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Chronic Inflammation: Naturopathic and Massage Perspectives

May 03, 2012 • Massage Therapy, Naturopathic Medicine

Inflammation has a vital role in our body, and is actually a normal, healthy function of our immune system. Acutely, it indicates the process of our body protecting itself against a stress or trauma, or the fighting of foreign 'invaders', like a virus or bacteria, to the body. We can see inflammation in our respiratory system (e.g. runny nose or phlegmy cough with a cold), in our joints (e.g. swelling in response to a knee injury), or in our muscles (e.g. whiplash in our neck after a car accident). As our body mounts a response to these stresses, it brings nourishment (e.g. increased blood flow) and immune system activity to the site of infection or injury to help it heal. Health issues and illness can occur when this process is prolonged and becomes chronic. Chronic pain, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, Crohn's Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, migraine headaches, asthma and autoimmune conditions like Lupus can all be linked to chronic inflammation.

There are many reasons why someone may develop chronic inflammation. If our body is subjected to a constant stress or aggravant, our body can stay in this inflamed condition long-term. For example, if we are allergic to cats, and we live in a house with a cat, we are likely to be in a perpetual state of allergy symptoms (runny nose, sneezing, itchy throat, etc). Our body never gets a break from having to deal with this allergen, and our symptoms may even worsen over time. These types of stresses to the body can also come from repetitive injuries, other environmental allergens, or from unhealthy lifestyle conditions. Diet and lifestyle both contribute to our state of inflammation. Eating inflammatory foods can aggravate the tissues of the gut, and contribute to inflammation elsewhere in the body. Lifestyle factors like smoking, chronically high stress levels, chronically disturbed sleep patterns, and dehydration also increase inflammatory markers. Naturopathically, we always look at a person's lifestyle when addressing any health concern. With inflammation-related complaints, we may consider removing inflammatory foods from the diet, treating the body for the effects of long-term stress, addressing sleep issues, and using natural therapies to decrease inflammation. Some of my favourite anti-inflammatory treatments include: acupuncture, herbal medicines, and dietary changes.

Acupuncture is a wonderful tool, as it can give immediate relief to pain in a specific area, decreases general inflammation, and increases general circulation and relaxation. Though this is a therapy that has been used for thousands of years, there are studies in recent years showing some of the physiological benefits. These include increasing natural analgesic production and balancing pro-inflammatory markers and anti-inflammatory markers 1. {1. Anti-inflammatory actions of acupuncture; 2003, April; Anti-inflammatory actions of acupuncture; 04-23-2012}

Curcumin, bromelain, and ginger are three very effective anti-inflammatory herbal medicines. Curcuminis the yellow pigment of Curcuma longa, which is commonly known as the spice turmeric. It exerts excellent anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-microbial effects, and is used to treat many inflammatory conditions (arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer 2 – "Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma longa: a review of preclinical and clinical research"; Jurenka, JS, 2009; Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma longa: a review of preclinical and clinical research; 04-23-2012). Bromelain is a mixture of plant enzymes found in pineapple. This is also commonly used as a digestive enzyme (when taken with food), but when taken away from food, is effective in reducing inflammation. Ginger has many therapeutic properties, including being an effective anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and a source of protease. Protease is an enzyme that breaks down protein which can breakdown blockages in blood vessels and other tissues, helping to decrease swelling and pain.

When looking at the diet, we may want to test for food sensitivities. Though there are foods that we know have a higher potential to increase inflammation, someone may have an allergy or sensitivity to another food, which may not be as commonly inflammatory. The most commonly inflammatory foods include processed foods, coffee, alcohol, wheat products, dairy products, and sugars. However, someone may react to other foods like tomatoes, peanuts, citrus fruits, and shellfish. In addition to eliminating aggravating foods, increasing consumption of leafy greens, fish like salmon, trout, or herring, using plant oils high in omega-3 fatty acids (like flax seed oil) and drinking more water, are all recommended. Fish oil is a well-studied supplement with many therapeutic benefits, including being an excellent anti-inflammatory. Though eating fish in the diet is recommended, taking a fish oil supplement is recommended to have the highest therapeutic benefit.

Massage therapy can be extremely beneficial for patients with chronic inflammatory conditions. In our last article "Autoimmune Disorders: When our immune system over-reacts" I explained how massage will help patients with similar disorders. As chronic inflammation is due to some of the same triggers and has common symptoms with autoimmune disorders, it will be treated similarly. Follow this *link* to my explanation in the previous article to read more on how massage can help: decrease the sympathetic nervous system; increase circulation, thereby helping to remove fluid from the tissues and decrease inflammation; decrease any secondary muscle tension from the pain created by the primary condition; and treat the specific symptoms. In a case like asthma, which was not covered in the previous article, massage can target the muscles that are being overworked when the patient is struggling to breath. There are also massage techniques that can help to dislodge the mucus in the lung and positions that will encourage drainage of the excess mucus.

Without the inflammatory process wounds would not heal. Therefore; we are not trying to prevent inflammation, but prevent it from becoming excessive or prolonged. You can imagine how hard it would be on the body if chronic inflammation persisted. The constant destruction of the tissues and the need for cells and components to rebuild them is fatiguing on the system. Being up-regulated all the time makes the inflammation process and/or immune system hypersensitive. This makes them more reactive to lesser insults on the body. Chronic inflammation is becoming a more prevalent health issue.  Our lives are more stressful, our diet is less healthy, and we are exposed to more environmental toxins.  All of these conditions create the potential for more disease.  By addressing and treating inflammation and minimizing it's potential triggers, we are increasing our ability to achieve optimal health.