Secret of Vigor = Supplements for Controlling Inflammation

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt? 

Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of VigorHow to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:

*Lose Weight

*Get in Shape

*Reduce Stress

*Get Healthier

*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment. 

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Supplements for Controlling Inflammation

Recall from earlier sections that the general idea with inflammation is that you want “enough”—not too much and not too little—but that balance can become upset by poor diet, disease, injury, stress, and other lifestyle factors. Some researchers would go so far as to say that “overinflammation” is at the heart of virtually every disease process, including burnout or low vigor, and certainly the data support a strong link between inflammation and heart disease, cancer, obesity, and Alzheimer’s disease (not to mention the long list of clearly “inflammatory” diseases, such as fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and others). Other sections of this book cover some of the most effective natural approaches for keeping inflammation under control, including reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates, increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids and brightly colored fruits and vegetables, as well as reducing stress-hormone exposure. The information that follows outlines some of the most effective dietary supplements for naturally controlling inflammation.

Essential Fatty Acids

The term “essential fatty acids” refers to two fatty acids—linoleic acid and linolenic acid—that the body cannot synthesize and thus must be consumed in the diet (vitamins and minerals are also termed “essential,” because the body cannot make them and therefore must consume them). These essential fatty acids are needed for the production of compounds known as cytokines, which help regulate inflammation, blood clotting, blood pressure, heart rate, immune response, and a wide variety of other biological processes.

Linoleic acid is considered an “omega-6” (n-6) fatty acid. It is found in vegetable and nut oils, such as sunflower, safflower, corn, soy, and peanut oil. Most Americans get adequate levels of these omega-6 oils in their diets, due to a high consumption of vegetable oil–based margarine and salad dressings. Linolenic acid is classified as an “omega-3” (n-3) fatty acid. Good dietary sources are flaxseed oil (51 percent linolenic acid), soy oil (7 percent), walnuts (7 percent), and canola oil (9 percent), as well as margarine derived from canola oil. For example, a tablespoon of canola oil or canola oil margarine provides about 1 g of linolenic acid.

If you think back to the type of diet humans evolved to eat (caveman diet), it provided a much more balanced mix of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids. Over the last century, modern diets have come to rely heavily on fats derived from vegetable oils (n-6), bringing the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids from the caveman’s ratio of 1:1 to the modern-day range of 20:1 or 30:1! The unbalanced intake of high n-6 fatty acids and low n-3 fatty acids sets the stage for increases in various inflammatory processes.

Fatty acids of the n-3 variety have opposing biological effects to the n-6 fatty acids, meaning that a higher intake of n-3 oils can deliver anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic, and vasodilatory effects that can lead to benefits in terms of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and a wide variety of inflammatory conditions, such as fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and ulcerative colitis.

In the body, linoleic acid (n-6) is metabolized into arachidonic acid, a precursor to specific “bad” cytokines that can promote vasoconstriction, elevated blood pressure, and painful inflammation. Linolenic acid (n-3) is metabolized in the body to EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). EPA serves as the precursor to prostaglandin E3, which has anti-inflammatory properties that can counteract the inflammation caused by n-6 fatty acids.

Recent studies have shown that consumption of linolenic acid and other n-3 fatty acids offers wide-ranging anti-inflammatory benefits. This effect is thought to be mediated through the synthesis of EPA and DHA. Fish oils contain large amounts of EPA and DHA, and the majority of studies in this area have used various concentrations of fish-oil supplements to demonstrate the health benefits of these essential fatty acids. For example, 1 g of menhaden oil (a common fish used to produce fish-oil supplements) provides about 300 mg of these fatty acids. EPA is known to induce an anti-inflammatory effect through its inhibition of cyclooxygenase (which converts arachidonic acid to thromboxane A2).

Some evidence suggests that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil and flaxseed may help improve insulin sensitivity (thus reducing glycation) and reduce perception of stress (thus reducing cortisol exposure). A recent expert scientific advisory board at the National Institutes of Health highlighted the importance of a balanced intake of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids to reduce the adverse effects of elevated (inflammatory) arachidonic acid (a metabolic product of n-6 metabolism). The committee recommended a reduction in the intake of n-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid) and an increase in n-3 (linolenic acid, DHA, EPA) intake.

