Let’s say you twisted your ankle and you’re dealing with a bit of swelling. That’s completely normal: inflammation acts as your body’s natural response against injuries or infections so that it can focus on healing. But what happens if your body can’t seem to get itself out of fight mode?
Chronic inflammation happens when your immune system is constantly activated, typically due to an ongoing inflammatory disease. Many times, your inflammation might not be noticeable to other people. Sure, you could have persistently swollen joints, but many times, people experience symptoms like fatigue, fever, canker sores or stomach issues. General body discomfort, joint stiffness and muscle pain are also indicators of potential chronic inflammation.
And while Western medication is a successful option for many to treat chronic inflammation, there are other options you can try instead of — or in addition to — this type of treatment.
What inflammation does to the body
If you experience chronic inflammation, your immune system isn’t ever really turning off. Inflammation is typically a result of the activation of your immune processes and, sometimes, an overactivation of various immune responses.
Dr. Debra Bell, co-director of education at the UW Osher Center for Integrative Health says this overactivation can be caused by or lead to many conditions, such as:
- Cardiovascular diseases or dementia
- Autoimmune diseases
- Pain from muscle or tissue inflammation
- Eczema, allergies, asthma or other skin diseases.
So, how can you begin to heal, especially if you’ve tried everything your doctor has prescribed?
Holistic tools to fight inflammation
First, a disclaimer: Yes, the word “holistic” can deter the skeptics. However, just because these treatment options differ from Western medicine doesn’t mean they are ineffective. And when talking about holistic treatment plans, the focus is more on you and which treatments can work together to treat your body holistically. This could include Western medicine, other types of treatment or a combination of both.
Like anything else, if it doesn’t work for you, that’s OK — do what’s best for you and your body. But if you’re down to try something different, here are a few suggestions.
Before you run at the thought of sitting on a table with a bunch of little needles in you, what if you found out that the science says … it works? Bell says Chinese medicine practices like acupuncture can often be part of someone’s holistic treatment plan due to its efficacy in treating or reducing inflammation.
Of course, acupuncture won’t relieve everyone’s inflammation, but many studies show that acupuncture could be a helpful way to target inflammation — and it is even being used in practice to treat conditions like arthritis.
OK, sure — the thought of adding another supplement to your nightly regimen is enough to make anyone’s eyes roll. However, Bell says that there are many anti-inflammatory supplements. You, of course, would want to talk with your doctor to see which ones are best for your holistic treatment plan.
Bell says turmeric is a commonly used supplement to treat inflammation, as its compounds contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. Even better, turmeric can come in many forms (yes, even gummies, for those who avoid or can’t take pills).
There are many other medicinal herbs out there with anti-inflammatory properties that you can try, but again, check with your doctor first to make sure they won’t have any negative interactions with drugs you’re currently taking.
3 other holistic ways to treat inflammation in the body
While Bell encourages the use of non-traditional treatments as part of an individualized treatment plan, she also emphasizes the need for what most of us already know: lifestyle changes are one of the first points of discussion when attempting to reduce inflammation and should work in tandem with other treatment methods when possible.
Eat an anti-inflammatory diet
Bell says an anti-inflammatory diet, or a Mediterranean-style diet, can be an effective place to start when addressing inflammation.
“Try this diet with an emphasis on whole foods,” she says. “Avoid processed foods, and add a vegetable, a protein and a healthy fat — such as avocado, olive oil, cold water fish or nuts — at every meal.”
Bell adds that the standard American diet is full of ultra-processed, high-calorie and low-nutrient foods, all of which are inflammatory. If there’s a large amount of glucose in your diet, this can also activate inflammation.
“In general, focusing on healthy digestion and a healthy gut is an important practice when treating inflammation,” says Bell.
If giving up your favorite foods is daunting, introduce an anti-inflammatory diet into your routine slowly with an elimination diet. If you stop eating one type of inflammatory food and notice your symptoms dramatically improve, that’s great. If you want to go all-in and overhaul your recipe book — that’s great, too.
Think of yourself as creating a puzzle when designing your holistic health plan — it won’t look the same as someone else’s. It should be something that fits best with your body.
Reduce your stress
Studies show a clear link between some inflammatory conditions and stress, which is why stress-reducing strategies can help your body start to calm down.
“Pay attention to stress and engage in stress-reducing activities such as abdominal breathing, yoga or mindfulness practices,” says Bell.
Bell says exercise can also help stabilize stress and the stress hormone, which in turn helps reduce inflammation.
It is important to note that exercise could cause stress and inflammation, especially if you’re overdoing it. If you experience chronic inflammation, check in with your doctor first to see what types of exercises would be most helpful for your body.
If activities like breathing exercises, yoga and mindfulness don’t seem to be helping, consider reaching out to a mental health expert for additional support with your stress.
Get plenty of sleep
Bell says most people should get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night. If you have any sleep problems, like waking up in the middle of the night or consistent bouts of insomnia, try to get those addressed.
Addressing sleep and inflammation can be very chicken and egg — sometimes, it’s hard to know if you’re not getting much sleep because of the inflammation or if the lack of sleep contributes to it. If you’re struggling to get a good night’s rest, chat with your doctor to see how you can get some shut-eye.
Make an appointment with an integrative health doctor
If you’re looking to talk more in-depth with a doctor who’s an expert on inflammation treatment methods outside of your typical prescription medication, schedule an appointment with an integrative health doctor.
Bell says integrative medicine takes an individualized approach to the whole picture that might affect someone’s health. Working with an integrative medicine specialist can be a good start when developing an individualized treatment plan — and when (or if) adding things like supplements or acupuncture to your life can help.