Chronic inflammation has been shown to be behind many chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s, heart disease, depression, allergies, even cancer.

So it would seem only natural that attacking inflammation would be a medical priority, as a means of controlling these diseases. For example, using anti-inflammatory drugs has been suggested as a preventative measure against cancer and Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, studies suggest the side effects of the drugs likely outweigh the benefits.

But I don’t subscribe to the theory that inflammation is the enemy and should be attacked, except in cases where it really is running rampant and doing damage, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. The reason I don’t recommend attacking inflammation is that it is not the primary problem. It is secondary to something else, and to attack it is to miss the true cause of the problem.

For most patients, the true cause is lifestyle.

Our lifestyles are very “pro-inflammatory.” Constant stimulation from computer, television and now phone screens, and a lack of physical activity, adds to the inflammatory load.

Our diets are, in a word, awful. Foods high in sugar and other refined carbs, meats from sick and stressed animals, veggies grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, “vegetable oils” high in pro-inflammatory fats, and a recommended low-fat diet that pushes us towards even more carbs — these are the root causes of chronic inflammation for most of us.

The most rewarding cases for any wellness provider are not just the patients who respond to care, but the ones who also improve their lifestyles. Convincing patients to eliminate “junk foods” like chips and soda, reducing wheat and other grains, eating more veggies (for some people, even just a few), and choosing higher-quality meats makes all the difference. It is a slower change, which is best seen over months, rather than in days or weeks, but it is a necessary one if you are to be truly healthy.

Once you start to feel a little better from these changes, you may then have enough energy to start a simple exercise program, such as just going for a walk every day. The next step is to work on controlling stress and stimulation — actually turning off the TV and the computer.

Patients who don’t make these changes typically need much more care, either wellness-based or medical.

I use a lot of supplements that we call “anti-inflammatory” but which really aren’t, at least from a medical perspective. These supplements help the body heal and resolve inflammation, rather than attack it and chemically shut it down. We typically use cod liver oil. It is high in omega-3 fats, which are used by the body to resolve acute inflammation, preventing it from going chronic. The chemicals our bodies make from these fats are called “resolvins” because of their role in this process.

We also use other food-based supplements that supply whole, intact forms of vitamins, especially A and C, rather than the highly processed versions typically used. Like cod liver oil, they supply nutrients that help the body heal, and do not attack inflammation or any other bodily function. Because of this, they are free of the usual side effects that anti-inflammatory drugs are known for.

There is also a middle ground between food-based supplements and medications: herbs. Many herbals are naturally anti-inflammatory and have been used for centuries. Curcumin, which is in the spice turmeric, has been getting some attention lately; willow bark, the natural form of aspirin, and Boswellia are other common ones. While they suppress inflammation, they do not seem to have the serious side effects like the medications. The research is pretty clear that herbals help pain caused by inflammation. It is less clear whether they help prevent or slow chronic diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.

What is very clear is that inflammation is mostly a lifestyle issue and it is best controlled with a healthy lifestyle, rather than with a drug.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at