When the movie “Concussion” hit theaters, it made an impact (and some enemies in the NFL) for revealing the damage that years of gridiron rough-and-tumble can inflict on players’ brains, their relationships, their lives. But while most viewers saw the film as a dramatized exposé of the dangers of contact sport, Harry B. Rice, PhD, vice president, regulatory and scientific affairs for the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED; Salt Lake City), viewed its message through a different lens.
“Consider the handful of football players mentioned in the movie,” he says. “Mike Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters, Junior Seau: they committed suicide due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have had a severe blow or blows to the head.” So even as their stories laid bare the tragedy of repeated head injury, they underscored the mechanism that renders those injuries so tragic over the long term: inflammation.
As Rice explains, “Neuroinflammatory processes apparently progress after the initial head injury and worsen with time.” Research now shows that inflammation from such injuries can instigate a number of chronic, debilitating conditions, not least of which are traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and—yep—CTE.
But that’s only the start. Studies link chronic inflammation to osteoarthritis, allergies, heart disease, diabetes—even some cancers. And while football players can look to rules changes for protection, evidence suggests that supplements can do the same for the rest of us. As Linda Doyle, senior vice president, global marketing, OmniActive Health Technologies (Morristown, NJ), says, “What’s exciting is that we have a better understanding of the relationship between inflammation and disease, the mechanisms involved, and the science on natural ingredients that can help.”
If “Concussion” placed head injuries squarely on the public’s radar, the inflammation underlying them “has covered only half its journey” toward widespread relevance, says Shaheen Majeed, marketing manager, Sabinsa (East Windsor, NJ). Yet thanks to coverage (not to mention advertisements) on websites, blogs, social media, television, and the big screen, inflammation’s profile is growing. The upshot, says Majeed, is that more consumers “now take measures to prevent and manage inflammation with the intent of avoiding the chronic disorders” that it triggers.
Doyle sees a similar trend. Consumers have traditionally associated inflammation mostly with joint health, she notes, but the continued effort to call attention to inflammation’s broader consequences has left mainstream shoppers “increasingly aware of the relationship between inflammation and disease.”
When Good Inflammation Goes Bad
Of course, that relationship isn’t all black and white, as inflammation isn’t universally bad. There’s a reason our immune systems mount vigorous inflammatory responses when conditions warrant: such responses keep us alive, putting a defensive ring around pathogens, toxins, and garden-variety dead and damaged cells. Notes Rice, “My perception is that most people think inflammation is a dangerous thing, but inflammation is necessary for the body to heal itself after injury, or to protect itself against bacteria and viruses.”
Yet if healthy inflammation is a body’s best friend, inflammation cranked into overdrive is more trouble than it’s worth. One need look no further than the inflammatory components of, say, meningitis or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) to understand that just as “an absence of inflammation would be deadly,” as Rice puts it, “the presence of inflammation can be deadly, too.”
If nothing else, inflammation is unpleasant, with pain, heat, redness, and swelling all cardinal signs of its acute presence. But at the molecular level, clinicians and researchers monitor more sophisticated markers to determine whether or not inflammation has gone dangerously chronic. Cyclooxygenases (COX), tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), thromboxane A2 (TXA2), leukotriene B4 (LTB4), C-reactive protein (CRP), monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 (MCP-1), matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), and interleukins (IL)-1, IL-6, and IL-8 all “give us a detailed perspective of the grade or extent of inflammation,” Majeed says.
Once that grade and extent reach a breaking point, chronic diseases ranging from metabolic syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis to pulmonary disorders and depression surface.
“As an aging population confronts these diseases, the increasing demand for dietary supplements targeting inflammation is understandable,” says Eric Anderson, senior vice president, global sales and marketing, NattoPharma USA Inc. (Metuchen, NJ), North American subsidiary of NattoPharma ASA (Oslo, Norway).
Thanks to research into the mechanics of inflammation, the means by which supplements target inflammation are increasingly understandable, too. “Broadly speaking,” Doyle explains, “supplements help reduce inflammation by interacting with biochemical and messenger pathways that regulate—or dysregulate—inflammation.”
In vitro and in vivo human clinical studies bear this out, with results indicating that plant-sourced bioactives may “prevent and manage a host of inflammatory-related conditions,” Majeed notes. He points to clinical evaluations of such natural supplements as curcuminoids, ginger extract, and boswellia extract, to name a few, that find a “significant role” for these ingredients in managing inflammation-associated conditions.
Take boswellia. A product of the same plant that gives us Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata), boswellia extract is rich in boswellic acids, the pentacyclic triterpenes that are its active components. “The anti-inflammatory property of boswellic acid is due to its unique ability to block two pro-inflammatory enzymes: 5-lipoxygenase and human leukocyte elastase,” Majeed says. “This mechanism is much like conventional non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs,” but without side effects like stomach irritation and ulceration.
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