- Inflammation is a blanket term used to refer to how the immune system affects the body, usually adversely, in both sickness and in health. Conversely, “Immunity” tends to refer to the beneficial parts of the immune system’s actions.
- Like “antioxidant”, “anti-inflammatory” is a major key word in marketing. It’s used so often because many disease states are related to inflammation yet the nuances of how are not easily understood by the lay person.
- While there are many supplements that help with inflammation, they tend to be best taken in a specialized sense, like supplement A for issue B. Cheap, over the counter options are usually your best bet.
Inflammation is a pretty big deal.
The word does not refer to a single process but rather a collection of processes in the body. A collection of processes that both defends, and damages, the host organism (you).
There isn’t a single disease in existence, whether it infects you from an outside source or if it arises naturally from lifestyle or genetics, that doesn’t interact with inflammation in the body in some way.
If something ails you, or benefits you, then inflammation will be involved to an intimate degree. Wrangling inflammation—letting it do its job when it helps you and controlling it when it gets out of whack—is undoubtedly something that can add years to your life and life to your years.
Only one catch though… immunology, the study of the immune system, is perhaps one of the most difficult and unintuitive fields of human biology to research.
And that’s before you even look at how it interacts with organs. It’s very easy to dip your toes into but the wealth of knowledge on the topic is near endless.
This obscene difficulty to know the ins and outs of immunology (and I ain’t no expert on it either) has led to people trying to take a more relaxed approach, which turned into “just take an anti-inflammatory because it’s good.”
This mindset will quickly lead to an overzealous market though, with everything holding the prized “anti-inflammatory” label that people seek. Things are taken not because of what they do but the name they hold.
Remember when resveratrol was the boss hoss of supplements?
It lost popularity around the time academic misconduct was noted. Afterwards, our little boy curcumin took his place and, given the hype, will undoubtedly get a smackdown sometime in the next few years.
But is this okay?
Just to jump on the bandwagon of the latest and greatest?
The molecules don’t change at all. What works now should also work 100 years ago and 100 years into the future. Why can’t we get a great reliable anti-inflammatory, like creatine is reliable for building muscle?
Well, to start, we need to understand what the bojangles inflammation even is.
- What Is Inflammation?
- What Are Anti-Inflammatory Supplements?
- Why Do People Take Anti-Inflammatory Supplements?
- How Does Inflammation Interact with Immunity?
- The Best 3 Anti-Inflammatory Supplements
- The Worst 3 Anti-Inflammatory Supplements
- The Bottom Line on Anti-Inflammatory Supplements
- Do you have a different take on the best and worst anti-inflammatory supplements? Let me know in the comments below!
Table of Contents
The standard definition of inflammation, according to Merriam-Webster, is as follows:
A local response to cellular injury that is marked by capillary dilatation, leukocytic infiltration, redness, heat, and pain and that serves as a mechanism initiating the elimination of noxious agents and of damaged tissue.
It’s a bit wordy, and focuses a lot on the specifics of what happens, but it’s right. Inflammation is basically the result of the processes your body uses to defend itself. This refers to both primary processes and the more practical secondary effects.
Got a problematic toxin floating around in your body? The ability of your white blood cells to detect it, hunt it down, and eliminate it with extreme prejudice is the process of inflammation.
The redness, swelling, and inability to move the joint in the general area this occurred in causing you to miss a workout? Also inflammation.
This is because the process of inflammation is at times highly targeted and precise but, at other times, follows carpet-bombs anything in the vicinity. Once the signaling molecules are released, trying to refocus them is like trying to herd cats—you can’t.
Under most normal conditions our bodies are well adapted to be able to handle, and repair from, this carpet-bombing inflammation. It’s “less bad” than the alternative of not repairing the body and not eliminating toxins.
At other times, however, inflammation gets out of control and either attacks our healthy tissue too much or attacks it at unnecessary times. This then leads to unnecessary levels of tissue and cellular damage.
When you’re in one of these states of excess inflammation then anti-inflammatory supplements become quite valuable.
