Jamie Sculley, ND
5 Botanicals to Balance Inflammation and Reduce Pain
Updated: May 7, 2020
We all suffer from inflammation and pain at some point in our lives whether it's a sprained ankle, headaches, arthritis, or an autoimmune disease. Inflammation is the root of disease so addressing it is a big part of naturopathic care.
In this post I use the term "anti-inflammatory" loosely because the goal is to balance our inflammatory response, not to shut it off. Sometimes inflammation plays a helpful role such as when we injure ourselves. Pain tells us to be careful, swelling immobilizes us to prevent further injury, and our immune system starts a cascade of reactions that start the healing process.
I had an instructor who preferred to use the phrase "inflammation modulator" instead of "anti-inflammatory," and I like this phrase too because the goal isn't to stop inflammation, it's to "turn it down" to a level where you can still heal but not suffer. As you'll see, herbs like turmeric, boswellia, and ginger and compounds derived from plants like bromelain and CBD can be wonderful, natural anti-inflammatories because they work with the body in a balancing way.
Botanical Medicine for Inflammation
Turmeric (Cucurma longa) - many people know turmeric now as an excellent anti-inflammatory herb for arthritis. One of the active compounds, curcumin, is responsible for the pain relieving and antioxidant effects. It's versatile because you can take it many different ways either in capsules or putting it into your food or drinks. Turmeric isn't easily absorbed on its own so it's best to take it with oil, fat or with black pepper added to aid absorption. Here's a recipe for Golden Milk, which is a great way to drink turmeric because the black pepper and fat from the milk help to improve absorption. Turmeric can stimulate liver and gallbladder activity and thin the blood so use caution if you have gallstones, stomach ulcers or are on blood thinning medications.
Boswellia (Boswellia serrata) - this herb is better known as frankincense. As an anti-inflammatory it reduces the production of inflammatory compounds, reduces swelling, and inhibits inflammatory processes that promote more swelling and pain. Studies have found that it worked well when compared to NSAIDs for arthritis and also protected the joint from further degeneration. Boswellia may be beneficial for conditions such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, arthritis, and asthma. It has a good safety profile, but always check with your doctor if you're on other medications.
Ginger (Zingiber officinalis) - this common herb reduces the production of pro-inflammatory compounds, balances bleeding and clotting, reduces muscle spasms and can improve digestion, and reduce nausea. Ginger is great for so many issues including migraine, indigestion, nausea, arthritis, motion sickness, and muscle sprains and strains. Ginger is a warming herb and may cause heartburn or a warm sensation in the stomach if taken by itself so keep this in mind if you have a sensitive stomach, stomach ulcers, or reflux. Ginger affects blood clotting so use caution if you are on blood thinners.
Bromelain - this isn't an herb but I included it because it comes from a plant: pineapple. Bromelain contains enzymes that can break up proteins. Enzymes can do different things depending on when you take them. If you take them with a meal they can help you digest the food, but if you take them away from food they can help to reduce inflammation.
The enzymes found in bromelain act on the inflammatory processes of the immune system but they have more of a balancing effect than a purely inhibiting effect. It acts like an adaptogen by increasing some helpful inflammatory activity and decreasing pain and swelling. Not only does it have direct effects on the immune system, it can also influence our own cells' communication and regulate the immune system in that way.
Studies have found that bromelain can be beneficial for sinusitis by opening up the nasal passages, and may help with arthritis pain. It affects the blood's ability to clot so use caution if you're on blood thinners.
Cannabidiol (CBD) - now that marijuana is legal in the state of Washington CBD is becoming a big industry and companies are popping up all over the place. CBD can be extracted either from marijuana or from hemp. When it's extracted from hemp it contains very low levels of the psychoactive substance, THC, that makes you high so you get more of the anti-inflammatory and pain relieving benefits.
Our own bodies produce cannabinoids and we have receptors for their activity in nearly every body system including the brain, reproductive, digestive and immune systems. It can have far-reaching, balancing effects on our body and be a safe and effective way to reduce inflammation.
CBD can be used internally as a capsule, spray, edible or smoked/vaped. It can also be a very effective anti-inflammatory when used as a cream on painful areas. It may cause drowsiness, depression or anxiety so I recommend starting low and working your way up to a dose that works for you.
We have all dealt with or will experience inflammation and pain in our lives. Inflammation is the root of disease and naturopathic medicine, especially botanical medicine, can be an effective and safe way to reduce inflammation and pain. Natural alternatives include herbs such as turmeric, ginger, and boswellia and plant compounds like bromelain and CBD. Some of these have interactions with medications so be sure to speak with your doctor before trying them.
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“Boswellia Serrata.” Alternative Medicine Review, vol. 13, no. 2, June 2008, pp. 165–167., archive.foundationalmedicinereview.com/publications/13/2/165.pdf.
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“What Is CBD?” What Is CBD? Definition of Cannabidiol & CBD Oil, www.projectcbd.org/cbd-101/what-is-cbd.
“Zingiber Officinale.” Alternative Medicine Review, vol. 8, no. 3, 2008, pp. 331–335., archive.foundationalmedicinereview.com/publications/8/3/331.pdf.