Foods and botanicals for inflammation: Expert recommendations

Robby Gardner

Robby Gardner is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, specializing in fresh produce and health food ingredients.

The Herbal Pharmacist’s take on leading ingredients to fight inflammation

Inflammation is a critical element of human survival. It’s the body’s defense against infection and damaged tissue, and yet chronic inflammation can damage cells and organs, creating many of today’s common health problems. In the aging population, finding ways of slowing down inflammation becomes all the more important.

David Foreman, RPh, popularly known as “The Herbal Pharmacist” and president of Herbal Pharmacist Media LLC, discusses the need to curb inflammation in aging populations and in all stages of life. As consumers become more aware of the harmful effects of inflammation and its impact on different parts of the body, he says, the number of nutritional ingredients to consider grows.

From diet to supplementation, researchers are increasingly learning about how the ingredients we consume can influence inflammation. A balanced diet can influence inflammation as can herbs and botanicals with antioxidant potential. Which nutritional interventions are most effective in fighting inflammation depends on many factors, and recommendations will likely change as scientists continue learning about ingredients over time. The following are some considerations gleaned from an interview with Foreman.

Joint Inflammation

Chief among concerns relating to inflammation, especially in older consumers, is joint health. Increasing age, injury, and weight gain can weaken the joints and create conditions such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Fortunately, research is mounting on botanical ingredients that may stop these aggravated health conditions before they fully manifest, or provide some pain relief and restore mobility in those who are already ailing.

With joint health being such a successful dietary supplement category, considerable funding has gone into exploring many botanicals for joint health. Foreman mentions turmeric, ginger, and the Ayurvedic herb bacopa as a few that are showing promise through expanding research.

In a recent study on 60 adults with chronic knee osteoarthritis, a combined supplement of turmeric, ginger, and black pepper was deemed similarly as effective as Naproxen, an anti-inflammatory drug, in reducing inflammation.1

Skin Inflammation

Lifestyle factors such as sun exposure, allergies, diet, and viral infections can cause skin inflammation. There’s no shortage of ingredients marketed for combating the effect of these elements on skin tissue. They include ingredients sourced from land and open water. A particular ingredient that continues to show promise in this category is astaxanthin, a carotenoid which can be sourced from algae and yeast.

The global market for astaxanthin is supported by research endeavors around the world. Most recently, researchers who compiled a scientific review of astaxanthin clinical trials on skin health concluded that considerable evidence exists to support the ingredient’s use for this purpose, especially for sun-damaged skin.2 Published studies have focused on astaxanthin for UV-induced skin damage but also for improving skin texture, appearance, and moisture content. However, small sample sizes and private funding are potential conflicts of interest. Research continues to examine the relationship between astaxanthin consumption and skin health, primarily focusing on the ingredient’s actions as a powerful antioxidant.

Alongside a healthy diet and responsible lifestyle practices, dietary supplementation with astaxanthin or other science-backed anti-inflammatory ingredients may provide significant benefit for the skin at all stages of aging.

Essential Fatty Acids

Healthy fats are an important part of optimal nutrition. As Foreman suggests, they are critical for many aspects of health and for slowing the aging process.

“They are important for every cell in the body as well as providing benefits for fighting inflammation, cardiovascular health, immune health, skin health, eye health, brain health, and so much more,” he says. “Considering their importance to each cell in the body, we can extrapolate that dietary lipids are important for all the health challenges we face.”

Essential fatty acids are the foundation of a diet containing healthy fats. The prevailing scientific theory is that increasing consumption of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids is the best approach, since western diets are generally high in omega-6 fatty acids. A better balance of omega-3 and omega-6 is believed to promote health and lower levels of inflammation in the body. Research will continue to elucidate the complex relationship between various types of fats, diet, and inflammation.

Gut Health

The gut and its microbial community profoundly influence human health beyond digestion, as we are increasingly learning. Public and private research institutions have a devoted significant amount of time and resources to studying the effects of individual microbes, in the form of probiotics, on human health. In many cases, these isolated strains of bacteria are showing the potential to counteract inflammation in the gut and elsewhere throughout the body.

While much gut research focuses on how individual strains can benefit human health, there have also been projects that examine the overall microbial community and how it changes with age. Recently, Chinese and U.S. scientists examined bacterial samples from newborn to elderly humans, healthy and diseased, and identified an aging progression reflected in the gut microbiota and associated with declining health factors and inflammation.3

Countless dietary foods and nutritional interventions can be employed to alter and improve the gut microbiota in humans of all ages. “Eating a diet which contains naturally fermented foods—i.e., kefir, yogurt, etc.—and supplementing with probiotics is a great start,” says Foreman. “We also need to consider eating more fibrous foods such as fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds. These fibers are needed to yield the full potential benefits of consuming friendly microbes.”

He adds: “This area is most likely more important in older people as they have had a lifetime to be exposed to things which negatively impact the microbiome, such as antibiotics, non-organic foods, environmental toxins, and poor water sources.”

Calorie Restriction

In addition to nutrient interventions, calorie restriction is an important consideration in the aging process. Limiting caloric intake without causing undernourishment can curb weight gain in overweight and obese individuals and reduce the likelihood of developing inflammatory health conditions. But research is still inconclusive as to what extent caloric restriction can be beneficial to human health and the aging body.

“Depending on the age or state of health of a person, calorie restriction can be both good and bad,” says Foreman. “If someone is calorie restricting and not consuming enough protein, then we have the risk of developing sarcopenia, a very debilitating disease and the leading cause of ‘loss of independence’ among aging people. On the other hand, calorie restriction is a good thing for those who are either pre- or type II diabetic, overweight, or have cardiovascular disease.”

When formulating health products, consider the intended use and target consumers to assess the role calories may play in a given health food or beverage.

References

  1. Heidari-Beni M et al. “Herbal formulation ‘turmeric extract, black pepper, and ginger’ versus Naproxen for chronic knee osteoarthritis: a randomized, double-blind, controlled clinical trial.” Phytotherapy Research, vol. 34, no. 8 (August 2020): 2067–2073
  2. Ng QX et al. “Effects of astaxanthin supplementation on skin health: a systematic review of clinical studies.” Journal of Dietary Supplements. Published online March 23, 2020.
  3. Xu C et al. “Aging progression of human gut microbiota.” BMC Microbiology. Published online October 28, 2019.