts, including the late John Sarno, MD, NYU School of Medicine, showed that our emotions — particularly anger (subconscious rage) and fear — can create symptoms that do not go away until the related, underlying emotions are quelled. For quite some time, doctors have realized that common ailments may be rooted in the mind — think ulcers, headaches, stomachaches, and acne. However, there is still much to learn when it comes to mental states leading to physical ailments.
The body’s natural response to stress has served our species well, but in the modern age, we are facing problems that are wholly unnatural.
In the case of stress, inflammation is indirectly caused when the mind believes it is under threat. The idea of fight, flight, and freezing is nothing new, and it is the cornerstone of what we call trauma. But what is actually going on inside the body when we are aggravated and sitting in traffic, have too many bills to pay, get into a major disagreement with someone, or worry all the time? All of these things, and more, initiate the same process that our brains and bodies would go through if, like our ancient ancestors, we were standing in the savannah and watching a hungry animal charge toward us.
The body’s natural response to stress has served our species well, but in the modern age, we are facing problems that are wholly unnatural. Even when there is no immediate physical threat to us, our bodies react as if there were. And because we’re constantly under emotional and mental stress, our hormones are always raging. The result is chronic inflammation throughout our bodies.
It’s the Little Things That Matter
Theoretically, the best way to get rid of the stress-caused inflammation in our bodies is to remove ourselves from stressful situations. But because that’s not quite realistic, we must resort to Plan B: learn what we can do to lessen, handle, offset, and avoid stress. And if we’re successful in doing so, we’ll greatly reduce inflammation. Alka Gupta, MD, co-director of integrative health at the Brain and Spine Institute, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, said that “when we teach people how to reduce stress in whatever form — stress management tips, classes, individual advice, yoga, deep breathing — we see decreases in some of these inflammatory side effects.”
While most everyone is familiar with the role of vitamins and multivitamins in healing and promoting good health, it’s easy to overlook the real powerhouses — including polyphenols — that nature provides. Within the plant kingdom exist a multitude of foods and herbs containing smaller nutrients that can have a big impact on stress, inflammation, and illness.
Polyphenols give fruits, herbs, berries, and vegetables characteristic colors, tastes, and fragrances. Scientists have thus far identified more than 500 unique polyphenols, and each one offers a unique way to uplift health when we include them in our diets.
Plants That Address Stress and Inflammation
The polyphenols in many herbs and fruits that are common in the practice of Ayurveda have the power to address inflammation on three major levels: they help relieve mental and emotional stress, relieve inflammation, and address the underlying cause of inflammation. A number of traditional Ayurvedic healing plants tackle both stress and inflammation.
Consider the following six adaptogenic herbs the next time you think about inflammation and stress:
- Turmeric (contains curcumin): helps reduce inflammation, as well as depression
- Ginger: helps reduce inflammation and soothe anxiety
- Shatavari: known for calming an overactive mind and enhancing feelings towards love and compassion
- Tulsi (Holy basil): provides stress relief and helps reduce inflammation
- Cinnamon: helps fight stress and reduce inflammation
- Ashwagandha: combats stress, calms the mind, soothes anxiety, and helps reduce inflammatory swelling
While inflammation is not a pleasurable experience, it’s good to know that the body is doing all it can to take care of itself by going through various biochemical stages. And, you can help things along by finding healthful and peaceful ways to reduce your stress levels. Sitting down with a cup of Tulsi tea is a great way to start.