An anti-inflammatory is a substance which assist the body in reducing inflammation.
Inflammation Signs & Causes
Inflammation is the body’s response to tissue damage from pathogens, mechanical injury, and toxins. There are four cardinal signs of acute inflammation: Redness, Heat, Swelling and Pain.
These arise from local vascular and cellular changes in the area:
- Dilation of blood vessels in the area which increases blood → redness and heat. The blood brings nutrients important for the regeneration of the damaged tissue.
- Increased permeability of capillaries in the area. Fluid leaks into the surrounding tissues → swelling
- Release of chemical mediators (e.g. histamine, prostaglandins, leukotrienes, etc) which regulate the inflammatory process and cause pain. With the pain comes immobilisation or loss of function of the body part, forcing a rest period so healing can occur. Some of these chemicals can also cause fever.
- Migration of leucocytes and macrophages through leaky capillary walls and into the tissues. These engulf and digest cellular debris and pathogens, and clean up the damaged tissue.
Although inflammation is often seen as undesirable because it is uncomfortable, the acute inflammatory response promotes the healing of tissues and is therefore essentially a beneficial process. Without the inflammatory response, minor infections would become overwhelming and wounds would not heal. Inflammation allows regeneration of new tissue. However, if the rate of tissue damage is faster than the rate of tissue regeneration, inflammation becomes chronic. With inflammatory and repair processes occurring simultaneously, the inflammatory response becomes counter-productive.
Chronic inflammation may occur as a result of:
- A recurrent or progressive acute inflammatory process. This may arise due to the continued presence of some foreign material at the site.
- Some substances may fail to evoke an acute response and instead cause only a low-grade, smouldering response which is not enough to stimulate healing.
- Autoimmune diseases where the individual is hypersensitive to some aspect of their own body.
Chronic inflammation is the basis of many degenerative diseases and may be counteractive to health. Orthodox medicine places a great deal of importance on chemicals which block the inflammatory pathways and therefore reduce the symptoms and discomfort of many disease processes. From a herbal perspective, we view inflammation as a sign that the body has identified a problem and it is trying to fix it, and therefore, rather than suppressing the inflammatory process completely, herbal treatment usually combines anti-inflammatory herbs to dampen the inflammatory pathways and other remedies to address the underlying problem and support the body.
How Herbal Anti-inflammatories Work
There are a number of different ways herbal anti-inflammatories can act in the body:
- Herbs which tone the adrenal cortex assist the body’s own production of adrenocorticosteroids which decrease inflammation and aid healing, e.g. Borage, Licorice, Rehmannia.
- A large number of herbs contain natural aspirin-like chemicals called salicylates which can dampen the production of prostaglandins which produce inflammation, e.g. Meadowsweet, Willow, Birch, White poplar.
- Some herbs contain steroidal substances which are metabolised in the body to form anti-inflammatory molecules, e.g. Wild yam and Licorice.
- Certain volatile oils have an anti-inflammatory action in the body. These are contained in herbs such as Chamomile, Calendula, St John’s Wort and Turmeric.
- Herbs which contain resins may decrease inflammation in certain areas of the body by stimulating phagocyte activity, but they may cause inflammation in the stomach and therefore they need to be used with caution, e.g. Boswelia, Calendula, Myrrh and Frankinscence.
- There are other herbs for which there is no known pharmacological basis for their anti-inflammatory actions, but they are still valuable, e.g. Black Cohosh.
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