Inflammation is a natural – and essential – function. It’s the way your body fights infection and heals injury, but if the inflammation doesn’t ever go down, it can start to be a problem. Inflammation has been linked to a range of ills, from asthma to arthritis.
You may be eating well and getting all the exercise you can manage, but sometimes you might feel you need a bit more support to battle inflammation – and supplements might help. Here we’ve outlined some research about what’s on offer so you – with advice from your GP – can make the right choices for yourself.
Vitamin D – not just sunshine
We’ve known for a long time that vitamin D is important for building strong bones by helping to metabolise calcium. What scientists are now finding is that through a clear chain of cellular events, vitamin D can also reduce the proteins that trigger inflammation.
That means if you’re suffering from asthma, arthritis, prostate cancer or any other disease directly linked to chronic inflammation, you might like to talk to your doctor about a vitamin D supplement.
Turmeric and bioactive curcumin
Indians have long known of the health and medicinal properties of turmeric, the bright yellow spice that gives curry its colour. Now, Western health experts have identified why turmeric is so valuable, and are beginning to recognise what it can offer people who suffer from chronic inflammation.
Turmeric has several bioactive compounds, the most important one being curcumin. It’s the magic ingredient that has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, but unfortunately, in the turmeric we use for cooking curcumin makes up only 3% of the total spice. Turmeric supplements, however, contain extracts that have many times that amount of curcumin and are therefore more effective against inflammation.
But – and there’s always a but – curcumin isn’t easily absorbed by the human body. You’ll improve the effectiveness of a turmeric supplement by taking black pepper, which contains piperine, that enhances absorption of curcumin by a whopping 2000%. You might even find a supplement that includes piperine, or its cousin bioperine.
Fat-soluble turmeric also releases its bioactive properties best when taken with a fatty meal, or with oil. You can take up to 500 mg a day without side effects.
This substance is present in all human cells, where it helps enzymes turn food nutrients into energy. Alpha-lipoic acid is unusual in that it is both water and fat-soluble, unlike vitamin C which is soluble only in water, or vitamin E which is only soluble in fat. That double feature allows alpha-lipoic acid to do its work in every single cell of our bodies.
That work includes lowering blood sugar levels, reducing inflammation, slowing skin aging and improving nerve function. It can even help with weight loss. Despite all those important jobs, our bodies don’t have a lot of alpha-lipoic acid to spare, and when it comes to reducing inflammation linked to serious diseases like diabetes, liver disease, heart disease and cancer, we could probably do with a lot more.
We get top-ups from food such as red meat, organ meat, broccoli, spinach, and tomatoes, but not usually enough to tackle serious illness. Supplements of alpha-lipoic acid offer up to 1000 times more than food sources can, and you can safely take up to 600 mg a day without feeling any side effects.
This is a fatty acid that should be part of a healthy diet. Fish oil capsules are popular as omega-3 supplements, and although they might sometimes be helpful in reducing inflammation, they are just as likely to go off and be of no use. If you’re worried about your health and you want to increase your omega-3 intake, you can either eat more fatty fish – salmon, tuna, sardines and anchovies – or include more nuts, flaxseed and flaxseed oil in your diet. It’s also important to remember that omega-3 has a cousin, omega-6 – which is in meat, dairy and seed oils. Omega-3 and omega-6 exist in balance – so if you’re taking in too much omega-6, it’ll be at the expense of the omega-3. In our Western diets, we get far more omega-6 than we need – so alongside upping your omega-3s, it’s important to reduce your omega-6.
There’s no convincing evidence that high doses of fish oil supplements are effective at preventing serious disease caused by inflammation. However, your doctor can prescribe a fish oil medication for certain conditions.
Choose your supplement(s)
When you need extra help with reducing inflammation, supplements may be the answer. You might also need to increase your intake of certain foods, and consult your doctor about the best compounds or combinations to take. Keep eating well and exercising, however – supplements can only take you so far toward good health and freedom from inflammation-causing disease.