Saturday, June 28, 2008

Managing Inflammation Naturally, Part 2

Inflammation is critical for the healing of wounds, fighting infections, and responding to toxic exposures. But like a double-edged sword, inflammation is also a biochemical response that can become too much of a good thing. Unfortunately, if certain substances in our bodies become unbalanced, the inflammation switch can be flipped "on" at the wrong time or get stuck in overdrive even though it is no longer needed.

When inflammation occurs, it can be seen externally as swelling or a rash. But a more dangerous kind is that which can occur internally. If it persists and becomes chronic, it can cause damage to organs or organ systems. Diseases in which inflammation plays a role are heart disease (see my last post), stroke, Alzheimer’s, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, cancers, arthritis, gingivitis and other “itis” disorders.

The Diet: A Primary Driving Force of Inflammation
Since the prevalence of these conditions can be correlated with and related to our increased diets of nutrient-depleted, calorie-rich convenient foods, it is possible to end the inflammation process with a change in diet. Saturated and trans-fats, refined sugars, processed meats, and artificial sweeteners all shift the balance of chemicals in our bodies toward inflammation by driving inflammatory chemicals like arachadonic acid. Inflammation increases oxidation; oxidation leads to degeneration; degeneration leads to more inflammation; and so goes the vicious cycle.

The Conventional Approach
The conventional therapy for inflammation – pharmaceuticals - has been a tragic failure. The FDA stated that as many as 50,000 people died as a direct result of taking Vioxx, and the 16th leading cause of death in the U.S. are the side effects of non-steroidal anti- inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen.1 Thankfully, there are natural alternatives that fight inflammation without dangerous side effects.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
One group of dietary nutrients enjoying much publicity as it pertains to inflammation and other health benefits are the omega fatty acids. Don’t be confused by the wording here. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory because they displace arachadonic acid and other inflammatory chemicals, while omega-6 acids can actually drive inflammation. Proper balance is the key. We already get too many omega-6 fatty acids in the diet, but dangerously low levels of omega-3s. Dietary sources of omega-6 fatty acids would be meat, eggs, dairy, and certain vegetable oils such as the ones found in corn, safflower, and sunflower. Foods rich in omega-3’s include oily fish such as herring, sardines, tuna, mackerel and salmon (preferably wild); oils made from these fish; hemp, flax, pumpkin seeds, soy, canola oil, and walnuts and their oils. Also, non-starchy vegetables such as dark leafy salad greens, spinach, kale, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, and onions also have small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

A healthy ratio of these two fatty acids would be 1:1, or at most 5:1 in favor the omega-6s. However, the ratio in the typical American diet is more than 20:1 in favor of the omega-6 fats. This unfavorable ratio shifts the body toward a chronic inflammatory state which can set the stage for many chronic conditions.

Scientists were first alerted to the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in the 1970s when Danish researchers discovered that Greenland Eskimos suffered almost no heart disease, cancer, or arthritis in spite of eating diets very high in animal protein and fat. Most of the foods they were eating, it was later discovered, was rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and two omega-3 fatty acids in particular - Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

While altering the diet is paramount, we can also achieve more therapeutic levels of omega-3 fatty acids by supplementing with purified fish oil. Some research suggests taking as much as 4 grams per day of fish oil for cardiovascular disease, and 8 grams for neurological diseases. It is nearly impossible to get that much omega-3 fatty acids from the diet alone, so supplementing becomes necessary as a way to manage these types of problems.

The benefits of fish oil supplementation enjoy one of the broadest and largest bodies of evidence of any therapeutic substance, pharmaceutical or natural. In fact, fish oil supplementation has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks by up to 90%2 (see graph below), and increase IQ scores by up to 13%3.

The Problem of Contamination
The FDA has stated that a 132-pound woman eating two cans of albacore tuna per week would exceed safe dose ranges of mercury by 3 times! Unfortunately, one of God’s most healthful foods for human consumption has been contaminated by various toxins and heavy metals. For this reason, eating fatty fish must be limited, and this emphasizes the importance of supplementing with fish oil capsules.

However, fish oil supplementation does not necessarily solve the problem, as fish oil supplements can be MORE toxic than eating fish if manufacturers do not take the necessary steps to remove all the contaminants through an ultra-purification molecular distillation process, and then by following that process up by paying a laboratory to perform a third-party analysis verifying that the oils are contaminant free.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles
It has been said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. The first step in beginning a life free of inflammation and vitality-sapping degeneration begins with lifestyle. The importance of exercising, eating healthfully, and losing weight cannot be overstated. And in the context of eating right, since even the healthiest Western diets are so deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, supplementing with high quality fish oil must be considered part of the first step.

Stay tuned for part 3 of my series on inflammation, where I discuss powerful targeted interventions for chronic inflammation.


1. Wolfe M M, Lichtestein D R, and Singh G. Gastrointestinal Toxicity of Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs. New England Journal of Medicine 1999;(24):188-89.

2. Lawrence J. Whalley, Helen C. Fox, Klaes W. Wable, John M. Starr, Iae J. Deary. Cognitive Aging, Childhood Intelligence, and the Use of Food Supplements: Possible Involvement of n-3 Fatty Acids. Am J Clin Nutr 2004; 50:1650-7

3. Adapted from Siscovich et al. JAMA 1995;274: 1363-1367