No serious adverse side effects should be expected from regular consumption of essential fatty acid supplements, whether from fish oil or other common oil supplements (see below). However, due to the tendency of n-3 fatty acids to reduce platelet aggregation (“thin” the blood), increased bleeding times can occur in some individuals.

The best dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish, such as trout, tuna, salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines, which all contain 1 to 2 g of n-3 oils per three- to four-ounce serving. A minimum of 4 to 5 g of linoleic acid (but no more than 6 to 7 g) and 2 to 3 g of linolenic acid are recommended per day. Supplements of linoleic acid (n-6) are typically not needed, whereas linolenic acid (n-3) supplements (4 to 10 g/d) or concentrated EPA/DHA supplements (400 to 1,000 mg/d) are recommended to balance normal inflammatory processes. Total DHA/EPA intake should approach about 1 g per day, evenly split between the two.

In addition to fish oils, other plant-derived oils are rich sources of essential fatty acids, including flaxseed, borage seed, and evening primrose.

Evening Primrose Oil

Evening primrose oil (EPO) is most commonly used for relieving inflammatory conditions associated with “women’s health,” such as premenstrual syndrome, fibrocystic breasts, and menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes. Each of these conditions is related on a biochemical level to an excessive inflammatory response.

The essential fatty acid linoleic acid forms 60 to 80 percent of evening primrose oil, but the gamma linoleic acid (GLA) component of EPO may be more important for controlling inflammation. The body synthesizes GLA from linoleic acid, which comprises 8 to 14 percent of the oil in EPO supplements. GLA is a precursor of prostaglandin E1 (PGE1), a deficiency of which has been documented in some women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and cyclical breast pain. Because decreased levels of PGE1 can increase the pain-inducing effect of the hormone prolactin on breast tissue, it is thought that they may be a primary cause of many of the symptoms associated with PMS.

PGE1 has beneficial anti-inflammatory effects, and supplementation with EPO is known to control a variety of inflammatory disorders. In a double-blind crossover study in men taking either fish oil alone or fish oil plus EPO, the combination lead to a significant 12 percent decrease in inflammatory markers, whereas fish oil alone lead to a 6 percent decrease in the same markers.

Borage Oil

Borage seeds are a rich source of a GLA (20 to 30 percent of total oil content), which has medicinal properties that have been demonstrated in such areas as anti-inflammatory activity, immune-system modulation, management of atopic eczema (excessive proliferation of the skin cells), and other skin maladies. Studies have shown that individuals with active rheumatoid arthritis (an inflammatory condition) experienced an improvement in their symptoms when they were given a borage oil supplement daily for six months.


The boswellia plant (Boswellia serrata) produces a sap that has been used in traditional Indian medicine as a treatment for arthritis and inflammatory conditions. The primary compounds thought to be responsible for the anti-inflammatory activity of boswellia are known as boswellic acids. These compounds are known to interfere with enzymes that contribute to inflammation and pain (COX-2, 5-LO, and 12-LO).

Boswellia sap/resin has a long history of safe and effective use as a mild anti-inflammatory to reduce pain and stiffness and promote increased mobility (without many of the associated gastrointestinal side effects commonly reported for synthetic anti-inflammatory medications). A number of studies have shown that boswellic acids may possess anti-inflammatory activity at least as potent as common over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen and aspirin. In one study of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, pain and swelling were reduced following three months of boswellia use. In some cases, boswellia may be associated with mild gastrointestinal upset (heartburn, aftertaste, and nausea—so take it with food), but no serious adverse side effects have been reported.

Bromelain and Papain

The term “proteolytic” is a catch-all term referring to enzymes that digest protein. In the body, proteolytic enzymes, such as bromelain (from pineapples) and papain (from papayas), act as anti-inflammatory agents and pain relievers and have been effective in accelerating recovery from exercise and injury in athletes, as well as tissue repair in patients following surgery. In one study of soccer players suffering from ankle injuries, proteolytic-enzyme supplements accelerated healing and got players back on the field about 50 percent faster than athletes assigned to receive placebo tablets. A handful of other small trials in athletes have shown enzymes can help reduce inflammation, speed healing of bruises and other tissue injuries, and reduce overall recovery time when compared to athletes taking placebos.

