Inflammation is a powerful process that our body uses to heal injuries, fight infections, and deal with damaged cells and debris. The five cardinal signs of inflammation are redness, swelling, warmth, pain and tenderness. Inflammation in the acute stage is beneficial to help heal tissue injury, but, it is when it becomes chronic that we often seek help to deal with the pain and loss of function.
Inflammation is generally broken down into three phases:
- Phase 1 is the acute stage of inflammation and generally lasts up to 5 days after an initial soft tissue injury (up to 3 weeks for a bone injury). During this stage there is often swelling and pain as the immune system produces cytokines, or chemical messengers, to orchestrate the healing process. We are told to “RICE” the injury: rest, ice, compress, and elevate.
- Phase 2 is the proliferation period which can last up to 3 weeks (or up to 12 weeks with a bone injury). Temporary tissue is created and laid down to replace the damaged tissue, and is generally weaker but still provides sound structure and allows for functional movement at the site of injury. New research is showing the importance of movement and massage to help the body lay down fibrin (connective tissue) in proper alignment to avoid adhesions.
- Phase 3 is the remodeling stage which can last up to a year or more. The focus during this phase is to remodel and realign the connective tissue in order to create stronger, healthier tissue that is well-functioning without complications.
Obstacles to Cure
The inflammatory process is extremely complex and happens best in a body devoid of toxins with a strong immune system. Keep in mind the following contributing factors that can be (and are often, in most of us!) obstacles to a speedy recovery:
- nutritional deficiencies,
- sleep deprivation,
- a sedentary lifestyle,
- food allergies and sensitivities,
- mold and dust exposure, and
- an excessive consumption of alcohol, caffeine, processed and refined foods, and preservatives.
All of these ‘obstacles to cure’ will have to be addressed for optimal healing.
Essentials to Healing
Connective tissue and the immune system are made up of protein, so it makes sense that above all else, eating a diet higher in clean, lean protein will benefit tissue healing and regeneration. For most people, 0.8 grams of protein per kg of weight is ideal to support the inflammatory process. For a 150 lb. individual, this works out to be approximately 54 grams per day of protein. To give you a sense of what this means, in a 3.5 oz. chicken breast there are 30 grams of protein and in an egg there are 6 grams of protein. When I suggest “clean” protein, I’m referring to what is found in the meat: the best choice is organic to avoid the antibiotics and growth hormones commonly added to commercial meats. Animals eating a grass-fed diet as opposed to a grain-fed diet (often free range) will provide a higher ratio of omega 3 to 6 fats, which is important to modulate inflammation. Some examples of high-quality proteins are legumes (beans, lentils), nuts & seeds, eggs, chicken, turkey, fish, bison, lamb, and beef.
Vitamin C, A and Zinc
Collagen is the main component of connective tissue and creates the strength, texture and resilience that you find in ligaments, tendons, muscle and skin. Collagen is mainly made up of the amino acids proline and lysine, and vitamin C is essential to convert these two into their active forms, hydroxyproline and hydroxlysine during collagen synthesis. Vitamin C is readily available by eating a healthy diet high in brightly colored fruits and vegetables and can be found in abundance in citrus fruits, berries, bell peppers, tomatoes, dark leafy greens and broccoli. If one is supplementing with vitamin C, it should also contain bioflavonoids which are beneficial in their own right for healing, and synergize the effectiveness of the vitamin C.
Zinc and vitamin A are also important in helping to transport the collagen from inside the cell where it is made to its final resting destination at the site of injury. Vitamin A is fairly readily available from vegetable sources (carrots, squash, dark leafy greens, etc.), but zinc is an essential mineral that is more commonly deficient in individuals. Pumpkin seeds are a recommended source, although I’ll often suggest that we supplement with zinc for optimal healing if I suspect a deficiency.
During the acute healing phase, proteolytic enzymes can be helpful in reducing pain and inflammation and in speeding the healing process. They work in part by “digesting” excess fibrin (scar tissue) which allows more blood flow to the injured area, bringing with it essential nutrients and oxygen. These can be purchased from your naturopathic doctor or found in health food stores.
MSM, Glucosamine and Chondroitan sulfate
These three are often found joined at the hip – get it?? - in joint support supplement formulations, and are typically used during phase 3 in cartilaginous structures such as the knee, hip and shoulder joints. The sulphur properties they contain are essential building blocks of joints, cartilage, skin, hair and nails and are typically thought to strengthen the joint and prevent future reoccurrence. If you’re dealing with a soft tissue or muscular injury such as a rotator cuff tear or muscle sprain, these nutrients won’t harm you, but they’re not specific enough for your needs.
It goes without saying that a healthy diet is of the utmost importance if you want to live pain and injury-free. Good quality oils are an essential part of a nutritious diet. Fish oils contain concentrated amounts of omega 3 oils (DHA and EPA), and are vital in regulating the inflammatory process. They are often used in high doses during periods of inflammation and in lower, maintenance doses for preventative health. The brain and our nervous, cardiovascular and immune systems all benefit by having a higher ratio of omega 3’s to omega 6’s in the body (this ratio is reversed in many degenerative states!) Those with dry skin, joint problems, immune disorders and inflammatory disease (ie. diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.) require higher amounts of healthy omega 3’s.
When you’re purchasing a fish oil, you want top quality! Health food stores generally carry higher quality brands that have been molecularly distilled to eliminate heavy metals and environmental toxins and have been third-party tested to ensure they contain the amounts of DHA and EPA they claim on the bottle’s label.
Many other nutrients and herbs can be used to support and speed the healing process and are generally best used under the supervision of a qualified health care professional.
Now it’s time to get out there and speed the healing process!