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It is surprisingly difficult to correctly define what an anti-inflammatory supplement is. Inflammation is a very large, very heterogeneous process and dozens of different things happening in the body can all be called “inflammation.”
Naturally there are some things, like Ibuprofen, that are clearly anti-inflammatory. Some mechanisms in the body like Ibuprofen’s targets, the COX enzymes, are also clearly involved in the process of inflammation.
At other times though? Technically something happens that reduces some inflammatory biomarker (a molecule measured and thought to indicate something else by proxy) and it’s considered anti-inflammatory.
Ultimately, almost anything can technically be called an anti-inflammatory supplement.
Because anything can be argued to be anti-inflammatory, don’t give that term too much credence. You don’t take an anti-inflammatory simply to reduce inflammation, you take it to reduce a practical problem (like headaches). Focus on the problem and figure out what the best solution is.
As I hinted at above, if you’re looking for an anti-inflammatory supplement, don’t just go by the label.
The words “reduces inflammation” are meaningless supplement buzzwords at this point.
Instead, if you are looking for something to reduce inflammation in hopes that it helps reduce joint pain then seek out supplements that reduce joint pain. It’s a measurable outcome that can be proven and understood.
So, with that said, what common problems have known links to the inflammatory processes in the body going haywire?
- Joint pain. Both the increase in pain and the reduction in mobility seen in osteoarthritis and general wear-and-tear injuries are due to the inflammatory process not knowing when to stop and overreacting.
- Delayed-onset muscle soreness. If it happens infrequently then it’s best you just suck it up, princess. If it occurs everyday despite constant training and good nutrition/rest, then something is amiss in your body and some subtle anti-inflammatory supplement may be prudent.
- Headaches and migraines are also a common reason people consider anti-inflammatories. NSAIDs work though, and even though caffeine works despite not reducing inflammation the wonderful feverfew is an anti-inflammatory.
- And while it may not be the best idea (more on this later) there are some aspects of sickness that can be quelled with anti-inflammatories. This is most commonly rhinitis, or inflammation causing a stuffy nose, which can be helped with anti-inflammatories like spirulina or tinospora cordifolia.
Those four tend to be the most common specific issues that people use anti-inflammatories for. The other main school of thought is that diseases under the umbrella of metabolic syndrome (diabetes, heart disease, etc.) and aging in general are worsened with inflammation.
So clearly, if inflammation worsens and eventually plays a vital role in causing these diseases, should we all take anti-inflammatories?
That’s the million dollar question, and I’m not certain if I know the answer right now. Having a healthy diet, a good sleep cycle, and moderate exercise routine paired with keeping an eye out for any major abnormalities (i.e. the stuff listed above) should suffice, for now.
I mentioned in the rhinitis section “more on this later”; well, here’s the later. Inflammation and immunity are not wholly opposite each other but tend to throw monkey wrenches at each other a lot.
Things that “reduce inflammation” aim to suppress the general response to toxins and injuries that your body undergoes when it thinks (whether right or wrong) that it’s in danger.
Things that “support immunity” aim to enhance this general response.
The immune system is vast, complicated, and not inherently a black or white “yes/no” response. But, as a general rule of thumb you don’t want to pop a bunch of immunity enhancers and anti-inflammatories in your mouth at the same time. It’s possible they cancel each other out.
Things that increase immunity while suppressing inflammation to relevant degrees, like spirulina and garlic, are not that common. Usually one of the two claims is overblown (which, quite frankly, could potentially be the case with garlic being an anti-inflammatory.)
As a general rule of thumb, immunity boosters and anti-inflammatories don’t always play nicely with each other. They very well could but it requires some in-depth double checking. If you want to go all-in on one of these goals you may likely worsen the other.
There are a lot of ways to define “best” on this topic so, before we begin, I want so specify that I’m not going be looking into the most versatile and “all-purpose” anti-inflammatories. Jack of all trades yet master of none sort of thing after all.
I want to look at things that, for their specific purpose, do a damn good job.
