An anti-inflammatory agent is anything that reduces inflammation — redness, tenderness, and swelling (or edema) — in the tissues. Anti-inflammatories are often effective analgesics as well, since inflammation frequently produces pain along with swelling.
Although it's the source of many health problems, inflammation can actually be a good thing — it's the body's way of protecting itself from injury or infection. Problems start when inflammation gets out of hand or goes on for too long. Chronic inflammation can cause swelling and discomfort that never go away and can damage cartilage, bone, and other tissues.
The first choice in over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicines for most Americans is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID. Most NSAIDs work by inhibiting enzymes (two types of cyclooxygenase enzymes, called COX-1 and COX-2) that produce pain and inflammation.
Several herbs, including the African plant devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), turmeric (Curcuma longa), and phyllanthus (Phyllanthus amarus), an Ayurvedic herb also known as bahupatra, have shown drug-like COX-2-inhibiting activity in studies, meaning they could be used as alternative remedies in cases of severe pain as well as everyday aches.
NSAIDs are the most widely used type of pain relief in the United States, and include OTC remedies like ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin, and prescription COX-2 inhibitors like celecoxib (Celebrex). NSAIDs can cause a host of problems, including serious kidney, heart, and gastrointestinal problems like ulceration, bleeding, and perforation of the stomach.
In many cases, herbal anti-inflammatories provide the same kind of relief as pharmaceuticals — without the scary side effects. Here are some of the best-known herbal anti-inflammatories:
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum, C. frutescens)
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Sage (Salvia officinalis, S. lavandulaefolia)
Tea (Camellia sinensis)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)