Flaxseed Oil

Flaxseed is just what it sounds like—the seed of the flax plant. Flaxseed is typically used as a source of the essential fatty acids linolenic acid (LN) and linoleic acid (LA). Flaxseed oil is about 57 percent LN (an omega-3) and about 17 percent LA (an omega-6). LN can be converted into EPA and DHA,  fatty acids that are precursors to anti-inflammatory and anti-atherogenic prostaglandins.

Regular flaxseed consumption has been associated with improvements in the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the blood, a situation that may offer protection and relief from inflammatory conditions. A number of animal and human studies on flaxseed oil have shown a clear and consistent reduction in proinflammatory markers (tumor-necrosis factor and interleukins).


Ginger (Zingiber officinale) has been used throughout history as an aid for many gastrointestinal disturbances, as well as for relief of inflamed joints. The most active chemical compounds in ginger are known as the gingerols, which are also the most aromatic compounds in this root and are thought to be the reason that ginger can inhibit substances that cause the pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis. For example, in osteoarthritis patients taking powdered ginger, 75 percent of the subjects reported decreased pain and swelling after treatment with ginger for one month. Ginger supplementation is known to reduce production of the inflammatory thromboxane compounds associated with excess inflammation and pain. In studies of patients with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, significant pain relief was noted in more than half (55 percent) of the osteoarthritis patients and nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of the rheumatoid arthritis patients when supplemented with ginger.


Turmeric is known by the Latin plant name Curcuma longa (where the name for the turmeric-derived spice “curcumin” comes from) and is a member of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae). As a traditional medicine, turmeric is used as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and analgesic (pain reliever). Currently, research is continuing to investigate turmeric’s anti-inflammatory effects and its potential as a potent anticancer agent (which makes sense if cancer is viewed as an inflammatory disease). The primary active compounds in turmeric are the flavonoid curcumin and related “curcuminoid” compounds that deliver potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and chemoprotective (anticancer) effects. As such, turmeric-containing supplements would logically be expected to have a beneficial effect in such areas as arthritis, cancer, and heart disease. In a wide range of animal studies, turmeric extracts have been shown to significantly alleviate the pain of arthritis (naturally occurring and experimentally induced forms). In human studies, arthritis pain and a variety of inflammatory compounds, including cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) and 5-lipoxygenase (5-LO), were controlled by turmeric. In a particular series of experiments at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, turmeric extracts have been shown to control the inflammatory cascade associated with a variety of inflammatory diseases, including cancer, atherosclerosis, arthritis, and osteoporosis.

Vitamin D

You probably think of vitamin D as being “good for strong bones” and helping prevent osteoporosis—and that is true, because it helps the body absorb calcium from the diet. The more recent and exciting news is that vitamin D can help reduce the risk of a wide range of diseases, including diabetes, heart attacks, high blood pressure, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, depression, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancers of the lung, prostate, kidney, esophagus, breast, ovary, stomach, and bladder. Vitamin D also acts as an immune-system modulator, preventing excessive expression of inflammatory cytokines and increasing the “oxidative-burst” potential of macrophages.

Scientific evidence also suggests that vitamin-D deficiency is responsible for immune-related conditions, including autism and asthma. For example, the seasonal vitamin-D deficiency that spikes during the winter months (when sun exposure is reduced) has been associated with immune-system dysfunction, including autoimmune disease, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune thyroid disease. Many scientists have even suggested that the vitamin-D deficiency that comes with the winter months may be the seasonal trigger for influenza outbreaks around the world.

Very few foods are good sources of vitamin D, including fortified dairy products and breakfast cereals, fatty fish, beef liver (which is too high in vitamin A), and egg yolks. Cod-liver oil is a good source of vitamin D but also tends to contain too much vitamin A, which can interfere with the absorption and activity of vitamin D in the body. The two forms of vitamin D found in dietary supplements are D-2 (ergocalciferol) and D-3 (cholecalciferol), with D-3 being the preferred form, because it is chemically equal to the form of vitamin D produced by the body and is two to three times more effective than the D-2 form at raising blood levels of vitamin D. A daily dose of 2,000 IU of vitamin D-3 would be expected to raise blood levels by 20 ng/mL, which is about the amount of “deficiency” that the average person might expect to have (especially during the winter months in a northern-latitude city in the United States).

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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