Are you an adult? Would you prefer the pound(s) of cure to the ounce of prevention? One of the sad commentaries about adulthood is that we don’t take care of ourselves until something hurts, the detection of which relies on the nervous system. The nervous system is plastic, meaning that it exhibits a wide range of responses according to different conditions. The perception of pain depends on more than one factor, the environment included. With inflammation, however, there exists a hypersensitivity state that makes us aware of what’s going on. This realization is called nociception, involving a network that identifies a noxious condition that evokes responses ranging from mild to severe. Once the pain message is recognized by the nervous system it registers as an “ouch.” The greater the intensity of the stimulus, the greater is the perception of pain. In some cases, no external trigger is needed, such as one would experience with arthritis pain.
Inflammation is the body’s attempt at self-protection, the intention of which is to remove the harmful stimuli, including damaged cells, irritants or pathogens. If the stimulus comes from outside, it can be removed, although pain may linger. If it comes from inside, the body is left to its own devices. In either instance, tissue repair is the ultimate goal. To our dismay, inflammation may beget further inflammation in a self-perpetuating cascade. This occurs because of cellular alterations that cause mediator chemicals to be released and certain white cells, called macrophages, to become activated. The job of the macrophage is to swallow (-phage) the debris that comes from, or causes, tissue damage. Without inflammation, infections and wounds would never heal. In fact, too much anti-inflammatory medication, such as cortisone, slows wound healing (Goforth, 1980). The innate immunity with which we were born is always at the ready to start the inflammatory cascade and to bring healing.
Signs of overt inflammation include pain, redness, immobility (as in loss of function), swelling, and heat (more blood to the area makes it feel warm). Covert inflammation, occurring with internal organs, does not necessarily present with all these signs. Pain arises when swelling pushes on nerves, but sometimes the brain gets used to it and ignores the stimulus. The risk for inflammatory conditions rises with weight gain, as determined by an increase in white blood cells. Regardless of body mass index, C-reactive protein and homocysteine are markers for the presence of inflammatory state, which is at the center of many disorders, from arthritis, through Crohn’s disease, to various allergies and vitamin deficiencies.
Treatment for inflammation abounds in the world of allopathic medicine. Most of us know about NSAIDS, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, among which Tylenol is not, but aspirin, naproxen and ibuprofen are. Then, there are the corticosteroids—or just plain steroids—that are naturally made by the body in the adrenal glands. But these guys, given as drugs, prevent phospholipid release, and that undermines the activity of eosinophils, which are designed to fight back against allergy, for example, by releasing histamine.
Of the alternative modalities to address inflammation, ginger has accrued quite a following. For hundreds of years it’s been used to treat gastric distress, including dyspepsia and constipation. Recent research points to ginger’s role as an anti-inflammatory agent in the prevention of colon cancer, where inflammation has been identified as a precursor to the disease (Zick, 2011), the markers of which are pro-inflammatory prostaglandins—primarily PGE2—produced by cyclooxygenase (COX) as an early event in the course of the condition (Jiang, 2012).
In a British examination of pain studies, those suffering from osteoarthritis, dysmenorrhea, and acute muscle pain had been administered ginger as the sole treatment. Though additional rigorous trials are anticipated, these subjects reported a reduction in pain, as cited on subjective assessment tools (Terry, 2011). Even before interest in alternative medicine was accelerated to its present status, scientists scrutinized ginger’s reputation in the Ayurvedic community among people treated with the herb for rheumatic concerns, finding efficacy that paralleled traditional interventions (Srivastava, 1989). Applying oral powdered ginger to generalized musculoskeletal discomfort, Danish physicians realized that the safety factor of ginger far exceeded that of any known drugs, while presenting significant efficacy in the relief of pain and swelling via the inhibition of pro-inflammatory prostaglandins (Srivastava, 1992).
By sequestering these incendiary prostaglandins (PG’s), ginger proves itself to be on a par with NSAIDS, minus the concerns of adverse side effects. Similar to prostaglandins in promoting physical aberrations are leukotrienes, products of an enzyme called lipoxygenase (LOX), like COX an offspring of arachidonic acid metabolism. Leukotrienes generally work within the immune system, while PG’s almost always play a role in pure inflammation and pain. (There are beneficent PG’s, by the way.) Leukotrienes are signaling molecules that call immune cells to the site of infiltration, as from airborne allergens. Bluntly, ginger suppresses the synthesis of leukotrienes (Grzanna, 2005), a property that separates it from NSAIDS. Other of ginger’s attributes point to an anti-oxidant character in the interruption of free radical generation (Ali, 2008), which is helpful in the fight against allergens and pain.
Nitric Oxide (NO) is one of the few signaling gases in the body. The smooth muscle that lines blood vessels is told by NO to relax, thus dilating the vessels and lowering blood pressure. In excessive concentrations, though, NO becomes a pro-oxidant as a naturally unstable free radical, especially when made by white cells (monocytes and macrophages) during their battle against an infective agent. One logistician that maintains regulation of NO is ginger, where it was shown to control white cell activation as part of its job as an anti-inflammatory vehicle (Shimoda, 2010). Modulating inflammation is what ginger does, and not so gingerly, at that.
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