Learn about some of the best herbs for inflammation by the organ system they work best for
In this last article, Chris Marano discussed some categories of herbs for managing inflammation. Read that article if you would like some background in what kinds of herbs are good for inflammation. Below, Chris shares more information on some of the best herbs for inflammation.
The best herbs for inflammation that leads to headaches
Top on the list is feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium). Feverfew is the herb of choice for chronic, stressful, liver headaches, gallbladder headaches and migraines. Feverfew is intensely cold and bitter. Sometimes you want to dispel inflammation by bringing more warmth and stimulation to the area in order to dispel blockage. If that’s not working, what is sometimes needed is to directly reduce heat and pain of inflammation. Since many headaches are of the hot, inflamed variety, we can utilize cold, bitter herbs (bitter is cold in nature) to help directly cool and reduce inflammation.
It’s a similar concept when managing a fever. If it’s a low fever, you can take a heating, diaphoretic herb (like ginger) to raise the temperature so that it breaks; but if you have a high fever, that would not be recommended. Better to administer cooling febrifuge herbs (also called refrigerants or antipyretics) to bring the fever down directly. Feverfew is so good in this area that they named the plant after its effect. Other cold and bitter herbs on this list include gentian (Gentiana lutea), hops (Humulus lupulus), California poppy,(Eschscholzia californicum) and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora). These plants all help with relieving inflammation, especially headache inflammation.
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The best herbs for inflammation: Liver and gallbladder constraint-releasing herbs
Chinese medicine speaks of liver and gallbladder constraint-release herbs to aid in reduction of inflammation. Chinese medicine recognizes organs as being more than and extending beyond their anatomical structures. They are also the overseers of the meridian channel that they are in charge of, and so their influence pervades throughout the body along those channels. The liver and gallbladder have a tendency to create tension, blockage, inflammation and pain when they are perturbed, doing so by clamping or constraining free flow of qi — and therefore blood — causing inflammation and tension wherever this constraint happens.
In regards to liver constraint-release herbs, white peony (Paeonia lactiflora) root is the herb often chosen by Chinese practitioners to help release liver constraint and, therefore, help to release pain and inflammation that’s happening because of it. I use white peony a lot in my practice, seeing it as an herbal medicine particularly keyed in for our time and culture. I almost always combine it with either agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) or cinquefoil (Potentilla spp.) herb. These herbs are virtually identical in their usage and are renowned for relieving constraint through the gallbladder and liver channel, reducing tension and inflammation system wide, and especially so in the digestive system. I view white peony and agrimony (or cinquefoil) as a “dynamic duo” for addressing tension, heat and inflammation.
Another often-used Chinese herb in this category is chai hu, or bupleurum (B. chinensis), releasing constraint, tension and inflammation, and especially so in the digestive system and female reproductive system.
Popular herbs from the Western herbal tradition that have an antiinflammatory effect on particular tissues or organ-systems include chamomile (Matricaria chamomila) and catnip (Nepeta cataria) for stomach and digestive inflammation, mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and pleurisy root (Asclepia tuberosa) for respiratory inflammation, wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), turmeric (Curcuma longa) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, G. uralensis) for bowel inflammation, sweet birch (Betula lenta) and couchgrass (Agropyron repens) for bladder inflammation. These are but a few. There are many antiinflammatory herbs that have direct effect on different organ-systems.
The best herbs for inflammation that is chronic
Chronic inflammation happens when acute inflammation is left unchecked, either because it’s invisible or you don’t have the time or skill-set to address it. The inflammation builds and eventually becomes chronic, more problematic, and the longer it takes to help it as well. It can eventually convert to a systemic autoinflammatory response, where the immune system starts attacking your own tissue. This tissue is usually already compromised and unhealthy, and the immune system comes to perceive it as enemy to be attacked. Another kind of chronic inflammation is when the immune system goes into overdrive to help deal with an object of harm, creating excessive inflammation that can become problematic, even dangerous. Medically, this is often described as a cytokine storm.
In cases of chronic inflammation, in addition to choosing herbs and protocols to help de-flame the area in question, we also choose herbs (and mushrooms) that are strengthening, balancing and modulating to the deep immune core, helping to reinstate intelligent and appropriate response by the immune system. The result being that the immune system is not so trigger-happy in its response, whether via an allergic reaction or an autoinflammatory response. Mushrooms help mightily here. Examples include turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), cordyceps (C. militaris, C. spp.), lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus), reishi (Ganoderma spp.), shiitake (Lentinula edodes), maitake (Grifola frondosa), and chaga (Inonotus obliquus). They’re all helping here and more are joining the list all the time. Mushrooms rule!
Also, many of the adaptogens are immunomodulators. Codonopsis root (C. pilosula), ginseng (Panax panax), goji berries (Lycium barbarum), ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera), rhodiola root (R. rosea), and others fall into this category. Astragalus root (A. membranaceus) too, but sometimes not. According to Stephen Buhner’s research, astragalus can in certain cases (Lyme Disease) trigger an excessive cytokine cascade in the brain causing inflammatory neurological symptoms. In most cases, however, astragalus is an excellent immunomodulator.
In recent years, medical science has come to realize and now links autoimmunity and systemic inflammation to poor gut health and out-of-balance bowel flora. This can happen when healthy bowel flora becomes dominated by unhealthy bowel flora, parasitic bacteria and fungi that compete for nutrition and cause inflammation in the gut lining, and in some cases, beyond to the rest of the body. Compromised digestion and assimilation eventually lead to irritation of the intestines, which in turn can loosen the weave of the large intestine, creating a leaky gut. This means that waste and toxins that should be eliminated through healthy bowel movements are now being released into the bloodstream and lymph, causing the immune system to work overtime after every meal. Eventually this can trigger the immune system to switch from a local to a systemic (body-wide) inflammatory response. In addition to antiinflammatory herbs, we would also want to choose plant medicines that help to protect and coat inflamed tissue (demulcent or mucilaginous substances), herbs that repair compromised gut tissue (vulneraries, or wound-healing medicines) and herbs that help to re-tone gut membrane (astringents). Furthermore, it is essential to clean up the diet, eliminate or drastically minimize problematic foods (refined simple sugars and refined complex carbohydrates are at the top of the no-no list) that favor unhealthy bacteria over healthy bowel flora as well as a good regimen of prebiotics and probiotics. In addition, choose herbs that help strengthen gut integrity, like turmeric — fresh turmeric more so than dry turmeric. Ginger and garlic are also on this list.
Licorice root is one of my favorite herbs to use in this situation. Licorice is a profound antiinflammatory agent and protector of digestive tissue. Chamomile and catnip are near its equal. In all cases I would pay particular attention to strengthening the gut when addressing chronic inflammation and autoimmunity of any kind.
What are some of the best herbs for inflammation that you would like to know more about?