And yes, there are probably going to be effective anti-inflammatories missing from this list. Can’t have everything being top three after all.
Berberine is the main bioactive of a few antidiabetic plants, primarily berberis aristata from which it was named. While it’s most well known these days for being a highly potent AMPK inducer, working similar to the pharmaceutical Metformin and potentially similar potencies, it also has a history of being called “herbal Imodium” (a pharmaceutical anti-diarrhea drug).
It has a general ability to negate, partially, inflammatory responses which shines most in the intestines.
This has been shown to reduce diarrhea, and other side effects, in people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. Both IBS and ulcerative colitis being inflammatory conditions in the intestines.
Given how it not only has a special role in intestinal inflammation (where it’s relatively low absorption rates don’t matter) but also minor whole body anti-inflammatory properties and secondary benefits to blood glucose management, berberine is a pretty cool anti-inflammatory.
Berberine shows potency for being an anti-inflammatory, but holds most promise in the intestines, with conditions like IBS and UC, since it is not absorbed from the intestines perfectly.
Berberine can also help manage blood glucose as a nice anti-diabetic side-effect.
Spirulina is an algae that we’ve written about previously but, ultimately, holds a pretty cool niche among anti-inflammatory supplements.
It’s an inhibitor of the enzyme known as NADPH oxidase, or NOX, which is basically an immune cell’s submachine gun that it uses to unleash devastating hell upon invaders through what’s called an oxidative burst. Like, it causes oxidation, a lot of it, and it kills things beyond dead.
This is important to note since NADPH serves a vital protective role against infectious invaders, but it also plays a pivotal role in causing inflammatory damage to your own organs. The pancreas, liver, and kidneys can be affected as well as the heart and blood pressure. That is a non-exhaustive list as well, just don’t want to put in too many citations.
Basically, this enzyme wielded by immune cells can cause a ton of damage. If it’s targeted towards viruses and infections then it’s amazing.
If it’s targeted towards you then it’s horrible. If inflammation is a concern then stopping this damage can prove quite beneficial.
It’s why spirulina is thought to reduce body weight in obese people, reduce fatigue, improve blood pressure and reduce viral load in hepatitis, slightly improve exercise performance, and my favorite benefit (cause my nose sucks)—drastically reduce allergic rhinitis. Excluding the viral load the others are all aggravated by NADPH not doing its job right.
Spirulina also has the nice theoretical side-effect of mimicking Gilbert’s Syndrome, the horrible and devastating disease that lowers risk of other diseases and is associated with increased lifespan and health, so I guess you just have to deal with it. Oh, the humanity.
Ultimately, if you want a supplement that manages the damaging side-effects of inflammation and has potentially great side-effects to longevity then spirulina is a great consideration. At the very least it’s demonstrated safe and quite cheap to experiment with.
Curcumin has its own article explaining the benefits so, rather than spend too long like in previous sections and drown you with citations, let’s just cut to the chase.
Curcumin is a COX inhibitor. COX is an enzyme that turns signaling molecules from “barely inflammatory or anti-inflammatory” into “potently inflammatory” and is vital for the cells of the body to mount a defense.
However, it’s also the most common way the body can screw up and end up over-producing inflammatory signals.
The entire NSAID class of over the counter drugs including Aspirin, Ibuprofen, and Paracetamol are COX inhibitors and have been used with great benefits.
Curcumin is just the herbal equivalent of Ibuprofen. Not stronger, not weaker, and maybe better on the stomach. It’s nothing overly remarkable but, at the end of the day, when you can rightfully call yourself equivalent to Ibuprofen that’s pretty damn good.
Basically curcumin is just herbal Ibuprofen that might be easier on the stomach and, at the end of the day, that’s something worth bragging about.
The “worst” anti-inflammatories are mostly decided due to marketing. As stated previously, anything can be sufficiently argued to be an anti-inflammatory and you could probably make a good argument for it.
But some things are just hyped up a lot more than the minor benefits they could maybe give. That is what enshrines them, in my mind, as the “worst” anti-inflammatories despite them being some pretty cool supplements.
