Does it hurt?

10 Jan 2012

Some surprising causes of inflammation

It would seem quite sensible to assume that children who are emotionally literate and stable stand a better chance of emerging into the adult world with all their emotional ducks (so to speak) in a coherent and well-balanced row. What might not be so intuitive is the notion that poor emotional functioning in childhood would directly impact physical health in latter life. A study looking at just this very issue has confirmed that those emotional ducks may well reflect the likely physical health of those lining them up.

A cohort study started in 1959 assessed the emotional functioning of children aged seven years old, and then looked at the levels of inflammation they experienced in middle adulthood. They found that poor emotional functioning in childhood is associated with levels of C reactive protein, which then predict the amount of inflammation experienced as an adult. [Appleton AA et al. Psychosomatic Medicine 2011; 73: 295-303] This may be one reason why the amount of inflammatory pain adults experience varies so much from person to person, when the factors causing the pain are relatively similar.

There are, of course, many other factors that impact on the experience of inflammation. Firstly, getting poor quality or quantity of sleep will reduce magnesium levels and increase pain perception. This may be a vicious circle, as pain may make good sleep difficult to achieve. Using pain remedies before bed is a good start, and experimenting with herbal remedies that promote a steady cycle through the five stages of sleep and make it easier to go back to sleep if you wake up in the night.

Nutrients such as vitamin B and the mineral magnesium are nourishing for the nervous system, if stress is interrupting sleep patterns. Many of the herbs that help promote sleep are also useful for stress relief, thus encouraging a virtuous circle of good sleep and less stress. Valerian is a useful example, well documented for sleep disturbances as well as stress relief. [1] The herb St John’s Wort is also well documented for improving mood, and may help with sleep by reducing stress levels. [2]

Dr H Moldofsky did research on volunteers who had their delta-stage sleep interrupted for three nights in a row. They all developed fatigue, widespread aching muscles and specific tenderness on palpation of those sites. The symptoms disappeared when delta-stage sleep was restored for just two nights. [Moldofsky, Harvey, ‘Fibromyalgia, sleep disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome’, Ciba Foundation Symposium 173, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, p262-79, Ciba, 1993]

Food and drink that promotes inflammatory responses, such as alcohol, caffeine, and highly processed or refined foods, especially those containing many additives, colourings and refined sugar or artificial sweeteners, will add to the problem. Improving the diet and incorporating more wholefoods and our old friends fruit and veg will help with inflammation and have the bonus effect of a positive impact on many other health issues.

Breathing correctly can be hugely beneficial. Shallow breathing reduces the release of pain-relieving chemicals from the brain stem. Some simple breathing exercises may help relax muscles and also reduce pain perception. Gentle exercise is helpful too, as exercise improves the production of endorphins, which not only increase feelings of happiness but also act as analgesics.

There are several herbal remedies that are known to have an impact on inflammation. Echinacea is associated with the relief of the symptoms of colds and flu, but one of the means by which it achieves this result is by reducing the surge of inflammatory chemicals once they have served their useful purpose in the initial stages of the cold. [3]

It is one of the benefits of herbal extracts that they can modulate the production of things like inflammatory chemicals, rather than hammering them off or flooding them on. Balance is a wonderful achievement, and herbs are rather good at it.

The other herb that is associated with a balanced and moderate effect on inflammation is Devil’s Claw. [4] It won’t knock out pain in the same way as steroids or even strong Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), but neither will it rip your stomach to shreds or give you side effects that require medicating in their turn. It is also suitable for long-term use, which is handy if you have an ongoing inflammatory condition.

[1] Dimpfel W, Suter A. Sleep improving effects of a single dose administration of a valerian/hops fluid extract – a double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled sleep-EEG study in a parallel design using electrohypnograms. Eur J Med Res. 2008 May 26; 13(5): 200-4

Dietz BM, Mahady GB, Pauli GF, Farnsworth NR. Valerian extract and valerenic acid are partial agonists of the 5-HT5a receptor in vitro. Brain Research. Molecular Brain Research. 2005 Aug 18;138(2):191-7.

Khom S, Baburin I, Timin E, Hohaus A, Trauner G, Kopp B, Hering S. Valerenic acid potentiates and inhibits GABA(A) receptors: molecular mechanism and subunit specificity. Neuropharmacology. 2007 Jul;53(1):178-87.

[2] Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD000448. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000448.pub3

[3] Gertsch J et al. FEBS Letters 2004; 577: 563 – 569

[4] Warnock M et al. Phytother Res 2007; 21 doi: 10.1002/ptr.2288



Alison BA (Hons), DN, DNT (Dist) qualified as a nutritional therapist in 1997 and has a busy practice in Glasgow. She has worked in the health industry since 1987 and currently combines her practice with the role of Education Manager for A.Vogel Herbal Remedies. Alison lectures, trains and writes extensively on health issues, and is often to be found quoted in health magazines and on health-related websites.

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