A "Natural" Understanding of Inflammation and Disease

by Joseph C.Maroon, M.D.

Recent medical research now confirms that the root cause of many chronic diseases, such as arthritis, heart disease, eczema, asthma, and cancer, are due to chronic inflammation that can affect every cell in the body. Even some unlikely brain-related conditions, such as ADHD, depression, and Alzheimer's disease, are found to have an inflammatory component. Classically, we were taught that inflammation is the body's natural response to internal or external attack and, therefore, a protective mechanism. But if unchecked or the source of the irritation persists, such as smoking, pollution, obesity, or an unhealthy diet, this inflammatory response can produce chronic pain, breakdown of cartilage and muscle, and increased blood clotting. It even may cause genetic changes leading to various cancers and other diseases.

Based on this fact, medical treatments and prescription drugs have been developed for the sole purpose of blunting or blocking this potentially damaging inflammatory process. Despite the amount of time and billions of dollars spent, the current state of treatments often lack effectiveness and can many times even lead to serious complications, such as stroke and heart attack, as seen with the nowwithdrawn drug, Vioxx. Alternative research profiling natural and plant sources to treat inflammatory conditions, now shows that certain dietary supplements can reduce levels of the pro-inflammatory factors found in the body to a similar degree as many prescription drugs and with significantly fewer side effects.

Discovering this fact, as a practicing physician, I've experienced a dramatic shift in not only how I view inflammatoryrelated diseases, but also the concept of disease prevention. One of the best natural products available is fish oil or its major constituent, omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are comprised of two main biologically "active" products: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). For over 30 years, EPA/DHA has been the subject of more than 7,000 scientific reports, including thousands of human clinical trials investigating cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, hyperlipidemia, Alzheimer's disease, ADHD, and rheumatoid arthritis. Fish oil's action has been found, among many other effects, to lower the body's levels of the inflammatory factors, thereby blunting the inflammatory response.

Originally, the benefits of fish oil were discovered in native peoples, such as the Inuit Eskimos in the early 1970s, whose diet consisted of mostly fish. This population was found to have a very low rate of heart disease and stroke, which initiated research on omega-3s. Studies now confirm that these essential fatty acids benefit healthy people, those at high risk of vascular disease, and those who already have vascular disease.


a decreased risk of arrhythmia

reduced triglyceride levels

a reduced growth rate of fatty plaque in the arteries

slightly lower blood pressure

improvements in arthritic pain, mood disorders, brain function, depression, autoimmune disease, and much more

Since 1996 and confirmed in 2002, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating fish (especially fatty fish, i.e., mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon) at least twice a week. While high in EPA and DHA, fish can also have significant concentrations of pollutants stored in their flesh. These pollutants can lead in some cases to toxicity from mercury, PCBs, and dioxin, that build up and settle in various tissues, causing serious health consequences. (For information on minimizing mercury accumulation, see "Trawling the Mercury from Fish," in the October 2004 edition of Natural Health Connection.

The AHA also recommends eating tofu and other forms of soybeans, walnuts, flax seeds, and canola oil. These contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can be converted to omega-3s in the body (unless a person is lacking critical enzymes to complete that process). The cardiac benefits of omega-3s have been extensively studied and there is now a huge amount of research showing positive effects on hypertension as well as breast, prostate, and colon cancers, along with many conditions affecting brain function and development and skin and eye disorders. All effects are primarily related to the natural anti-inflammatory actions of EPA/DHA, which can lower the inflammatory molecules in the body and diminish the inflammation-related damage that can occur to blood vessels, brain cells, and other organ cells of the body.

Choosing a Fish Oil

When choosing a fish oil supplement, it is critical to find a high-quality product that has concentrated amounts of EPA/DHA and is purified of any potential toxins. Because almost all modern research on omega-3s has used concentrated doses of fish oil supplements, most health practitioners recommend omega-3s as a supplement with the general dose of 1 to 3 g of EPA/DHA per day. This eliminates most generic type supplements, leaving those products that are rich in essential fatty acids, great tasting, and guaranteed free of contaminants. In my practice and in my research, I use Nordic Naturals fish oils because they fulfill these important standards of purity and efficacy.

In summary, there is now strong scientific evidence that natural supplements, like the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil and their anti-inflammatory properties, can have substantial benefits for many medical conditions and diseases. It is important to know that natural products can and have passed rigorous clinical testing and offer an alternative to potentially expensive and occasionally dangerous prescription medications.