“It’s important to understand that not all inflammation is bad,” says Dr. Martha Cottrell, an Asheville-based physician and lecturer on immunity. She’s one of several wellness advocates who encourage simple, everyday wellness strategies to reduce chronic inflammation now and prevent more serious illness later.
“Inflammation is the body’s natural mechanism for protecting itself,” says Cottrell. “But it becomes a problem when the cause of inflammation is not removed, and the immune system either becomes too lethargic or too aggressive.”
When inflammation persists, the immune system weakens, making the patient susceptible to infectious diseases and cancers, Cottrell explains. When the immune system overreacts, on the other hand, it may mistake the body’s own tissues for invaders and attack them — a response linked to various autoimmune diseases.
The root causes of inflammation are surprisingly simple: unhealthy diets and stress, says Cottrell. And as a practicing physician for 33 years, she has developed caring, long-term connections with her patients, who affectionately called her “Doc Maggie.” She teaches them that the foundations of good health are plant-based, low-inflammation diets; healthy environments; and positive relationships and attitudes.
This unconventional method also proved effective in her pioneering study at the Boston University School of Medicine from 1985-87, which improved the immunity of young men living with AIDS.
“The emotional aspect is often forgotten, but Western medical research has slowly been realizing that a major contributing factor to the inflammatory process on a chronic level is emotional stress,” Cottrell says. Now retired, she lectures and teaches in the Asheville area, hoping to contribute to more holistic understandings of wellness.
“We are at such a critical moment with disease in this country, and it is so important in this moment to recognize that the immune system is the core,” Cottrell continues.
Recent research supports the claim that inflammation aggravates many more serious health problems, such as Hashimoto’s thyroid disease; digestive ailments like irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease; diabetes; heart disease; and cancers.
At Red Moon Herbs, director Jeannie Dunn suggests moving toward a healthier diet first and then incorporating simple cooking herbs like rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme as part of that process. Other herbs that have been shown to support healthy inflammatory response — such as tulsi (holy basil), ginger, turmeric, burdock, oatstraw and nettle — can be enjoyed in teas, extracts or on food, she mentions.
Dunn emphasizes the efforts of small North Carolina-based businesses like Red Moon Herbs to provide local herbal products, practice wildcrafting (gathering wild plants at their peak potency when possible rather than scheduled harvest) and draw from the “Wise Woman Way.” That, she explains, is an ancient healing tradition that internationally known herbalism educator Susun Weed says “relies on compassion, simple ritual, and common dooryard herbs and garden weeds as primary nourishers but appreciates and uses any treatment appropriate to the specific self-healing in process.”
For inflammation, Dunn suggests herbal infusions. More time-intensive than making tea, infusions call for submerging large quantities of an herb in boiling water for four to eight hours, then straining and drinking. “They take the next step in breaking down the cell walls of the plants so you can really absorb the most vitamins and minerals directly,” she says.
For inflammation relief, Dunn recommends an infusion of half an ounce of dried linden blossom, an herb that has been shown to ease irritations in the throat and lungs and to aid digestive health. She also suggests further reading on herbs, herbal classes or retreats such as the upcoming Southeast Wise Women’s immersion for budding herbal enthusiasts from May 7 to 12.
Red Moon Herbs also works to make herbalism accessible to the greater Asheville community, says Dunn. The business has collaborated for classes at downtown Asheville’s organic agriculture retailer Fifth Season in creating herbal gifts for the holidays and teaching how to makes salves, extracts and vinegars in the near future. “We also support Blue Ridge Healers Without Borders, an organization offering wellness education and [herbal] samples to the homeless and general public, as well as The Lord’s Acre herb garden,” says Dunn. For both organizations, Red Moon Herbs provides free tinctures and extracts to provide reduced-cost herbal care for those who cannot afford it.
Denise Barratt, a licensed dietitian and nutritionist in Asheville, is passionate about creating a link between the region’s abundant local agriculture and healthy meal plans for her clients, which, she says, are naturally anti-inflammatory. “A healthy diet is an anti-inflammatory way of eating,” Barratt says. “If someone has diabetes [or] heart disease, wants to prevent or fight cancer or has GI issues, the basic diet guidelines are the same: fighting inflammation.” She also points out that the body’s chronic inflammation response can stem from food allergies and intolerances that people may not even realize they have, or eating too many inflammatory foods — too much sugar and too many saturated, trans or hydrogenated fats.
While suggesting that clients limit these foods, Barratt also encourages clients to pace themselves as they move toward a less inflammation-inducing diet. “A lot of people start trying to cleanse, detox and restrict [at the start of each year], and that tends to be hard to sustain,” she says. “I like to think what I do is a kinder, gentler approach, which sets achievable behavioral goals that clients can actually reach.”
Barratt adds that “working with a nutritionist has been shown to be one of the most cost-effective approaches to health. There’s a lot of research out there where nutrition, often coupled with exercise, may be as effective as some medications.”
To get a handle on inflammation, she suggests the tried-and-true advice of eating varied and colorful vegetables, especially cruciferous ones like kale, chard, cabbage and broccoli. These vegetables contain high amounts of vitamins and antioxidants. Other anti-inflammation foods include healthy fats from fatty fish, virgin olive oil and avocados. Mushrooms also offer a number of anti-inflammatory factors, Barratt says. She seconds Dunn’s advice to incorporate more herbs and spices into cooking.
Dunn recommends that clients eat seasonal and organic food in order to reduce pesticide irritants and attain maximum freshness in food. Clients often lacked actual recipes to turn farmers market offerings into meals, she found. This led to her first book, Farm Fresh Nutrition: Eating Green & Clean and Supporting Your Local Economy. The book pairs profiles of local farmers with guides for navigating farmer’s markets and recipes for cooking seasonally.
Barratt, meanwhile, plans to offer farm-to-table and healthy local food events throughout the year and will release dates soon on her Fresh Off the Vine newsletter. She also shares menu ideas and nutrition tips on her blog.
And Cottrell suggests supporting our immune systems. “Either we develop disease when we confuse and overload it, or the immune system allows us to be healthy,” she says.
Lemony Kale Salad with Roasted Vegetables and Pecans
Winter recipe from Denise Barratt’s book, Farm Fresh Nutrition
(Makes 6-8 servings)
1 cup of your choice of roasted beets, potatoes and sweet potatoes
1/3 cup chopped pecans
2 ½ ounces finely shredded hard local cheese
2 bunches of kale, washed, stemmed and sliced crosswise
3 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
2 cloves garlic, pressed
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
To roast vegetables, cut your choice of beets, potatoes and sweet potatoes into one inch cubes and toss with olive oil and salt. Place on cookie sheet and roast at 425 degrees until vegetables start to get tender and caramelize. Take out of oven and let cool.
Add kale to a bowl. Make the dressing; in a separate smaller bowl, mix lemon juice, olive oil, honey, salt, garlic and red pepper together. Add to kale and toss thoroughly. Lightly toss in the roasted vegetables, pecans and top with cheese.
Red Moon Herbs