Green Tea (and catechins in general)
Right, so “catechin” is a term used to refer to some molecules that look similar to each other.
They are most commonly supplemented either in the form of green tea with epigallocatechin-gallate or dark chocolate with (-)-epicatechin.
These two molecules, and catechins in general, are pretty strong antioxidants with some cool benefits to blood flow. However, at some point I guess people assumed that the terms “anti-inflammatory” and “antioxidant” were similar enough to give both labels to both supplements.
But ultimately there’s no real potency of them to reduce inflammation.
Of course, there are some instances of inflammation being caused by oxidation, in which case any antioxidant can then help (demonstrated with green tea).
But that’s it, just evidence barely linking inflammation and green tea together because it’s an antioxidant. This is nothing to write home about, hell, it’s expected by just eating some plants every now and then.
If you want a problem solved, solve it directly. Don’t get something unrelated in the hopes that sometimes, maybe, it could potentially and indirectly help you.
While effective antioxidants with a myriad of health benefits, green tea and other plants that brag about their catechin content are not potent anti-inflammatory supplements despite what marketing may lead you to think.
Oh boy, this is gonna be a tough section to write.
Let’s be honest, Alpha-lipoic Acid (ALA) is a pretty great molecule. (Don’t confuse it with alpha-linolenic acid, the omega-3 fatty acid, though.)
I even have it in my supplement repertoire and really like this guy. If you have money to spare I’d suggest checking it out, especially if you have concerns with blood glucose management or neurons.
But let’s call a spade a spade.
It’s a vital antioxidant of utmost importance but that is it. Inflammation can damage a cell, and ALA can protect said cells, but whether it can or cannot influence the overall anti-inflammatory response depends on the cell.
It really has no business being called an anti-inflammatory. It’s an antioxidant and, I would argue, a pseudovitamin (something with similar properties of vitamin without holding the designation thereof) but, yeah, not an anti-inflammatory.
Alpha-lipoic acid is a great molecule and a great antioxidant that has many vitamin-like properties. However, it’s not the thing you want if you’re suffering from inflammatory diseases unless otherwise specified.
Acai/Camu-Camu/Insert “Exotic”-sounding fruit
People are told to eat their fruits and vegetables.
People don’t want to eat vegetables.
Fruits though? They’re tasty but apples and oranges are, like, boring.
Don’t you have anything more exotic? Like, a berry or something?
Every other year a new damn berry arises from the ashes of alternative medicine and, because they’re tasty, they are made into products that people buy simply because celebrities endorse them and they don’t taste horrible.
And they all bear marketing claims talking about how high an ORAC value they have despite, I don’t know, literally nobody giving a damn about ORAC? Then the ORAC values somehow end up being anti-inflammatory and, I don’t know, this stuff angers me.
The last slot on the worst anti-inflammatories goes, collectively, to the new and exciting berries that pop up every other January for new years resolutioners that are made into smoothies of lies and deceit.
Seriously, just eat some broccoli damn it. Use sulforaphane and isothiocyanates as an excuse but don’t pay out the nose for some random berry you never heard of before.
At the end of the day, anti-inflammatory supplements are over-marketed, over-sold, and overrated.
They’re usually bought not because of specific benefits, but rather because of the label of “anti-inflammatory.” People taking curcumin not because of benefits to joint health but rather “it reduces inflammation and inflammation is bad lol.”
Pretty close to brainwashing in my opinion.
Inflammation is neither good nor bad, it’s just inflammation.
If inflammation does something else that you don’t like, like damaging your organs or hurting your joints, then you can call it bad. Supplements chosen to intervene should focus on the bad parts rather than the bogeyman that the word “inflammation” has become.
Fix the problems you can see before addressing the problems that are a mystery.
And schlurp up that spirulina. I don’t work for Big Green to get them Big Greens for nothing.
Oh, and if you enjoyed this article, would you mind sharing it on Facebook? The more people read these, the more I’ll write.